Idea #26

Consider Not Only Global Risks, but Also Project Risks When Designing Climate Change Adaptation and Mitigation Projects

by Matthijs Bouw

At a recent conversation between Dutch and U.S. resilience practitioners, Eddy Moors, rector of IHE Delft Institute for Water Education, memorialized that the healthcare sector has developed the notion of ‘implementation science’: the study of methods to promote the adoption and integration of evidence-based practices, interventions, and policies into routine health care and public health settings. Climate adaptation and mitigation practice would benefit greatly from a similar focus on implementation. At the School of Design, we explore the critical role of design in this practice.

Although the magnitude and precise impacts of climate change remain uncertain, it is clear that urban environments play a critical role in climate change mitigation and will necessarily be at the forefront of adapting to climate-related risks. Urban areas, home to more than 50% of the world’s population, account for more than 70% of CO2 emissions. Improvements in building design, land use and transportation planning, as well as the transition of urban energy systems, should all contribute greatly to the reduction of CO2 emissions.

Mitigating and adapting to climate change demands a fundamental transformation of our urban environments. As we have learned in the wake of Superstorm Sandy, the design and engineering of major climate adaptation projects such as the Big U and its follow-up projects impact much more than the coastal infrastructure that serves as their original motivation. These projects provide opportunities for rethinking drainage and wastewater infrastructure, transportation networks, open space, and ecological systems – and their integration with neighboring communities and their priorities. We have also come to understand that each project is part of a suite of projects that must work together, laying the groundwork for further growth and adaptation as the pace of climate impacts increase and become more evident.

As we have learned in the U.S., but also in the Netherlands, planning, implementing, and designing such projects is not easy. After a major flood in 1953 that inundated much of the Southwestern Rhine/Meuse/Scheldt delta and killed approximately 2,000 people, the Netherlands built a massive flood measure to reduce the risk of inundation to an 1/10,000 annual probability. Devised by the engineers of Rijkswaterstaat, the Dutch Department of Waterways and Public Works, the Delta Works were originally envisioned as a series of dams which would close off all the estuaries with the exception of the Nieuwe Maas, and the Oosterscheldt, such that the ports of Rotterdam and Antwerp would remain accessible.

After most of the dams were constructed, it became clear that the original plans needed to be ameliorated. The closed-off estuaries suffered from ecological degradation. At the same time, scientists and the public increasingly recognized the ecological value of the delta. As a response, the final dam, at the Oosterscheldt, was designed to be partly closed, with operable panels that could open to allow tidal flows. The Delta Works exemplifies how a large-scale project with a singular goal (flood protection), conceived and executed by a single expert group without community participation led to adverse large-scale effects in other realms.

Subsequent generations of Dutch flood protection projects have moved beyond the singular focus on damage mitigation, toward a value system with multiple goals, including ecological value and spatial quality. Programs such as ‘Ruimte voor de Rivier’ (Room for the River) also allow for a more flexible approach to flood protection standards, ultimately resulting in a series of smaller, more adaptive solutions. Integrated programs such Room for the River take time. Originally conceived as a landscape design competition proposal in the mid-Eighties, it took about 25 years of planning and 10 years of implementation to achieve its recent completion, despite occurring in a country with governance and funding in place.

Given the speed with which we see our climate changing, the necessity to mitigate and adapt does not provide the luxury of time. The margins of safety for building in flood-prone areas, established in the relative stability of the 20th century shorelines and sea levels, are rapidly becoming obsolete. At the same time, it is also clear that mono-functional projects do not work. The design of climate mitigation and adaptation projects must account for long time-horizons, allow flexibility to address uncertainty, work across systems, and seek out opportunities for expedient implementation – while elevating the diversity of stakeholder voices and concerns and seeking to create equitable benefits for the communities they aim to protect.

This is why at the Stuart Weitzman School of Design we have introduced the concept of ‘Project Risk’ to complement the concept of ‘Global Risk’ when designing climate mitigation and adaptation projects. In one class, author and Penn IUR scholar Peter Hendee Brown listed some common ‘project risks’, such as funding risk, approval risk and political risk but also economic cycle risk and failure risk. Taken together, project risks are those risks that can keep a project or a program from being implemented, or from performing well. The urgency of the climate crisis requires an understanding that strategies to mitigate ‘project risk’ are equally important as developing tools to mitigate ‘global risks’, especially because we operate in a market-based society, where considerations of ‘project risk’ weigh heavily on our ability to adapt and mitigate.

In our ‘Design with Risk’ class, we explored the agency of design in mitigating, or building resilience to, ‘project risks’. Such an approach to risk reduction ‘by design’ begins with considering several straightforward examples. Elevated coastlines that protect from coastal flooding can be designed as parks that also function as social infrastructure, reduce urban heat, and act as stormwater filters. Designing for multiple benefits reduces political risk and funding risk, and can serve as a good example of how to be integrated and resourceful.

Such projects, which attempt to integrate multiple functions in a new solution for a new set of (climate) challenges, bring with them new risks. Not only construction risk and failure risk, as we have seen with the Dutch examples, but also governance risks. Implementing and operating agencies are often not yet equipped to manage, and therefore accept, such integrated projects. Using pilot projects, projects designed to be broken into smaller, manageable pieces, makes it possible to learn from the first pilots or phases and improves flexibility. Designing projects such that they have the possibility for phased implementation, or the re-assessment of the components, reduces market and economic cycle risks, and make projects more robust, with better use of resources.

Students in the course learned that design must encompass both the physical and the social, to operate as a tool not only for connecting different systems, but also for improving the enabling environment: the institutional arrangements and rules that govern climate adaptation. Part of that is normative, by designing exemplary solutions to climate adaptation and mitigation that can influence the arrangements and rules, but part is also practical, from the design of a certain software to the design of projects such that stakeholders are better able to take them up, run with them and learn from them, and as such reducing, for instance, approval risk, procurement risk and political risk.

Design’s capacity for communication is an important element in all this. This does not start with the communication during the project development itself, where models, renderings and diagrams can help stakeholders and communities weigh in with their expertise and concerns. Visual tools are also extremely helpful in effective risk communication, and critical to help stakeholders overcome the daily concerns and behavioral biases that so often make collective action and long-term stewardship difficult. The development of apps, games and other tools for inclusive risk communication and engagement in class can help reduce the political risk that often stands in the way of implementation,

Linking strategy to implementation is a critical step in addressing the climate crisis. Our research in class allows us to build and expand our design toolset for mitigating project risks and developing project resilience, and thus foster the ability to implement climate adaptation and mitigation strategies.

Matthijs Bouw directs the Urban Resilience Certificate program at the Stuart Weitzman School of Design, where he is an associate professor of practice. He is the founder of One Architecture & Urbanism, an award-winning Amsterdam and New York-based design practice that is involved with flagship climate adaptation projects in the US, Latin America and South East Asia.