Designing for Change

That human society is now capable of altering the climate of our earth is broadly known, but how are these changes going to affect the structure of human society? The UK’s Hadley Center for Climate Prevention and Research at the Met Office recently released a report, Climate: Observations, Projections, and Impacts, detailing the predicted changes in weather patterns around the world and the effect those will have on the economy, geography, and pattern of society.

Higher levels of flooding, extreme heat, and water shortages, all predicted if climate change proceeds unchecked, meaning that more and more people will move from rural to urban areas in search of jobs and refuge from more extreme natural cycles. However, cities too will face challenges, and will need to design infrastructure to cope with the earth’s changes.


Traditionally, design for weather has not been a priority in urban planning compared to economic development and maintaining high standards of living. For example, coastal cities, which were established for their proximity to ports and waterways, have evolved with economic intention and have not been designed to face changing levels of flooding caused by these economic activities. While the original urban designs may be achieving their material goals, they do so while creating larger problems. Dr. David Dodman, from the International Institute for Environment and Development told CNN, “In places like Delhi, we’re seeing a growing middle class use their wealth to pay for electricity-hungry air-conditioning units, which contribute to global warming, and this of course creates a negative feedback loop.”

Cheonggyecheon River in Downtown Seoul, part of Seoul's Urban Renewal Project

Some cities are, however, redesigning their urban areas with climate change in mind. Seoul is a notable example, where urban designers have undone prior projects, bringing back to the surface an ancient river that had been buried during South Korea’s rapid economic advancement. Simon Reddy explains that, “This creates a wind corridor to it keep cool, and will also help drain water away in times of high rainfall.” Other urban redesign projects include rooftop gardens, which insulate buildings in the winter, keep them cool in the summer, and absorb rainfall, as well as being an oasis of green in an urban jungle.

Climate change, its immediate and secondary effects, require a redesign of urban spaces to accommodate more extreme weather patterns and subsequent migration and change in social patterns. Some cities have joined to create the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, and are already working on projects to simultaneously counter and design for global climate change. The challenge of climate change will take forethought, innovation, and creativity to redesign our cities, our patterns of living, and our societal mentalities.

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1 Response to Designing for Change

  1. Caroline Stalker says:

    Great article and it seems there are some excellent opportunities when you start to think beyond the scale of the individual building. At Architectus we’ve been looking at ideas for retrofitting cities for Climate Change at a two day multi-disciplinary design workshop we ran in Sydney. One of theproposals was about retrofitting a city block in Melbourne’s City Centre. The design group posited that the project would commence with strategic evaluations of the energy performance of each building to inform decisions about which buildings could continue to operate as is with modification to reduce energy consumption such as the introduction of ‘smart skins’ and planted atria, and which buildings were ‘beyond redemption’ and whose materials can be recycled for use in new construction. The introduction of a modular canopy roof could modify the microclimate and provide opportunities for water harvesting and food production. In anticipating hotter days and more severe weather events in our cities, the Melbourne CBD group also posited that increasing areas of landscaping can reduce heat island effects and increase carbon capture throughout urban areas. This planting can be used strategically also to mitigate thermal loads, as well as assisting in bio-filtration. Water cleansed through bio-filtration in urban landscape areas can then be stored to mitigate impacts of drier climates. Treed streets also encourage walking and reduce ‘heat island’ effect from roads. These principles can apply to both urban spaces and urban street networks throughout cities.

    This group also explored the idea that public spaces can be created within blocks, and internal streets can be adapted to contain all the passive and sustainable systems to manage the energy and water requirements of the whole site and beyond, such as water storage, blackwater recycling, thermal storage and energy transformers. The Mebourne CBD group also utilized the river for heat exchange to deal with on site heat surplus or deficit.

    A different, more suburban site also offered possibilities for fresh thinking at our Retrofitting Cities for Climate ChangeThink Tank. The Dandenong group posited the idea that retrofitting the suburb would start with mapping and defining the sustainability structure of the entire public realm. This meant joining streets and drainage corridors as a continous multimodal and multifunctional space for transport, energy, food production, and water management.

    Both of these examples show what could be achieved by thinking about our public realm as a continous public resource for sustainability. Thinking about the broader urban public realm as a resource for sustainability opens all kinds of possibilities, such as:

    • Can our public realm be designed to help buffer our cities from more extreme weather, designed to adapt to changing climates and creating more occupiable microclimates for buildings in cities?
    • If our urban microclimates are well designed, won’t that lessen the load of more extreme temperatures on individual buildings?
    • Could all our drainage corridors become water recycling and storage centres? Or energy generation centres?
    • Could roads also become places where we generate energy, streets places where we plant trees to provide urban heat sinks?

    More research and thinking is needed around this critical area.

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