What Happens When It Rains?

It’s been pouring cats and dogs in Bombay. Roads are flooded, potholes are rapidly multiplying, and traffic has come to a standstill. Or at least been reduced to a very slow crawl. Meanwhile, Hurricane Irene continues to wind its way along the east coast of the United States, causing flash floods, destroying valuable property and necessitating evacuation.

All this begs the question: what are the design consequences of climate change? How can we design our cities to better deal with the climate? Leave alone unpredictable climate change, what about predictable, regular weather like the monsoon, which happens every year. How is it that a city which experiences the monsoons every year for four months still lacks the infrastructure to function smoothly during those soggy months?

What happens when it rains in Bombay? All kinds of hastily put together jugaad-baaz infrastructure is seen to fall apart; minor indents in roads become huge gaping puddles; standard routes get clogged as underpasses become flooded and impossible to navigate. While people are quite adaptable, and can be seen wading through knee-deep water in flooded areas, their vehicles cannot. Cars and scooters are forced to take alternate routes, and massive traffic jams are quite common during these months.

Maybe a user-centered redesign could help solve some of these issues and lead to better designed cities – not even necessarily to make them more live-able, but simply more functional. On the other hand, it could be that cities need to be designed like airports, with modern, state-of-the-art design solutions. But somehow, it doesn’t seem likely that that would work – you can design an airport to be quietly efficient and smooth-functioning using technology and high design, but not whole cities, especially not the delightfully chaotic cities of India.

Maybe solutions for such problems need to be more context-specific. They could perhaps be derived from the experiences of those living there, experiencing and dealing with those problems on a regular basis. Perhaps documenting the consequences of the monsoon in a new way could be a first step towards this: real-time videos of traffic jams due to the rain, or more visual imagery of how people navigate the flooded streets, or city-wide mapping of flooded areas to avert traffic jams.

Is such a user-centric approach at all possible and/or helpful in redesigning our cities? What kinds of approaches could we take to make this happen effectively?

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One Response to What Happens When It Rains?

  1. The problem isn’t lack of design or anything else. The problem is that there isn’t enough infrastructure. The city needs to invest in things like storm drain networks and other drainage schemes that are appropriate to cope with a very large storm. This is expensive, for sure, but when a city grows beyond a certain size and a certain level of wealth, you just have to have it, because the cost of the disruption caused by flooding is just too great.

    With modern methods though, the cost is just not that big. Plastic pipes make it fast and cheap to put in new drains. If you don’t have a way of draining water out of low spots, you can tunnel relatively cheaply nowadays to get the water out. You can get finance in international markets and through the providers of this infrastructure.

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