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.

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?