Design for Uncertainty 3: Creating Margins for Future Change

This series explores design methods for dealing with uncertainty and change over time. To read the first post in this series click here.

Natural systems are unpredictable. Their inputs and outputs cannot precisely be known. In one year there can be floods, and in the next, droughts. While human settlement has historically conformed to changes in natural systems (eg. don’t live in the flood plain, move to follow the herds) our modern systems have come with greater control, but at the same time, less room to accommodate the alternating surplus and scarcity of natural systems, and therefore, more risk.

A number of recent landscape projects and proposals take on this issue, especially with regard to water, and build in room for natural system change.

Mill Race Park–Normal Conditions
Mill Race Park–Flooded Conditions

One early one, Michael Van Valkenburgh’s Mill Race Park in Columbus, Indiana is designed to anticipate the occasional flood. Its iconic earthworks, create a new topography when the river overtops its bank. (See the little crescent of the earth mound poking out of the water in the second image?) Larger-scale projects include the Room for the Rivers project in the Netherlands which, while highly engineered, runs counter to the tradition of pumping water out to the sea by including floodable areas that retain water inland.

These projects challenge the idea of ‘waste’ as understood in a Fordist worldview. Instead of designing for the use of every resource at every moment, these projects include components for processes that happen from time to time, like river flooding, and provide ancillary human benefits when ‘nature’ is not using that extra space (for example, floodable soccer fields.)

The major factor that prevents greater use of this method is that it requires space to be set aside, something that is hard to do in a market-based system where land prices are based on adjacency to economic activity. This is an especially pressing issue in developing countries where masses of rural migrants come to cities and settle in more marginal areas such as floodbanks, when they have difficultly finding affordable housing in the city. This leads to disaster to human systems, such as in Mumbai, India in the mid-2000s, when informal housing was swept away during flooding. The impact of the flooding was also compounded: Informal housing dwellers did not have trash removal services and their refuse helped block drainage ways in the city.

Managing these issues, therefore, is not just spatial, but political. It means not just setting aside spatial resources, but working out compromises and systems of use that are compatible with their eventual need. It means not just planning, but administering down to the details, as a system is only as strong as its weakest link.

Interested in the other strategies? Part 1 here. Part 2 here.

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