Landscape Architecture

Posted April 10, 2018

Jeff Goodell Delivers Inaugural McHarg Center Lecture

“Hurricanes are like roulette,” said Jeff Goodell. “Sea-level rise is like gravity … There’s an inevitability to it that is powerful and important.”

Goodell, a contributing editor at Rolling Stone and author of The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Remaking of the Civilized World, was speaking to a capacity crowd last month in Meyerson Hall. The book, which took Goodell from Miami to Lagos to the Arctic Circle over the course of two-and-a-half years of reporting, provided the foundation for his talk, which was presented as the inaugural lecture for The Ian L. McHarg Center, a new think tank on urbanism and ecology at PennDesign.

The book is “necessarily dystopic,” said Billy Fleming, research coordinator for The McHarg Center, in introductory remarks. And of the “five thoughts” that structured Goodell’s lecture, the absolute certitude of sea-level rise was the first. Coastal cities are in for decades of hard conversations about how to deal with the inevitable rising seas, which will impact everything from environmental design to transportation and wastewater treatment. Some places, like the Marshall Islands, are facing “existential threats.” Individual weather events like Hurricanes may be unpredictable, but sea-level rise is incessant.

Goodell’s second point added a layer of uncertainty: We don’t know exactly how high the water will rise, or how fast. But—point number three—cities are going to be in trouble long before they’ve been completely drowned. In many cities, the trouble has already started.

“One thing that's already happening in many places along the coast is problems with sewage,” Goodell said.

Goodell said that on one of his trips to Miami, during a king tide, he saw children playing in the water, with no idea that bacteria had exceeded safe levels 3,000 times over. Rising seas will also bring problems related to invasive marine life, saltwater damages, and real estate values. In Miami, for example, “climate gentrification” is already increasing property values on higher ground—the very areas where redlining concentrated poor communities of color in the past.

“Retreat is not a dirty word.”

Point number four: Billions of dollars will be misspent on ill-considered solutions to rising seas. Part of the reason for that is that the politics of climate change haven’t caught up to the science, Goodell said. He said that he went on a tour of a naval base in Norfolk, Virginia, with former Secretary of State John Kerry. During the tour, the guides revealed that they knew it would be just 20-50 years before the base is entirely underwater. But the threat lives at the nexus of two politically unpalatable conversations: military base closures and federal funding for problems related to climate change. So the base continues to operate as usual, dealing with increasing flooding.

Final point: “Opportunity sometimes comes disguised as catastrophe.” Given the fact that many cities will need to drastically rethink their built environments, designers will be have a chance to incorporate innovative ideas and considerations about equity into their solutions. The good news, Goodell said, is that sea-level rise is “not an alien invasion.” It doesn’t require a genius technological solution. At a very basic level, communities just need to pull back from the shoreline, the way you’d move your towel and umbrella when the tide comes up on the beach, Goodell said.

In the meantime, cities should work to make the risks related to sea-level rise more transparent, Goodell said. The nation should accelerate reforms of its flood-insurance programs, and recognize that “retreat is not a dirty word.” In many ways, Goodell said, events like Hurricane Sandy in New York and Hurricane Harvey in Houston were “dress rehearsals for sea-level rise.” Just imagine, Goodell said, if the flooding of those cities never receded.

While Goodell’s lecture was the first hosted by The McHarg Center, the Center itself doesn’t officially launch until the summer of 2019, coinciding with the 50th anniversary of Ian McHarg’s book Design With Nature. In advance of its 2019 symposium, The McHarg Center has begun collecting responses from a range of designers and researchers to the question, What does it mean to design with nature now?