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Matthijs Bouw on Building Resilience in Design, and in Design Education
Dutch architect Matthijs Bouw is an associate professor of practice in landscape architecture and architecture, and McHarg Center Fellow for Risk and Resilience. He was the Rockefeller Urban Resilience Fellow at PennDesign from 2016 - 2018. With his design and planning firm One Architecture & Urbanism, Bouw helped develop the concept for The BIG U—the set of design and environmental interventions meant to protect Lower Manhattan from floods, storms, and other threats from climate change—a project that will be featured in The McHarg Center’s inaugural conference and exhibition Design with Nature Now this summer. In addition to New York City, the firm has resilience projects in Boston, San Francisco, and Southeast Asia.
Bouw teaches a 700-level studio in the fall semester focused on resilience, and in the spring, he teaches the seminar Designing with Risk. He is director of the School’s new Certificate in Urban Resilience, which is presenting the daylong symposium Building Resilience by Design on January 22. Here, he talks with Design Weekly about the connections between his teaching and his practice, and why young designers should be focused on resilience. The conversation has been edited.
You have a number of roles at PennDesign, and I’m hoping you could talk a little bit about your teaching here and the Rockefeller Urban Resilience Fellowship, and how they’re related back to your practice with One Architecture.
I was able to come to PennDesign at the initiative of [former dean and Professor of Architecture and Urban Design] Marilyn Taylor, who was very active in the Rebuild by Design process—first by helping set up a Penn team that was also part of the competition, and later on the advisory committee of Rebuild by Design. And I was a co-lead on the BIG U. We started talking, specially about this challenge: How do you teach resilience to design students, and how does it change the way you teach?
Marilyn invited me to come over to PennDesign to explore the question, “How do you design with risk?” She helped to secure a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, directly from then-president Judith Rodin, in which we could substantiate our thinking about this and our process, through teaching seminars and studios, of discovering how to do this into the Urban Resilience Certificate Program.
PennDesign is now offering a certificate in Urban Resilience. What do you think young people who are coming through these programs should be learning about resilience planning?
I think there are two levels at which you can think about this. Climate change adaptation is going to have an incredible impact on the built environment and on the natural environment. It is important that designers learn about tools that they can use to operate in that changing environment, and how they can mitigate shocks and stresses, and adapt cities and buildings to a changing climate and understand the relationship between the mitigation of physical structures, resilience, adaptation, and climate mitigation.
That’s the tool component. But there’s another really important dimension to it. Resilience helps us understand how we operate in a world that is, in its essence, uncontrollable and unpredictable. To develop a mindset of how you can design in a world that is unpredictable and uncontrollable is very important—to understand that, for instance, design is not something, like we thought in the 20th century, that could be sort of imposed on the world, but that, in a way, it participates in a very complex world. It’s a tool that allows us to collaborate in a different way with different actors, because it is so important, in this world that is unpredictable and uncontrollable, to engage stakeholders and communities in a different way, or to work with different disciplines outside of design in a different way. To engage the complexity, and to build our cities such that they are resilient in the face of this unpredictability and uncontrollability. What we really want to do in the program is, on one hand, offer this tool set, but on the other hand, also offer this different perspective, this different attitude, and maybe design from a completely different, much more 21st-century paradigm.
There’s a difference, too, in the Dutch approach to resilience and sea-level rise versus the American approach to those challenges. Can you talk a little bit about that, where you come from having sort of a different way of looking at these things than we do in the U.S.?
In the Netherlands, given our thousand-year history in trying to deal with water, to a certain extent we have a funding and governance system in place that helps us deal with these things much more effectively. In the United States, governance and funding for climate adaptation are not in place. That means that in projects, or in development of policy, or in doing your research, you need to take into account a greater complexity of issues, given the fact that funding and governance are not in place. How do you implement things? How do you get the funding together? That really changes the creativity and the set of tools that we need to learn.
The second thing that is important to understand is that in the Netherlands, for a very long time, we thought that we could manage water. But we have learned—with increasing climate impacts, but also with the ecological destruction that comes with too much management—that rather than managing water, we need to learn to live with it. We need to change the mindset. In an interesting way, that mindset is more prevalent in the United States because of not having the governance and the funding in place, even though certain actors, like the Army Corps, had, and to a certain extent still have, this attitude of, “We want to control and keep water out.”
In the United States, our understanding of the impacts of climate change are relatively new. This is a very big country, and that means that there might be quite a few places where it makes fiscal sense to try and keep the water out, for now. There are a lot of places where that doesn't make sense and we have to develop a whole set of alternative strategies. That’s really a huge challenge. It’s a huge challenge for these places where we want to keep the water out because it means the wholesale rethinking of our entire urban systems, but it’s an even bigger challenge for these areas where we need to learn to live with water, because there’s a whole set of social issues and equity issues that come into play. And there’s a whole set of questions like, How do you even prepare for these type of changes? Can you actually plan for them or are they just going to happen? And if they are just going to happen, are they not then going to exacerbate all the equity challenges and all the other challenges that this country has?
With that in mind, your firm co-led a winning proposal for the Rebuild by Design project. Can you talk a little bit about what the approach to that challenge was that made your proposal successful?
I think there were three components to it. One of them is to really articulate that building resilience is not only a challenge, but it’s also an opportunity. If you do it well, you can, for instance in [Lower Manhattan], rethink the waterfront and create all kinds of benefits in the city.
The second component, and that was really strong in the competition format, is to say these are things that are not top-down, but if you develop these type of projects, you really need to work with the local communities. So what we did is, rather than thinking of this as a big infrastructure project only, we also thought about the BIG U and the subsequent projects as community-driven projects.
And the third component is that we said, even though the task at hand is really big, we need to, in a way, chop up these big tasks in smaller manageable projects. Because if a city is not able to manage it, nothing will ever happen, or doesn’t assume that they’e able to manage it, nothing will ever happen. But also, it is a process where we need to learn from these sort of smaller projects, and make sure that the next generation of projects that either builds next to it or that builds on top of these earlier projects, are smarter and better. You need to organize the feedback mechanisms.
These were the three essential ideas in the BIG U: Look how this resilience infrastructure can also be social infrastructure; engage communities and not only economic and private actors, but work with everyone; and build manageable projects and create feedback mechanisms.
To what degree does community engagement come into play when you’re thinking about what can actually be done? A lot of these problems are environmental, but there's also a social component to a lot of these things.
I think that works on, again, three levels. The first level is that it is really critical for communities who are going to transform because of climate change adaptation to understand why: To understand risk and to understand these challenges.
The second component which is really important is we know, from all kinds of research, that communities with strong social ties are much better-capable of recovering or dealing with these type of issues. So it’s important that these projects all have a component of building stronger communities, because they are more resilient.
And the third component, which is why the first two are so critical, is that the communities really need to be the long-term stewards of these changes that we’re going to be making in our cities. Public officials come and go. Consultants come and go. But it’s the communities that are there, and they need to be the stewards and the advocates for getting these things done right.
Photo: Scott Spitzer via Penn Flickr