Remaking Design for Equitable Resilience

  • Zachary Lamb Assistant Professor of City & Regional Planning
    Department of City & Regional Planning
    University of California Berkeley

What good is design in a world coming apart at the seams? What can urban design, architecture, or landscape architecture tangibly do to make the conjoined crises of climate change and mounting socio-economic inequality any less devastating? If we take the charge seriously, pursuing “equitable resilience” in this context will challenge many of the most basic assumptions about the value and functions of the design disciplines. It will spur us to ask: How do practitioners, teachers, and researchers in these domains make sense of the world? How, where, and when do they intervene? Who do they serve?

There are many who would respond that urban climate adaptation is a “design problem” and that design professionals and researchers can and should be central actors in defining and pursuing equitable resilience. In the heady days after Hurricane Katrina breached New Orleans’ levees and Superstorm Sandy swamped much of the New York City metro area, designers eagerly came forward with visions for safer, more climate adaptive, and more environmentally sound urban settlements. Han Meyer, Dale Morris, and David Waggonner, Dutch Dialogues: New Orleans, Netherlands: Common Challenges in Urbanized Deltas (SUN Amsterdam, 2009) Henk Ovink, ed., Too Big: Rebuild by Design’s Transformative Response to Climate Change (Rotterdam: nai010 publishers, 2018) Philanthropies and governments got in the mix, funding high profile design competitions on the theory that they would produce the best ideas for responding to climate chaos. Some of the splashy design proposals that emerged, like the now-infamous ‘green dot plan’ for New Orleans, ignited firestorms of community opposition. Billy Fields, “From Green Dots to Greenways: Planning in the Age of Climate Change in Post-Katrina New Orleans,” Journal of Urban Design, 14, no. 3 (August 2009): 325–44, Zachary Lamb, “Connecting the Dots: The Origins, Evolutions, and Implications of the Map That Changed Post-Katrina Recovery Planning in New Orleans,” in Louisiana’s Response to Extreme Weather, ed. Shirley Laska (Springer, 2019) Zachary Lamb, “The Politics of Designing with Nature: Reflections from New Orleans and Dhaka,” Socio-Ecological Practice Research, June 18, 2019, Others, like the Changing Course competition for the lower Mississippi Delta, landed with a thud, garnering little of the attention that participants and organizers had anticipated. “Changing Course,” Changing Course, September 1, 2016, Even proposals backed by substantial public funding—like the East Side Coastal Resiliency Project that originated in the post-Sandy Rebuild by Design competition, City of New York, “East Side Coastal Resiliency,” accessed December 24, 2021, or the Gentilly Resilience District in New Orleans funded through the National Disaster Resilience Competition “Resilience & Sustainability – Gentilly Resilience District,” City of New Orleans, accessed January 17, 2022, —have floundered, beset by problems with city leadership transitions, shifting ambitions, and disagreements between stakeholders. Michael Kimmelman, “What Does It Mean to Save a Neighborhood?,” The New York Times, December 2, 2021, sec. U.S.,

Given the struggles of these high-profile design-centered projects, one could ask if, in fact, designers do have any meaningful role to play in creating more just climate adaptive futures. Critics rightly point out that many of the most visible parts of the design professions are still characterized by outmoded pedagogy, elite-driven patronage practices, geographic and cultural insularity, exploitative labor practices, and spectacle-driven hero-worship, making them poorly suited to the challenge of addressing urban climate impacts, and even less equipped to confronting the radically social inequalities that shape climate vulnerability across scales. Billy Fleming, “Design and the Green New Deal,” Places Journal, April 16, 2019, Billy Fleming, “Frames and Fictions: Designing a Green New Deal Studio Sequence,” Journal of Architectural Education 75, no. 2 (2021): 192–201, Isabelle Anguelovski et al., “Equity Impacts of Urban Land Use Planning for Climate Adaptation: Critical Perspectives from the Global North and South,” Journal of Planning Education and Research 36, no. 3 (2016): 333–48,

How might design practitioners, researchers, and teachers move beyond critiques of unsatisfying past efforts to more substantially contribute to equitable resilience in the face of climate change? After grappling with these challenges in practice and research for over a decade and a half, I have come to the view that the pedagogical, professional, and economic infrastructures of design are themselves designed to produce particular types of practitioners, processes, and products that do not meet the demands of our contemporary crises. We need different ways of thinking and working.

To make sense of how the design disciplines have engaged in urban adaptation to date and how we might shift course in pursuit of equitable resilience, I lay out five alternative professional “postures,” ways that we orient ourselves professionally to our work. The first two of these postures have dominated climate adaptation design efforts thus far; the next three show promise for the path forward.

To date, designers participating in prominent urban resilience and climate adaptation projects have adopted some combination of two professional orientations that I call “The Problem Solver” and “The Visionary.” Problem Solvers aim to generate pragmatic technical solutions to clearly-identified climate change vulnerabilities in the built environment. This is the orientation of the majority of working designers, coping with near-term threats through strategies like green stormwater infrastructure and elevating buildings to avoid flood risk. The Visionary, on the other hand, generally does not engage in such small-scale, short-term solutions. Rather, they produce images—often gauzily rendered—for radical change. Floating cities and residential towers dripping with plants are common motifs here. Proposals generated in high-profile urban resilience competitions often reflect this Visionary posture.

While pragmatic problem solving and visionary proposals can both be useful in urban climate adaptation, the struggles of early efforts like those discussed above suggest that advancing equitable resilience may require something more. Problem solving is undeniably important, but the uncertainty and unprecedented scale and scope of climate change impacts can make it difficult to identify what exactly ‘the problem’ is and what the appropriate scale of action is for ‘solving’ it. Similarly, while there is no doubt value in pursuing transformative change, too often, visionary proposals ignore the impediments and entrenched powers that would have to be overcome to radically alter existing built and institutional structures. Whether engaged in problem solving or in visionary imagination, designers have frequently been drawn into what some critics call the “global urban resilience complex,” a cadre of international consultants promoting ready-made strategies that are too often divorced from local environmental, social, and political conditions. Helga Leitner et al., “Globalizing Urban Resilience,” Urban Geography 39, no. 8 (2018): 1276–84,

To confront the challenges of locally variegated socio-ecological conditions, deep uncertainty, and seemingly intractable political entrenchment, designers will have to go beyond technical pragmatism and visionary dreaming to embrace new professional postures. I propose three here: The Teacher, The Facilitator, and The Regulator.

The Teacher
To help residents of threatened settlements to make informed decisions and to build support for collective action, designers can use their analytical and representational skills to explain the roots of uneven vulnerability and to illustrate possible alternative futures. In embracing this public pedagogy role, designers could look to longstanding efforts like Anne Whiston Spirn’s work promoting ‘landscape literacy’ among public school students and residents in the West Philadelphia Landscape Project, Anne Whiston Spirn, “Restoring Mill Creek: Landscape Literacy, Environmental Justice and City Planning and Design,” Landscape Research 30, no. 3 (2005): 395–413, or to recent projects that link physical design interventions with school climate curricula, including the stormwater-focused Ripple Effect in New Orleans and the heat island-focused OASIS project in Paris. Urban Innovative Actions, “OASIS – School Yards,” OASIS – School yards: Openness, Adaptation, Sensitisation, Innovation and Social ties: Design and transformation of local urban areas adapted to climate change, working jointly with users, accessed January 17, 2022, Megan Clement, “Green Space in Every Schoolyard: The Radical Plan to Cool Paris,” The Guardian, August 16, 2018, sec. Cities,

The Facilitator
While designers can act as teachers in some circumstances, the uncertain unfolding of climate chaos should invite a healthy degree of humility for all of us. Often the primary challenge of climate adaptation is not sharpening technical understanding or crafting ever more elegant spatial solutions but helping interested parties discuss, debate, and negotiate the nature of their challenges and potential paths forward. Ria Kaika, “‘Don’t Call Me Resilient Again!’: The New Urban Agenda as Immunology … or … What Happens When Communities Refuse to Be Vaccinated with ‘Smart Cities’ and Indicators,” Environment and Urbanization 29, no. 1 (April 1, 2017): 89–102, Rather than delivering solutions or visions, designers can help impacted communities gather, interpret, synthesize, and visualize diverse perspectives and desires. In one promising example, design teams contributed to the LA SAFE (Louisiana Strategic Adaptation to Future Environments) initiative through repeated workshops in flood vulnerable communities, helping to craft both analytical materials and proposals for intervention.

The Regulator
While designers often consider codes and design guidelines to be burdensome bureaucratic constraints, regulatory instruments and institutions can themselves be sites of design innovation for equitable resilience. Design guidelines and codes can shape built environments beyond the scope of individual projects, sites, and owners. If engaged, designers can ensure that these efforts are sensitive to changing conditions, enforceable, equity-enhancing, and clearly legible to a wide range of actors, from homeowners and renters to contractors, city officials, and other professionals. While the impact remains to be seen, Boston’s Coastal Flood Resilience Design Guidelines Boston Planning and Development Agency, “Coastal Flood Resilience Design Guidelines” (Boston, MA, 2019), represent a promising effort in this domain.

Pursuing equitable resilience will require confronting local variations and uncertainties in the paths of urbanization and climate change. It will also require grappling with entrenched power, deep distrust born out of unjust histories, and well-earned disagreements over the desired path of urban climate futures. To meet these challenges, designers will need to treat climate adaptation not simply as an exercise in imagination or technical problem solving, but rather as a generations-long process of listening, persuasion, negotiation, and political mobilization. For designers to effectively act as teachers, facilitators, or regulators, inherited structures of pedagogy, practice, and patronage will have to be remade. The design disciplines have a tremendous amount to contribute to the pursuit of equitable resilience, but making good on that promise will require transformation, not only in the built environment, but in how our disciplines and institutions operate.