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To Protect, Renew, and Re-Tool: An Interview with Kristina Hill on Managing the Effects of Climate Change
Amanda Reed, 25 Aug 10

Kristina Hill, PhD, Affiliate ASLA, is Chair of the Landscape Architecture department at the University of Virginia. Recently, the American Society of Landscape Architects interviewed her about how best to manage the effects of climate change, especially in designing cities. The Dirt has published the lengthy interview online; here's an excerpt from the first of seven questions in which Hill says that "to protect, renew, and re-tool" are our best bets:

At a recent conference on designing wildlife habitats, you said cities are always warmer than surrounding areas because of the urban heat island effect. Cities are then precursors to climate change. In fact, “cities are at the edge of climate change.” What can cities’ experience with elevated heat levels teach us about best and worst ways to mitigate and adapt to climate change?

The fact is, I have yet to see any “worst” – except perhaps no preparation at all! Here, in the U.S., we live in what I call the American Media Bubble – where the media aren’t using climate change to sell papers, unlike their Canadian and European counterparts. Since they don’t see the headlines the rest of the world is reading, the average American doesn’t know what’s at stake. And as a result, their elected officials are discouraged from taking action. But the rest of the world is starting to prepare. Our economic future, and the health, safety and welfare of many of our citizens, depends on learning from the best practices that are out there.

I’ll say something about the best instead. The best approach I know of can be simply described using three categories of actions: to protect, renew, and re-tool. That means, to protect the most vulnerable people and places, especially the ones that offer the greatest future diversity and flexibility; to renew our basic resources, like soil fertility, water quality and quantity, air quality, and human health; and to re-tool, altering urban systems – buildings, transit, landscapes — to use less energy (since energy use is still a proxy for CO2 generation, unless you use only clean sources), and generate fewer wastes that can’t be used by someone else, locally. I’ll give some examples, since all three categories of action require spatial strategies and create significant roles for landscape architects who have the drive to change cities. Most American cities are just at the point of taking stock of the magnitude of their exposure to climate change, but European cities have acted and offer practical lessons learned...

Hill continues on to share specific European examples of successful designs that protect people and the built environment so as to better adapt to climate change and make cities more resilient.

The second question in the interview asks for Hill's thoughts on what cities should focus on as they develop climate change adaptation action plans; her answer focuses on what she means by re-tooling:

Cities need to recognize that it’s not about planning for an average of 2-10 degrees warmer summers; it’s the new extremes in rainfall, flooding, drought, and the duration of heat waves that will really challenge our infrastructure and affect our lives. Cities need to focus on these extremes, and make investments to be more resilient to them in terms of both the duration and the magnitude of these extreme circumstances.

That’s what I mean by “re-tooling.” Urban systems represent enormous investments of public money, and once built, the debt accrued by building them creates a long lag time before these expensive systems can be changed significantly. Landscape architects need to wade into some of the policy and planning debates that surround these investments of public money. If we were designing a house and landscape for ourselves and everyone we care about to live in, together, 30 years from now, we wouldn’t design it based on our income and needs today. When cities build infrastructure, or develop/re-develop large areas of land, those projects are meant to have value and perform as intended for at least 30 years; many are intended to function for 50 or 70 years, perhaps longer. We need to question whether these urban places and systems are really being designed to perform as intended during an era of increasing climate extremes, because we and almost everyone we care about will live in them, all over the world. We need to demand investment strategies that link future debt to future performance. No project should be allowed to generate public debt for 30-40 years if it won’t add to our future capacity to adapt; if it doesn’t increase our resilience, it should be paid for only out of today’s money, or not be built at all.

Continue reading the full interview for more on Hill's thoughts on and examples of designs that protect, renew, and re-tool cities as strategies for managing the effects of climate change.

Photo of Kristina Hill via The Dirt.

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