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Gulf Coast DesignLab Approach

Coastal edges comprise about ten percent of the earth’s surface. Yet, in spite of that small percentage, this thin strip is now home to over half the world’s population—about 3.5 billion people. Those on coastal edges—both human communities and natural habitats—are increasingly threatened by dynamic climate change. Even if we all stopped emitting hydrocarbons today, oceans will still continue to warm. This of course causes more polar ice to melt, and that causes the oceans to continue to rise. By most accounts, we’ve passed the tipping point on this. The loop will continue for centuries, there’s no holding it back. As this impacts us more and more, the many living close to the edge face the brunt of rising seas and more extreme weather events brought on by the warming oceans. Along with these, subsidence, mounting pollution, industrial disasters and increased development make coastal change even greater. Yet with all this, coastal edges remain the fastest growing places on earth. Eleven of the world’s sixteen megacities are located on the ocean; Shanghai, Los Angeles, Mumbai, Manilla, Calcutta and New York are a few. And places like the Mekong Delta and Bangladesh, some of the most densely populated–and some of the poorest—will be impacted the most. These communities on the edge face grim economic and social problems in the coming decades. And this effects us all. As reinforced by Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Ike and more recently Super Storm Sandy, impacted coastal communities are real concerns. Not only the destruction of our communities, but the loss of some of the most viable natural habitats on the planet are at risk.

Closer to home, what’s at stake on the Texas Gulf Coast when we think about change? Of the almost five million people living in the counties bordering the Gulf Coast, it’s the livelihood of shrimpers and oyster farmers; it’s the multi-million-dollar recreation industry that relies on tourists each year; it’s diminished fishing, birding, kayaking; the petro-chemical industry that embroider almost every coastal bay. But there’s more too. The quality of belonging to something greater than ourselves is at stake. That deep-seated need we have of being close to nature—to that which is the living, verdant wild. It’s what E. O. Wilson calls “biophilia,” love of life, an abiding affection for living things—living nature. Our open connection to—our love of—the ocean that way is as old as we are. For the ocean was our first home—just the fact that the salt ratio of our blood is the same as ocean water offers testament to this connection with our ancient domicile.

With dynamic change like coastal edges are experiencing comes action—often in the form of reaction. Climate change and all it brings for many coastal residents is a call to arms. This more and more comes in the form of “Big Action”—armored coastal edges, taller levees, more massive flood gates, longer jetties—all of this, ever bolder technological fixes. In other words, more applied technology, which the experts say is needed to protect ourselves against this environmental mess we’ve made. Yet our predilection toward Big Action solutions is cut from the same cloth that produced the calamity of climate change we now face. Hardly anyone sees these fixes as the best possible outcome, but instead short term Band-Aids requiring periodic redressing. What’s at stake in this approach is the disconnect from an intimate connection to of our surroundings; distancing us even more from that something we long to be in touch with. Nonetheless, big fixes are still the customary approach for holding back change.

Loosely attributed, Einstein is reported to have said “The world will not evolve past its current state of crisis by using the same thinking that created the situation.” With our Big Action attitude contributing to what’s been termed “the sixth extinction” his words are more true today than ever. As designers, we play a real role in that devastation. By that, it’s not meant we need to make more sustainably certifiable structures. If designers are to remain consequential place-makers, we must learn to ask the deeper questions, those which offer new meaning for how we might better be in the world today. We need a different vision, a fresh outlook on how to make more fulfilling communities that bring us in touch with our world. The poetic is one avenue to look for new meaning.

Defining poetics isn’t easy of course. We know it when we experience it, but it’s like trying to say what love is—hard to describe. In practicing the poetic, students are asked to slow down, to look deeper, to refocus on the long-term, to embrace the fact that all things work in unison, to acknowledge the “what is” instead of the “what it ought to be,” to take into account the rhythms of nature, instead of working against them. They’re encouraged to look more deeply at when and where to build and when and where not to build; to begin to imagine how to design in ways which actually work with natural cycles, that support natural habitats instead of armoring against them.

This is about students learning not only to do no harm, but to reach out and help—to help improve the places in which they work. It’s about not only opening their eyes, but opening their hearts—to sense the world around them and how what they do as designers make a difference. It’s about testing their design approach by asking whether what they propose is beneficial for all, and not just the few. For them, the notion of “just because we can” should more and more come into question. For them, its about embracing the attitude that takes into account long-term consequences. These concerns when taken as a whole lead to a design approach built around: 1) moderation as a first principle; 2) embracing a “small is beautiful” approach; 3) being open to change and designing for it; 4) designing with the whole in mind and not just its parts; 5) humility towards others (and this includes all things).

Using these five points as a basis for design students learn: if their work is poetic it’ll reveal something about the place where they build—something that was already there, but not otherwise seen. In other words, a poetic work brings something already in the world forward—out of the shadows—to be seen in a new light. As they begin, students are encouraged to regard the place they’re in in a more reflective way. They’re asked to find that which is meaningful in what at first might not seem so apparent. But once revealed, then to address that as their source for a fitting design. And through this they learn to practice stewardship, to care for their environment more deeply, to become better citizens of the earth—better earth citizens – citizen poets. So that what they build becomes part of that place, and in doing so shows others something new about their own role in the world—and how to make that world better for all.

This way students can reach out with care to those they’re building for. They can learn to nurture an approach that wishes others well, their work becoming an act of well-being that encourages goodwill, not just toward others of our own community but nature as a whole. Poetic place-making is had through reflection, through unearthing that which is already there but not seen—until that design reveals it. Non-prescribed reflection is questioning without customary dogma. It takes insight and courage to step off the comfortable path and venture down new ones. Thinking back to Einstein, by setting aside the same thinking we’re accustomed to, we designers can learn to make places that outshine our past missteps, in ways that inspire greater respect and awe of our world, so that we want to protect and safeguard it—and everything in it.

If students today gain anything in school, it might be to learn how to reflect on what’s right before them; to ask better questions; to inquire more deeply about what it is that they do, so as to make not just better places, but places that are sacred. It’s time we look to our poets, those explorers in the art of ethical living for a way forward.