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Coastline map

Coastlines and climate change

By Jennifer Savran Kelly
periodiCALS, Vol. 6, Issue 2, 2016

For two weeks this summer, the magnificent brick archways, colorful tile mosaics and stained glass of Barcelona’s Hospital de Sant Pau welcomed associate professor of landscape architecture Maria Goula and students from her course Landscape Resiliency. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the art nouveau buildings also house the United Nations Human Settlements Program. Goula and her students traveled there to learn about a different kind of fragile heritage: that of the coastal landscape of the Philippines. Goula is working with the City Resilience Profiling Program under an agreement with UN-Habitat to research ways to design for resiliency in the coastal Philippines. 

“We look at resilience in terms of visions for the future,” Goula said, “to provide cities with ways to understand and confront the long-term, cumulative effects of climate change.”

“Instead of creating walls or levees to avoid flooding, we can consider creating accessible terraced areas, an old worldwide technique to multiply arable space, for water retention, biodiversity, recreation or even food production.”
-Maria Goula

Over the past decade, tourism in the Philippines has soared, and a large portion of its economy now relies on the allure of the islands’ coastal cities and towns. However, with steep topography prone to landslides and with more exposure than any large country in the world to typhoons, the Philippines is also a hotspot for impacts of climate change. Sea surges can affect entire cities and their infrastructures, leaving relocation as the only safe option.

In close collaboration with the U.N. officers in Barcelona, Goula’s students are developing nine projects to explore strategies for resiliency along the coasts. Combining existing data and compiling their own, their visions include working with water-retention patterns along rivers, improving site conditions for relocation settlements, and designing residential landscapes and food production sites. 

“Instead of creating walls or levees to avoid flooding, we can consider creating accessible terraced areas, an old worldwide technique to multiply arable space, for water retention, biodiversity, recreation or even food production,” Goula said. “Integrating systems such as infrastructure, housing, leisure, green space, production, culture, governance and so on is a key strategy for long-term resiliency.”

The two-week design workshop, made possible by funding from a Global Cornell Internationalizing the Cornell Curriculum grant, was an opportunity for students to integrate a landscape architecture perspective with U.N. expertise in resilience research. The time frame was too short for real engagement with communities in the Philippines, so the goal was to provide students with direct experience collaborating with experts from diverse fields who are contributing to city-resiliency protocols internationally.

“You learn a lot from observing how students at different levels of their academic careers and coming from such a diversity of backgrounds combine their expertise to develop design solutions together,” noted Nicolas Grefenstette, the teaching assistant and a graduate student in landscape architecture and urban planning. “Addressing resilience planning requires interdisciplinary thinking, so we were also very fortunate to get to hear from and work with local experts and practitioners from a variety of fields, from biology to architecture, engineering and planning.”

The summer’s research indicated a strong need for the reestablishment of mangrove forests along the coasts. Mangroves work like a gigantic sponge, absorbing large amounts of water and protecting communities from storm surges; in the past century, many were eradicated due to rapid urbanization. Students’ visions—taking into account predictions about sea level rise—include coastal resort developments with new mangroves in place to buffer sea dynamics. In other words, a resilient hospitality landscape that is also environmentally responsible. 

“We are not looking at this from a strictly environmental perspective,” Goula said. “In the Philippines, the goal is to enhance the environment but at the same time introduce responsible economic activity.”

So far, the biggest challenge facing Goula’s team is the controversial nature of the issues they are raising. Experts often disagree about both the causes and extent of the problems. In addition, helping communities navigate change requires more than convincing data. 

“We expect cities of the world to trust us, but we have to work to gain trust. And building trust takes time,” Goula said, noting that landscape architects are well-suited to translate the knowledge of scientists and engineers into practice. “I believe the 21st century is one of cooperation and not competition. We need to learn from each other as fast as we can because we need to provide society with ideas and results.”