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The Design Politics of Flood Infrastructure in the Age of Resilient Urbanism
1  MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning


Many contemporary efforts to address climate change-linked flooding aim to correct the failings of previous heavy-handed infrastructure projects by including a broader range disciplinary expertise, including an increased role for designers. These projects are frequently rooted in concepts of ‘resilient urbanism,’ which prize flexibility and adaptation. Drawing on ecological planning and recent Dutch water planning, these strategies are often labeled with terms like ‘living with water’ and ‘design with nature.’ This paper asks: What are the opportunities, challenges, and dangers of increasing the use of design tools and methods in urban water management and flood infrastructure planning?

The paper presents analysis of recent proposals from two flood prone cities, New Orleans and Dhaka. It supports this analysis with archival research and interviews with participants, experts, and critics involved in these projects.

The paper finds that the tools and methods of design hold promise for improving the process and communication of urban adaptation projects. However, it also finds that the power of design visualization is deeply tied to the specific values and expectations of image producers and consumers, limiting how readily such methods may be transferred between different settings. The research also indicated that design visualization is sometimes used to ignore, obscure, or invoke urgency to bypass conflict, depoliticizing adaptation, evacuating dissent, and silencing non-dominant voices.

This research has critical implications for an emerging area of resilient urban design. To realize the value of urban design in flood adaptation, it is necessary to develop a clearer understanding of how these tools can both enrich and obscure public deliberations. By illuminating the opportunities and challenges of flood infrastructure projects in two cities on the “front lines” of climate adaptation, this paper provides insights regarding the role of urban design in adaptation more broadly.

Keywords: resilient urbanism; climate change; urban design; flooding; visualization