Climate change, risks and swarm planning

Inclusive Economy17 Oct 2013Rob Roggema

When does a climate event turn into a disaster? Answer: when the environment is not prepared for the impacts of the changing climate. Not managing risks results in a disaster. So, how can we prepare landscapes to prevent the disaster from happening?

When preparing landscapes, we need to focus on their design. I do not mean that we should design landscapes so that they can recover from past disasters, but rather so that they can anticipate and adjust to an event in advance, even in the face of uncertainty.

I have called this design and planning approach ‘Swarm Planning’. Like a swarm of bees constantly adjusts its shape to anticipate changes, the design of a landscape must allow adjustments before any changes take place. Surprise events must be anticipated in the landscape so that it creates spaces for their unexpected impacts. In a practical way, Swarm Planning creates designs in several steps. First, analysis of the current landscape provides the networks and nodes of intensity. These nodes are most likely the places where adjustments are easy to undertake or where impacts will occur and have the greatest effects. The second step is to create unplanned space around or close to these points where unknown events can be relieved. The rest of the landscape remains functional for inhabitants and agricultural use, and provides clean water, energy and nature. Finally, the last step is to identify emerging urban patterns for further development of cities.

In contrast to current policies, this anticipation does not mean protecting or defending lives and goods, but aims to give space to the impacts of climatic events (floods, storms, hurricanes, droughts or fires), space where the consequences of these events can be captured in catchments. It is more important to incorporate these spaces into the design of the landscape than to increase the level and height of dikes or levees.

When landscapes include these catchment areas as unplanned spaces, their flexibility in dealing with surprise increases, whilst they simultaneously become more beautiful and spacious. As a result, the capacity of the landscape increases, which, especially in dense urban environments, is meaningful.

Swarm Planning makes landscapes more flexible and increases their capacity to deal with unknown climate impacts. This emphasizes the need to create landscapes that are responsive to potential climate risks. This approach is being tested in pilot designs for the Eems delta in the Netherlands and Bendigo in Australia and I am looking for more areas where it can be designed and tested in practice.