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Fadi Masoud

University of Toronto

Coding Flux

Landscape laureate J. B. Jackson remarkably spoke about climate change to an audience of designers almost 50 years ago. At a panel discussion titled “Can the Natural Environment Be Saved?” at the 1965 Urban Design conference at Harvard, he wisely observed that “the beaches along the Gulf and the Atlantic that we are trying to save for posterity are doomed to destruction; they are remorselessly eaten away by the sea… Geographers tell us that we are being driven inward by the rising ocean at the rate of one vertical foot a century… These are some of my reasons for believing that the natural environment cannot be saved in its present form. They are commonplace reasons that can be summed up by saying that everything conspires against a permanent form for the natural world around us.” Jackson rightfully urged the field to acknowledge change and uncertainty by designing for it.

Surrounded by water from three sides – The Everglades, the Atlantic Ocean, and the Biscayne Aquifer – South Florida has seen an increase in climate-related extreme flooding events from storm surge, intense precipitation, tide-related saltwater intrusion, and elevated ground water table levels. As one of North America’s fastest growing regions, planning for growth and development in light of these vulnerabilities has proved to be a challenge.

In 2010, the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Compact was formed to mitigate the effects of climate change on the urban fabric. The Compact represents a new form of regional climate governance designed to set the agenda for climate-based urban adaptation. Broward County, one of the four Compact counties, has been engaged with the University of Toronto to envision a climate-ready and resilient future for its inhabitants. Growth in Florida has always been tied to the careful and necessary management of water, where over the past 60 years, the Army Corps of Engineers built over 2,100 miles of canals and levees and 2,000 hydraulic pumping stations to drain a metropolitan area of over 5,800 square miles. These massive works of engineering created a false sense of “dry” developable land, and a binary of “wet” and “dry”: when the reality is an ever-present fluctuating gradient of inundation and flux.

This imagined hard line between dry ground and a fluctuating estuary has allowed for development to continue at a rapid rate in Florida. Dated and formally-driven zoning codes and regulations have meant that development rarely responds to environmental processes. This leaves metropolitan areas in peril as zoning codes enable the formation of a rigid built fabric that is not responsive to the dynamic hydrological conditions found in South Florida’s estuarian condition. As such, a series of design and research studios at the University of Toronto and MIT (from which this reading list was adapted) questioned planning standards that enable the status quo, and asked why does land use zoning continue to remain static when we know that landscapes are dynamic?

 By recognizing that it is exactly in the process of design and physical planning that we may be the most operative and strategic agents when it comes to climate resilience and adaptation, this studio puts front and center the agency and efficacy of urban codes as they deal with issues of 21st century urbanism. It starts by rendering the exclusivity of building cities on dry ground insufficient, and accepts a state of constant hydrological flux – that is neither wet nor dry but always shifting – as the starting point of a novel and contextual “process-based” design language for the future of Florida’s estuarian urbanism.

The studio was awarded the Sloan Award and Studio Prize in 2018 by Architect Magazine.

[Image courtesy of Fadi Masoud.]


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