Designing In The Age Of The Anthropocene
Taken from the Greek words “anthropos” (human) and “kainos” (new), the Anthropocene is defined by humans’ impact on the environment
June 8, 2020
Written by Romeo Romulo
It doesn’t take a lot to realize that the world is unrecognizable these days. The current pandemic has disrupted our daily lives to the point where traditional daily routines seem like a lifetime ago. It’s not just about COVID-19. Even in the past year, we experienced so many climate disasters: Australia, California, and the Amazon suffered devastating fires; and typhoons and hurricanes ravaged Japan, China, and the Bahamas, accounting for more than $10 billion losses. The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) records that greenhouse gas emissions are at an all-time high. Entire ecosystems have been disturbed due to invasive species migration. They say that hell hath no fury than a woman scorned, and it seems like Mother Nature is swiftly exacting her revenge in this age of the Anthropocene.
Taken from the Greek words “anthropos” (human) and “kainos” (new), the Anthropocene is widely considered as our current geological epoch defined by humans’ impact on the environment. It calls attention to how our actions as a society shape the Earth’s systems from the early periods of the industrial revolution to recent events in the last century: rapid urbanization, population growth booms, natural resources exploitation, and more. The term has grown in traction over the last decade and has become a familiar, even mandatory lexicon in the realms of arts, humanities, and science.
As designers, it is imperative for us to restructure our mindset within the frameworks of the Anthropocene. It has been clear that the expansion of our cities and building infrastructure has greatly shaped our current geology. Whether we admit it or not, our works have contributed to the defining phenomena of this epoch such as ecological destruction, global warming, oceanic pollution, natural resource depletion, sea-level rise, floods, landslides, wildfires, droughts, and pandemics. Because of these, we have a responsibility to address how we design our future cities and infrastructure so they encapsulate the Anthropocene. I’m not just talking about designing buildings to be more “green” or “sustainable,” as these are simply rhetorical solutions that offer no real change in terms of the earth’s geological stratum.
To fully be able to address the issues of the Anthropocene, one of the first few things we need to understand is that our current urban planning and architectural systems are outdated and perhaps even obsolete. The theories of these systems were developed at a time wherein a majority of our current complex issues were not present. The recent pandemic illustrated how our current cities were ill-equipped to respond to a crisis of its nature, a defining cornerstone in this discussion. This resulted in huge losses in human lives and the economy. It also gave a great upheaval in our daily lives, which shouldn’t come as a surprise as most, if not all urban and architectural developments approached design in an anthropocentric manner, wherein people and profit were favored over the welfare of the planet. This brings us to a very important point: capitalism is the crux of the Anthropocene.
Will Steffen, one of the epoch’s earliest advocates said, “industrial capitalists…not ‘mankind as a whole,’ are largely responsible for the Anthropocene.” We can take Metro Manila as a prime example of this. Design and development are only within each of the boundaries of its 16 municipalities. By acting as “islands,” the planning and architecture of Metro Manila as a whole is very fragmented and disconnected from each other, primarily because these developments are largely market-driven.
As we move forward to designing in a post-pandemic world, we need to reframe our design mindset towards an anthropocenic approach, one where there is a holistic symbiosis between the built environment and the biosphere. This includes a collaborative effort, not only within the design community, but also other disciplines like science, healthcare, economy, geology, and more. Our political and social systems also need to adamantly take part in the conversation and be open to a drastic change in city design.
The involvement of healthcare professionals in designing future healthcare buildings can provide us the necessary implications that we need to consider if another pandemic arrives. This can increase the capacities of hospitals and healthcare facilities to continue operations despite the sudden outbreak. In addition, this can improve the users physically and mentally. Ventilation techniques and technologies that hospitals use to contain and eradicate pathogens and contaminants may be incorporated into different building types such as schools, homes, condominiums, and those that don’t have the luxury of social distancing such as prison facilities and homeless shelters.
COVID-19 also demonstrated the urban paradox of cities in terms of pandemic response. Over the last few decades, urban planners and developers have long advocated for high-rise, high-density, mixed-use developments. This is because urban dwellers consume less ecological footprint and produce fewer carbon emissions than their suburban counterparts. However, when COVID-19 arrived, these high-density developments became primary target venues for easy transmission of the virus. Seemingly, the people most safe and comfortable during the pandemic are those living in single-family dwellings. In short, future developments need to be able to answer to this density problem that is prevalent in our current cities. The Anthropocene forces us to restructure what we have learned about design.
In architecture school, we are taught how to protect humans from harsh exterior environmental conditions. We delineate walls, fences, gates, linear parks, and even suburbs as concrete barriers. This has been the way we traditionally approach city and building design—one where it’s separated from the environment. The Anthropocene forces us to deepen our understanding of this relationship. What if there is a way for the city to embrace the environment instead? What different building typologies are we able to develop in the countryside? Is it possible to design cities around unconventional materials and locations while incorporating contemporary technological advancements? Are there any alternatives to food production such that farming is not just relegated into land? Can we tap into geo-engineering and maybe start building cities underground? These are the questions that can start the discussion.
One great example of anthropocenic design in the 21st century is Bjarke Ingles’ “Big U” project in New York. Learning from the $19 billion loss from the flood caused by hurricane Sandy in most of Manhattan’s financial districts, The Big U serves as a defense to future storm surges and flooding in the same areas. It holds a 10-mile network of flood walls around the periphery of Lower Manhattan, shielding city infrastructure and buildings in the process. These flood barriers, carefully and deliberately designed in compartments, protects each of the neighborhoods one at a time. The project is flexible enough to withstand a massive scale of incoming flood. What’s most interesting about the Big U is that the floodwalls are disguised as a network of parks, pavilions, and open spaces. Through this arrangement, the Big U is able to preserve Manhattan’s vibrant city life without completely segregating it from the water. Inadvertently, Ingles reframed what we can do with the peripheries of cities, a distinct type of urban typology that seeks more attention. The project also delved into collaborating with different disciplines and communities for the final design.
Another project we can use as a case study is the “The Soul of Nørrebro” designed by Copenhagen architectural firm SLA. The award-winning projec, focused on the Hans Tavsens Park and Korsgade in Inner Nørrebro, Copenhagen, strives to address how the neighborhood will deal with cloudbursts, which are flashes of heavy rain that lead to flooding. Instead of treating the rain and flooding as antagonists and elements that need to be pushed away, SLA embraced these natural occurrences with open arms. Because the spaces on the main street and inside the park allowed flood to enter, water settled in designated sunken and planting water pools. This site now has the ability to change its typology depending on the present level of floodwater. As a result of these new green-blue open spaces, the area’s local hot microclimate is improved. The project also unearths new forms of social interactions not only within the community but also the community’s relationship with nature.
The Anthropocene may be an unfamiliar concept to most of us, but it allows a fundamental shift and evolvement of preconceived notions and knowledge on design. It is a concept that architects, designers, and urban planners should be open to as it presents the opportunity to pursue new, innovative solutions to contemporary problems. It is a driving force that calls for more creativity not just for the people in the architecture and design, but all participants of the built environment. The way we design in the Age of Anthropocene encompasses across all disciplines within the realms of politics, economy, humanities, architecture, engineering, science, and technology. The future is not going to be bleak because we’re the most rational beings in the world. Humanity can overcome the obstacles of the Anthropocene. We just need to be smart enough to come together and talk about it.
Romeo Romulo is a Filipino architect living in New York city. He received his Bachelor’s Degree in Architecture from the University of the Philippines and a Master’s Degree in Architecture and Urban Design from the prestigious Pratt Institute in New York. He is interested in how big data and science fiction can influence new building typologies in the Age of Anthropocene.
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