He’s a resilience specialist, at Perkins & Will, no less, active in the firm’s Resilience Lab in Boston, his work focused on water adaptation. But when asked in The Interview below what he recommends cities and citizens do about their rising water challenges, Arlen Stawasz does not default to the latest engineering innovations or strategies.
Nope. Instead, he takes the conversation in another direction entirely.
“We need to be more dynamic in the way we live with water. We need to act like water. We need to be water.”
Whoa. What did he just say?
“We need to be formless and shapeless and go with the ebb and flow of the way our natural systems are working.”
At this point, a few minutes into our talk, I knew I was in for a different take, a throwback, if you will, to my adolescence in the 1970s, the Age of Aquarius, when “being like water” became a philosophy of life.
“We shouldn’t be trying to control our water systems.”
Oh, wow. That really did it. The whole water-adaptation community is in an epic project precisely to reshape water systems in the face of scarcity, quality erosion, flooding, sea level, storm, storm surge and other infrastructure imperatives climate change has forced upon us.
Stawasz is all in on those, to be sure. But he would have his colleagues in the profession throw in a deeper lesson, one I first learned from a philosopher in a different field.
“Be like water making its way through cracks,” said the great Bruce Lee, the 60s & 70s martial arts genius and ponderer. “Do not be assertive, but just adjust to the object. If nothing within you stays rigid, outward things will disclose themselves. Be formless, shapeless. Water can flow, or it can crash. Be water, my friend.”
Stawasz, in fact, points to another thinker, Norwegian Terje Tvedt, a prominent contemporary water expert, author and professor.
“Water is both creator and destroyer in nature and in society,” Tvedt says in Water and Society, his signature work. “It is both a prerequisite for social development and frames what development options are possible at every juncture in time and at every place.”
What are they saying, exactly? Is it what I think they’re saying, perhaps what you think they’re getting at?
Here’s another hint from Stawasz:
“There are no superheroes to save us from these disasters. We need to accept the changes that are coming. We can’t fight it. We need to find ways to live with it, work with it, be flexible, adaptable, be like water. The major barriers are short-term solutions. We need adaptation at multiple levels.”
I know what you’re thinking: that’s not a hint. He’s coming right out and saying it. And the fact is, the impacts climate change will bring appear extremely likely to overwhelm the sturdiest water-infrastructure solutions we can erect.
At a little over 1º Celsius temperature increase thus far, over the historical average, stories of heat waves, droughts and storms become more daunting by the year. Last year, Houston and Puerto Rico grabbed the headlines. Today, it is India and Japan, the latter rocked by a sequence of catastrophic disasters spanning flooding, heat and this week, yet another typhoon, as the people wage a grand battle with taura — Japanese for “many seas, many rivers.”
And with sea levels now expected to permanently flood islands and coasts far sooner than expected, including drowning the large cities that drive the global economy, it is no wonder Stawasz is looking beyond conventional solutions and exploring more timeless answers from Eastern and Native American traditions.
After all, the IPCC now projects we will hit 1.5ºC as early as the 2030s on our way to an unthinkable 3C-4C by century’s end.
That brings Stawasz to a solution that while not construction-based, must be designed nonetheless, thought through, planned and “built” in a human-communal kind of way.
“We are the only species that doesn’t migrate,” he continues. “I can’t think of another solution that can take us to the future. Barriers are a step in that direction, but long term, it’s about being flexible. We need to be dynamic, just like a river works.”
Sure enough, migration is beginning to seep into the conversation in a growing number of locations, where water is clearly limiting the development options that are possible, to paraphrase Tvedt.
A recent and already landmark story by Scientific American gives us the latest. “Retreating from the coasts, in concept or practice, is not popular,” says the story’s author, Jen Schwartz. “To emergency responders, retreat is a form of flood mitigation. To environmental advocates, it’s ecological restoration. To resilience planners, it’s adaptation to climate change. Everyone agrees, however, that retreat sounds like defeat. It means admitting that humans have lost and the water has won.”
Former FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate told me in this recent TRJ interview he doesn’t like to use the word retreat. He and others prefer managed relocation, or some other way to frame the move, as Fugate explains here:
To Stawasz and Tvedt, victory or defeat is a false framing altogether. Rather, we should simply go with the flow and recognize the time has come for vulnerable communities to explore and prepare for a magnitude of migration no amount of construction will manage to stave off.
Still, Stawasz is the first to acknowledge that cities need engineering measures between now and then. The cutting edge thinking on that front is the City Water Resilience Framework, an ongoing multi-year analysis of five cities — Mexico City, Greater Miami, Hull, Amman and Cape Town, the latter featured in this recent Zilient.org article and webinar — conducted by Arup and The Rockefeller Foundation.
“Data and findings will be used to establish qualitative and quantitative indicators to measure city water resilience, for use in any city, anywhere,” says Arup writer Kate Adlington in this article about the initiative.
“The resulting City Water Resilience Framework will be a global standard for water resilience, [enabling] cities to diagnose challenges related to water and utilize that information to inform planning and investment decisions.”
One model Stawasz follows is Dutch Delta Works, the massive water infrastructure program that allows the Netherlands to coexist with the rising oceans.
“Deltas are Earth’s natural way of filtering water, so we need to make a bigger investment in our deltas, and our deltas happen to be our cities.”
He also favors equally massive green infrastructure as a water-resilience pathway.
“We need to build our economy based on our ecology instead of the opposite…to create room for the ecological habitats that once existed in our cities. Our cities could be the biggest ecological environments we have on the planet. There’s research on how nature makes us feel, and it makes us feel great. The more we’re surrounded by nature, the happier we are. So why not invest in nature and create room for [it] to flourish in our cities and allow the built environment to thrive with it.”
But while his work and vision include the physical, his longer-term focus is squarely on the human, the social, the spiritual, including applying new sharing-economy practices and principles to the all-important task of helping people adapt to what infrastructure will eventually not stop.
“There’s a new power in the collective, in participatory action, that will change the way we tackle these issues. It’s a cultural shift that needs to happen. Instead of building enormous infrastructure projects, we need to find a way to take what we have and garden it. We need to all be active in the solution. Resilience starts at an individual level, and we need to respond and act on behalf of the change we want to see.”
Makes you want to hear more, right? Well, you can. Here’s the full conversation: