Feature image shows the town of Wilmington, VT, during Tropical Storm Irene in 2011. Photo by Eric Craven.

At Conway, we listen to scientists: we listen when they tell us that the actions of human beings fundamentally changed the climate. We know that changes in climate already affect and will continue to affect access to clean water, food, and shelter. The scale of the climate change problem and the threat it poses for human health and biodiversity is unprecedented and intimidating. In response, some people deny this reality: to reduce anxiety and panic, they pretend the problem does not exist. Others lose hope and become despondent, or find themselves in a state of paralysis. Given the weight of this topic, it might seem strange that a chapter of a new book about disaster research and environmental crisis focuses on the role of beauty in climate change mitigation and adaptation.

Disaster Research and the Second Environmental Crisis, edited by James Kendra, Scott G. Knowles, and Tricia Wachtendorf, evolved from workshop discussions within the Disaster Research Center of the University of Delaware upon its 50th anniversary. (The Center was founded during the environmental crisis of the 1960s.) The volume addresses a range of topics related to the contemporary environmental crisis, from mental barriers to taking action in response to climate change to the disruptive effects of well-intentioned recovery programs. To this discussion, the three authors of the chapter, “Beautiful and Safe Landscapes for Sustainable Disaster Risk Reduction”, Fausto Marincioni, Cristina Casareale, and Kenneth Byrne (the Conway School’s Academic Director), add a conversation about the need for projects aiming to reduce disaster risk to be inspiring, comfortable, and culturally relevant to the community that occupies that landscape. They argue that projects that do not respond to both the environmental and social conditions of the community will likely fail to gain support and/or be stewarded by those communities.

The authors acknowledge that the question of beauty, comfort, and relevance is complicated. Within each community is a diversity of perspectives on “what constitutes a beautiful landscape” (106). However, taking the time to engage in these conversations, to identify the narratives embedded into the landscape and understand the components of a local identity, holds the promise of generating disaster risk reduction proposals that are not so unfamiliar and threatening as to paralyze community members into inaction.

The Conway School student team mapped floodplain, vacant buildings, impervious surfaces, building uses, and other layers of analysis to identify opportunities for increasing resiliency.

The chapter references a previous Conway School student project (by Renee LaGue and Kimberly Smith), in which students developed proposals for a small Vermont village located largely within a river floodplain. Many buildings were recently damaged by a severe flood event. Rather than entering the community and proposing complete, immediate abandonment of the village center, the team spent several weeks conducting research on existing ecological, physical, and cultural conditions. They held community meetings, and explored a range of solutions including making interventions within the floodplain–such as designing flood-appropriate public spaces, reducing impervious surfaces, and increasing water storage capacity–and changing zoning regulations to encourage dense development, over time, outside of the floodplain in an area near the village center. Rather than selecting this location arbitrarily, the students worked with the community to develop criteria for not only the village location, but also the form of the village itself. The students integrated elements of the village’s sense of place, such as walkability. The authors cite University of Michigan Professor Joan Nassauer, FASLA:

In Joan Nassauer’s terms, it is essential to be attentive to cultural sustainability, to frame ecologically healthy environments in terms that are familiar and acceptable to human communities: ‘Landscapes that evoke the sustained attention of people—that compel aesthetic experience—are more likely to be ecologically maintained in a world dominated by humans.’

Within the chapter’s conclusion, the authors present the term environmental aesthetics principles. Grounding bold proposals for disaster risk reduction–bold because the scale of these solutions responds to the scale of the problem–in the community’s identity and perception of place has the potential to increase the support and success of these proposals by enriching them with the specifics of the landscape. Across the U.S. and around the world, many landscape interventions aim to beautify the landscape without consideration for long term safety and stability in the face of climate change. At the same time, projects are also proposed that take pragmatic, engineered responses to climate change threats without considering impacts on local ecologies and communities. “Beautiful and Safe Landscapes” encourages us to merge these two approaches, creating safe, inspiring landscapes for communities that have long occupied them.

The Conway School student team produced designs for a new village center located outside of the floodplain.