The list of recent natural disasters appears endless: hurricanes, cyclones, typhoons, earthquakes. The connection between climate change and a greater frequency of climate disasters is becoming increasingly clear. It’s also evident that those most affected by weather-related catastrophe are often already socioeconomically vulnerable groups.

In light of these vulnerabilities, anticipating and planning for crisis and sudden change has become central to thinking about urban environments. The Graduate School of Design is offering a new concentration as a part of the Master in Design Studies Program called “Risk and Resilience.” Interdisciplinary and research-oriented, this track offers students the opportunity to approach spatial planning and design with an emphasis on vulnerability. “Risk and Resilience” is about “developing preemptive strategies for communities and locations susceptible to crisis,” says John J. Aslanian, Assistant Director for Student Life and Recruitment at the GSD.

Risk and Resilience is about redefining problems, about changing the way we think, not just solving problems.

The disparate backgrounds of co-coordinators Diane Davis and Joyce Klein Rosenthal are testament to the program's breadth. Davis, a Professor of Urbanism and Development at GSD, brought an insight into urban violence, especially in developing countries. Rosenthal is an Assistant Professor of Urban Planning and she came with an extensive background in ecological sustainability. Davis stressed that despite the scope, the different kinds of vulnerability involved in the program are often linked. Violence can arise over resources and there is a significant relationship between economic vulnerability and environmental vulnerability.

Student projects highlight the creativity involved in this rather new field of inquiry. In analyzing the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, students found that people were reluctant to go to shelters in the face of disaster, because of associated stigma and unfamiliarity. Their innovative plan was to make a central library into a constant community center that citizens would feel good going to at any time, and especially during times of crisis. The solution points to the importance of social considerations when designing for vulnerability.

“Risk and Resilience” is about redefining problems, about “changing the way we think, not just solving problems,” Davis says. She emphasized the importance of using the strategies of the developing world, where societies are accustomed to vulnerability and thus have more sustainable approaches to dealing with risk.

Joyce Klein Rosenthal was drawn to the program because she was excited to work for something constructive and sustainable. For much of her career in environmental planning, activism, and research, she was focused on negatives rather than positives. A new approach to urban planning is important in dealing with the mass migration and conflict that will result from climate change, she notes.

There are eleven students in the program this year, more than double the number last year. Projects range from dealing with displacement and relocation in the face of environmental changes, to evacuation in vulnerable areas, to urban humanitarian aid planning. The recently launched website spotlights student research. One project analyzes the possible effects of flooding on city transportation. Another deals with creating resilient public housing. First year Master of Design Studies candidate Lindsay Woodson was at the GSD Open House last Friday, and she explained her current research on green infrastructure of vulnerable urban coasts and the implications of coastal systems.

Unlike a typical urban planning program, “Risk and Resilience” is not a professional degree, rather it is focused on research and allows students to mix and match courses. It is intended for architects, humanitarian workers and engineers alike. It provides students with collective projects such as, the Disaster and Recovery project in Chile over J-term, as well as conferences like the “Displaced Peoples Conference,” to foster development of flexible innovations and strategies. 

The threat of climate change, of displacement, conflict and disaster, is drawing innovative minds to rethink the role of planning and design. The GSD Masters Program in “Risk and Resilience” is at the forefront in responding to vulnerabilities.