Planning for Climate Change: Scarcity, Abundance, and the Idea of the Future

Climate change presents a range of complex challenges for urban planning and design. This class will explore the conditions planners face in response to the material and social impacts of climate-impacted places – sea level rise, extreme weather events, intensified conflicts over water rights, climate refugees, loss of livelihoods and other economic stressors, to name a few – as well as ask what responsibility rests on our shoulders to use the tools of planning and design to mitigate climate change?

We will approach anthropogenic climate change as a specific case of an older and broader challenge: How should planners design settlements to be flexible and responsive to changing environments? How can planning foster healthier relationships between people and non-human nature? To this end, we will examine moments of existential environmental crises in the past (e.g. the American Dust Bowl), explore the role that planners played in addressing these crises, and consider how global climate change poses fundamentally new problems. We will also explore the long history of climate predictions and their changing relevance over time. What should we make, for example, of calls to switch to new energy regimes in the 1920s, or of solar building designs in the 1950s?

Thinking about the ways in which scientifically-based warnings of scarcity have been ignored and/or mobilized over time, we will explore the politics of climate change, including the evolution of climate change discourse and the implications of current politics for planners. We will consider how the vocabulary of climate planning (sustainability, adaptation and mitigation, resilience, the Anthropocene) has been used and contested, and how different climate futures have been envisioned and evoked in different contexts relevant to planning and design.

This critical perspective on climate change planning as a necessary but politically fraught endeavor will bring us to the question of how planners should approach climate change data. How should we interpret models and predictions as the basis for action? How should we interpret and represent scientific uncertainty in practice? How can we determine which precautionary measures are most urgent?