Climate Adaptation Projects Are Already Creating Tough Choices

Oct 10, 2019

An alternative approach to problem solving called design thinking may be able to help policymakers reduce the social cost of climate adaptation.

Leaders from the largest cities around the world are gathered in Denmark this week for the C40 Cities conference. They’re exploring how city governments can tackle the problem of climate change.

Here in Hawaii, a project designed to protect parts of urban Honolulu from climate-related flooding has sparked community disagreement. The Ala Wai Flood Control Project has been heralded by elected officials at all levels of government as a way to protect some of Hawaii’s most valuable real estate from a devastating flood.

But many residents in affected areas remain skeptical of a plan put forth by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. It’s a problem that will continue to plague large-scale climate adaptation projects, which will likely increase in number and scale in coming decades.

In his 2019 State of the City Address, Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell warned that as sea levels rise, some communities on Oahu will likely have to retreat from the coastline. But in other areas, infrastructure will be hardened, making those neighborhoods more capable of withstanding events like flooding.

Across the country, local leaders are facing the prospect of undertaking massive infrastructure projects, all in preparation for the rising seas and severe weather predicted in the coming decades.

On Oahu, coastal roads from Haleiwa to Hau’ula are already threatened by erosion. And some Honolulu neighborhoods experience flooding during King Tides.

Adapting to the new reality will force elected officials to make tough choices like condemning private property and altering recreational areas.

But how do you design a project with the potential to seriously impact so many people? According to Patrick Sullivan, the founder of the local design firm Oceanit, our whole approach to design needs to change.

“The way these projects get introduced and the way they get solved has to evolve,” he told HPR.

Sullivan is a licensed engineer whose firm has been hired by the Honolulu City Council to explore alternative options for the Ala Wai flood protection system. The stakes are significant. The area is home to 200,000 residents and includes $9 billion in real estate and infrastructure.

Sullivan says with so much on the line, a new design approach is needed.

“This is a problem we're going to be living with in the modern world and it's not really addressed in traditional approaches of planning and architecture,” Sullivan said.

He champions a problem solving method called design thinking; a five-step process that begins with “empathize” as the starting point. In the case of a major infrastructure project, that means a lot of listening sessions to identify concerns within the communities that be affected by the project.

At one of its early community meetings, Sullivan didn’t even bring engineers. He says modern citizens no longer accept an engineering-first approach that leaves them out of the design process.

“In the absence of information, they assume the worst. I think there's this need for communication and in that communication will come this whole process of evaluating things.”

But communication needs to flow in both directions.

Honolulu’s Chief Resilience Officer, Josh Stanbro, says that citizens need to get involved at every step of the process by attending community meetings and speaking to elected representatives. He encourages everyone to take a holistic view not just how they’re impacted, but also how they impact others.

“Stand in the footsteps of folks all the way makai, midway, and then all the way at the top of the watershed. Look down at your neighbors, look up at your neighbors and try to take the perspective of ‘From where I stand at this spot, what would I need? What would I want? And what would I expect from my neighbors?’”

The design thinking approach may represent a substantial, and potentially uncomfortable, change for engineering-first designers. But the alternative, as the city is seeing with the Ala Wai project, is gridlock, distrust and inaction.

With the Army Corps of Engineers estimating damages of $1.14 billion from a 100-year storm event in the Ala Wai watershed, inaction is something the city can hardly afford.