Transform Engineering for a Climate Changed Future – What Role for Reflexive Practice? Linda Shi, Cornell University

Linda Shi, Assistant Professor, Architecture Art Planning, Cornell University and Hanne van den Berg, Urban Adaptation Expert, European Environment Agency

Abstract: These are exciting times for civil and environmental engineers, who have an immense role to play in societal transformation under climate change. Cities, funders, public agencies, and policymakers are increasingly advocating infrastructure projects that mitigate flood risks, especially in the aftermath of disasters. Whether projects are green or grey, we are seeing a resurgence of infrastructure proposals that are large in scale and ambition after decades of more decentralized stormwater management. These projects, nevertheless, respond only to the physical vulnerabilities of place by shifting water from one site to another. Decades of social science research demonstrate that vulnerability to environmental hazards are socially constructed by laws, policies, and politics that together shape a household or communities’ ability to overcome the impacts of a disaster event. From this perspective, major infrastructure works are not only a technical, apolitical, value-neutral proposition, but a physical intervention that reflects and entrenches politics of inequality. In the United States, many have disproportionately benefitted wealthier, whiter, and otherwise more privileged groups, while socially vulnerable groups whose communities were disinvested and neglected for decades have had to relocate to make way for infrastructure - often leaving for other environmentally precarious sites. 

This double-header talk presents concepts of social and spatial justice, and how water management projects have contributed to inequitable social vulnerability to hydrological risks. We then share a case study of how flood management in Houston reflects the tensions in how traditional engineering practices have contributed to inequitable local flood risks, and how engineers there have grappled with questions of equity, justice, and fairness. We argue that engineers have an opportunity and a need to reflect on the epistemological roots of the profession, mainstream modes of analysis, and cultural attitudes towards change and more diverse ways of knowing. 

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Start date
Tuesday, March 30, 2021, 3 p.m.