Miami Beach

"The more we build in areas that endanger us, the more we erect defensive systems"

Disasters like Hurricanes Harvey and Irma are inevitable when we construct cities in harm's way, says Aaron Betsky, who believes we have designed ourselves into a Catch-22 of create and protect.

It could have been worse. That is the best you can say about the twin natural catastrophes that hit Texas and Florida recently. The question remains: in how far did design and planning both put more people in harm's way and helped prevent a higher toll of death and destruction?

The answer is both: the design profession's focus on minimising harm that its own decisions, large and small, threaten to bring on, was on full display.

This is most obvious at the biggest scale. Most of Florida is – or was – swamp and mangrove forests, with barrier islands helping to mitigate the sea's furry. By turning it into the home of tens of millions of people and building their homes and business on those swamps and barriers, we are inviting a disaster that the removal of nature's defences only makes worse.

The same is true in Texas, where the bayous have been channeled, the porous prairies have been turned into asphalt, and one of the world's largest and dirtiest industrial ports has been put directly in harm's way.

What prevented the results from being worse than they could have been, especially in Florida, was improvements in both information services and building codes. Even trailer parks are now better able to withstand hurricanes, and millions of people got themselves out of harm's way in time.

Helped by a little luck in the storm's track and the particular direction of water flows that lessened a threatened storm surge, Hurricane Irma left the state remarkably unscathed.

Extreme weather events highlight the intrinsic contradiction in the way we approach design

In Houston, the toll was higher, partially because Texas and most of its municipalities take a more laissez-faire attitude towards planning and codes. While it is debatable whether any degree of planning would have helped when some of the highest rainfall totals ever recorded in the continental United States deluged the area, those people who built on higher land or elevated their houses remained relatively unscathed.

Similarly, the hospitals and cultural institutions that were built on slightly higher ground (also the territory usually occupied by the wealthy) and had robust defence and back-up systems did not see their operations affected in any significant way.

These extreme weather events highlight, as such limit cases often do, the intrinsic contradiction in the way in which we approach design: we create situations where we might harm ourselves, and then design for risk mitigation.

That is true in the case of even products, where the border between ergonomics or human factors design and harm prevention is often difficult to find. It is not just chainsaws, which put superior chopping and cutting firepower at our fingertips, thus creating the very real possibility that we might lose these digits, that need design ingenuity in order to ensure that we keep those digits.

We have to make sure the lithium batteries in our computer can't explode or, if they do, that they will not explode the airplanes in which that occurs. We let ourselves have beverages that are too hot to drink and then design ways to make sure we don't burn our mouths.

We create situations where we might harm ourselves, and then design for risk mitigation

These examples might seem trivial because they are so small, but we repeat these defensive design strategies every day wherever we are. At a larger scale, we design high-rises that put us in places where a fire, let alone an earthquake, leaves us little escape, and then devote a significant amount of space, money, and design time, to building in redundant escape methods.

That is an obvious example, but what about the importation of human-made materials that make even our low-rise spaces look good, cheap to build, and efficient. We now know we never should have used asbestos or lead-based paint, but what will we find out tomorrow about the materials we use today?

So we create testing laboratories and build more coverings and ventilation systems into our buildings to try to prevent possible dangers, devise labels with ever larger and more complex warnings, and continue to improve our graphics to help us figure out how to get out.

At the scale of communities and regions, we put ourselves at risk in the most obvious manner possible, by building in flood planes, and removing wetlands and natural barriers, but also by building in forests that burn periodically, on top of earthquake fault lines, or even in areas with few natural resources such as water.

The more we build in areas that endanger us, the more we erect defensive systems, cocooning ourselves in air conditioning on top of water supply systems that pipe our lifeblood from hundreds of miles away in vulnerable pipelines and on earthquake dampers, buying water rights, engaging in xeriscaping, raising ourselves on platforms above flood planes, and following the smartest of the little piggies by building out of ever more solid materials.

Since seeing what a hurricane such as Sandy can do, the New York region has invested billions in expanding its water defences in the hope that it can continue to occupy its former wetlands, islands, and other vulnerable areas for as long as possible while sea levels rise.

Design is an attempt to protect us from our thoughtless actions

That is not why designers think they exist or do what they do. We often think of design as making some thing or some place better. We even dream that we are stacking up the building blocks for utopia. In reality, what we are doing is engaging in defence.

Design is an attempt to protect us from our thoughtless actions, but also from the situations our architects, planners, and designers have created.

Should we accept the notion that design is risk mitigation and that paranoia rather than aesthetics or "problem solving" is its true driving force? I am afraid I do not see much alternative, except in the realm of that much-derided notion of theoretical design.

If we can show alternatives to the way we design, build, and plan today, from building with the land rather on it, to creating artefacts that extend, rather than replace, our own faculties, we might get closer to design as something of faith and wonder.

Yet, we should remember: every act we as humans do to make ourselves more comfortable, extend the space we control, or reshape the world in our image puts us at risk.

It is only when the scale of that risk becomes large enough to catch the attention of our global culture – itself perhaps our most complex design triumph and biggest threat to our well-being – that we recognise the hole or hellish Tower of Babel we have designed for ourselves.