Dezeen Magazine

A home in Lahaina destroyed by fire

"The design professions are not stepping up to address the wildfires problem"

As wildfires exacerbated by climate change wreak increasing havoc around the world, Greg Kochanowski argues it's time for a different approach.

We now have scientific proof of the ways we have irrevocably changed the territories and climate of this world, putting us on a path where we cannot yet see the ultimate consequences. Wildfires and their negative effects on infrastructure and health are a clear example that more are experiencing worldwide all the time.

The design professions are not stepping up to address the wildfires problem, other than to call for fire-resistant building materials and defensible space. To be sure, these are necessary tactics to be included in any discussion of wildfire response, but are not substitutes for a broader conceptualization of innovative planning, typologies, and disciplinary strategies.

Architecture cannot solve this problem

Architecture cannot solve this problem. In fact, all the individual design professions are incapable of addressing the magnitude of sheer complexity of the climate crisis alone. As much as we need disciplinary expertise, the problem of wildfire, like other climate crises, requires levels of innovation that are not possible to achieve via a single disciplinary orientation.

Thus, what is needed is a new holistic, synthesized, design discipline fusing the ecological systems thinking of landscape architecture, the policy thinking of planning, the cultural and organizational synthetic thinking of architects, and the engineering prowess of civil and environmental engineers.

But this is not enough. Additionally, we need to conceive of a new global narrative or mythology that reinstates the interconnectedness of our planet and the irrelevance of human-centered boundaries, borders, or territories that govern our cultural framing and demarcation separate from the realities of the globe. All design is, or should be, a manifestation of a larger cultural narrative, or zeitgeist, and as such we need to establish a new narrative around the climate crisis that can permeate the human condition towards motivating real change.

Our current crisis has been driven by two main factors: the continued onset of extreme climate conditions and a housing-affordability crisis crippling millions of Americans, including local governments who, due to NIMBYism and local zoning, need to push new housing outside of city centers to comply with state mandates.

My family is not immune to this dynamic. My family lives in the Santa Monica Mountains, north of Malibu, CA, within what is called the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) – a zone of transition between unoccupied land and human development where insurance companies are continuing to drop coverage for homeowners. With housing development continuing to extend into such areas, the WUI is the fastest-growing land condition in the United States, expanding at a rate of 2 million acres per year and containing 46 million homes in the United States at a value of $1.3 trillion.

Our area of Los Angeles has experienced wildfire for millennia, and its flora and fauna have adapted to these conditions over time. We love living amongst nature, and if we did not live in our community, we would not be able to afford the Los Angeles housing market. In 2018 we lost our home in the Woolsey Fire, along with 109 other homes in our community. We have since rebuilt.

We need to stop living in conflict with our environment

Typically, developing or rebuilding within areas of high risk is seen as irresponsible, and most discourse breaks down between binary questions of "retreat" or "remediation".

"Retreat" from these environments has been defined as the responsible thing to do, both individually and societally. But this is tied to one's own personal circumstances: can someone afford to leave? If they were to leave, what is the value of the property left behind, and can that value be recouped if the consensus is these environments should not be lived in?

Conversely, "remediation" is not really the right term to use in this situation, especially if we define it as "the act of reversing or stopping environmental change". The dynamics of wildfire are not systems that can be reversed as much as we can reverse the trajectory of climate change. These are fire-adapted landscapes that have existed for centuries, so the idea of reversal is a misnomer, as there is no idealized state to go back to.

As such, the notion of managed retreat (moving people to areas of less risk) is disingenuous, and more of a political proposition than one based on the realities of the climate, the power of social infrastructure, and belief in the potential of design innovation. Yet, there is a tendency to blame or degrade people living in areas prone to disaster who then choose to rebuild following the destruction of their homes and livelihood.

Various questions arise, such as: where should these people go? Should we abandon our communities, small towns, and cities? Should we forgo living amongst natural environments for hyper-dense tabula rasa mega-structures (i.e. The Line) as a way of "protecting" ourselves from the extreme climate that we have wrought upon ourselves? This mindset reinforces Western civilization's mythological separation of the human condition from the natural world, and the fallacy that we can continue to control natural forces to suit our needs without any consequence, and that there are places with no risk.

Instead, we need to stop living in conflict with our environment. Many cities in the West were born out of a harnessing of resources – the making of a place – instead of co-existing and adapting to found conditions. Indigenous Americans understood the symbiosis between wildlands and humans and, as such, were able to harness fire to their benefit in complex forms of land management and community organization. So too must we rethink the planning, development and stewardship of our built environment to be more symbiotic and adaptive.

This will require us to see natural forces as something to engage with rather than retreat from

Some of these are practical measures that go beyond the design profession's purview but where we must keep engaging to advocate for innovation. We need more housing co-operatives and community land trusts which empower homeowners, establish resilient affordable housing and provide stronger incentives than commercial development to have proper adaptation and recovery strategies. We need innovative insurance models that create public-private consortiums to promote land stewardship and wildfire mitigation. We need planning policies that encourage clustered development surrounded by land and agricultural buffers rather than single-family houses lined up along roads directly adjacent to wildlands.

We need innovative soft infrastructures and development that work with our changing climate – even extreme versions of it. This will require us to see natural forces as something to engage with rather than retreat from, completely altering the way we occupy this planet and think about design. It will demand a rethinking of spatial, political, technological, and economic strategies at a broad range of scales, from the local to the global, as well as a reframing of priorities and how we consider the role of the designer.

The photography, showing a burned home in Lahaina, is by Zane Vergara via Shutterstock.

Greg Kochanowski is partner and design principal at architecture studio GGA+, founder of research lab The Wild, an adjunct professor in the University of Southern California's School of Architecture and a senior lecturer at Otis College of Art and Design.

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