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Posts from — January 2013

Local and Global Insights on Sea Level Rise

The low levels of Lakes Michigan and Huron have received ample press recently (CNN, National Geographic, FOX, Canada Free Press) as the economic costs of low water levels become more apparent. At the same time, Hurricane Sandy’s aftermath continues to spark debate about how to boost the resilience of coastal cities in an era of rising sea levels and extreme weather events. While I am inspired by the attention that these two environmental shifts are receiving, clear explanations of their causes are hard to find. The role of global climate change in these events can be especially difficult to discern.

A panel last week at the Shedd Aquarium — Social and Biological Impacts of Rising Seas and Reduced Lake Levels – addressed the complexities of sea and lake level projections. Two ecologists, Ben Strauss of Climate Central and Phil Willink of Shedd Aquarium, presented alongside Anthony Oliver-Smith, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Florida. The projections they shared were not exactly uplifting, but their insight was refreshing nevertheless.

Scientists are currently projecting 2-5 ft (0.6-1.5 m) sea level rise by the end of the century, based on several factors:

  • Thermal expansion – As water temperatures rise due to climate change, the water itself expands under increased temperatures. This expansion spread out over the oceans is expected to increase sea levels 1ft per century.
  • Retreat of land-based glaciers – If all the world’s mountain glaciers melted, there would be a 2-3 ft increase in sea level.
  • Ice sheet loss – Greenland and Antarctica are melting faster than previous predictions. From 2004-2007 loss of Greenland’s ice sheet is the area of 14 states, 3 ft thick.
  • Land subsidence and uplift – Some land area are sinking and others are rising. Land can sinks due to groundwater depletion (e.g., Tianjin, China), and the Great Lakes area is recovering from glacier pressure.

SOM’s City Designers who attended found several points and questions especially relevant to the future of the Great Lakes:

  • We must integrate the concept of change into civic planning and management. Natural systems are dynamic, yet people and infrastructure to not adapt well to fluctuations in their environment.  How can we design our cities to be more flexible in the face of ever evolving conditions?
  • Declining lake levels in the Great Lakes Basin reflect a 70 percent decline in ice cover over the last decade, which has led to increased evaporation. Lake Michigan is at an all time low of 6 ft below average. Falling lake levels may drop significantly below the level of the Chicago River, which would require the Army Corps of Engineers to either lower the water level of the Chicago River or re-reverse the flow of the river.
  • We must consider both exposure (geographic, physical) and vulnerability (social construct: poverty, access to resources, coping mechanisms) when considering people’s risk for sea level rise. Developing coastal cities in Asia are some of the most exposed locations and the people moving there some of the most vulnerable. Considering this distinction, we must focus on reducing exposure and vulnerability.
  • Displacement and resettlement due to sea level rise can be considered a secondary disaster if not done properly. People tend to think of resettlement/relocation as a physical process, but we shouldn’t ignore the social impacts of losing relationships and adapting to new places. Social networks are especially crucial for poor people who rely on them for key resources.
  • There are some big unknowns about how sea level rise will cause settlement patterns to change:
    • Will migration be internal or international?
    • Will people move because of severe events or will there be a gradual shift away from coasts?
    • Will individuals or whole communities move?
  • Furthermore, what are the outcomes of mass migration due to climate change?  What areas can take the influx? What will the living conditions be?  What happens to the abandoned places?

Thanks to Shedd Aquarium and the University of Chicago for hosting this relevant and informative event.


January 24, 2013   Comments Off

A Global Model

Mike Welton calls the Great Lakes Century, “a global model of what countries can do to build relationships around water issues.”

Check out Welton’s blog architectsandartisans.com for two new stories about our work. This first post, published yesterday, discusses the impetus for this initiative and the value of cross-boundary collaboration. In the second installment, Welton delves into the importance of planning to protect the resources of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River watershed:

Forty million people depend on the resources of the Great Lakes region, but in recent years a glut of unchecked development along its lakefront has come to mean lower water levels and increased pollution.

To protect the lake system, architects at SOM are calling for a plan shaped by global dialogue between urban designers, scholars, advocates, politicians, students, and Great Lakes area residents.

The firm calls it the “Great Lakes Century – A 100-Year Vision,” and its partner is the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative, a non-profit group made up of 91 mayors from cities in both the U.S. and Canada.

“We want to bring about the long-term economic, environmental and social sustainability of the region,” says David Ulrich, the group’s executive director and a longtime veteran with the EPA.

The initiative was established by former Chicago Mayor Richard Daley in 2003.  “He felt local governments should have a say in decisions regarding the lakes and rivers, with a seat at the table,” he says.  “He wanted to establish best practices, and felt that neither Washington D.C. or Ottawa were focusing on the region.”

Certainly, there’s no shortage of problems in the area.  What started as a concern over water quality, quantity and vitality quickly has evolved into a broader sustainability agenda.

A threat from Asian carp making their way up the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers, already just 50 miles from the Great Lakes, is imminent.  They’re a dominant species that can grow to four feet in length and 100 pounds, and they could bring an end to commercial and sport fishing in the lakes.

“They could destroy a $7 billion fishery,” he says.

Solutions call for stricter control of ballast waters, stricter screening of organisms allowed in, a restriction of their expansion and movement, and most significantly, placing physical barriers into the Chicago waterway system.

It may also mean restoring the natural divide that reversed the flow of the Chicago River in 1900.  “We think that if we restore the flow, the carp will stay in the river,” he says.

The carp are only one of 39 species that threaten the region.  Add to that climate change and six more threats that Ulrich, who calls himself a recovering attorney and an aspiring architect, can tick off at the drop of a hat, and a sense of urgency and a need for cooperation emerges.

“We want to link up the brain power around the basin, rather than compete for the research dollars and the prestige,” he says.

After all, the region represents the fourth largest economy in the world – behind those of the U.S., China and Japan.

January 22, 2013   Comments Off

Great Lakes Mayors Comment on 100-Year Vision

Check out today’s announcement regarding our 2013 Honor Award from the American Institute of Architects. We are thrilled by the feedback from the mayors of Chicago, Milwaukee, Thunder Bay and Quebec City and our collaborators at the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative.

“We have a responsibility to be stewards of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River basin,” SOM Urban Design and Planning Partner Philip Enquist, FAIA, said. “We must design our cities and region to eliminate waste, and rely on more innovative and sustainable development strategies. We can and must ensure fresh water for all future generations.”

Mayor Rahm Emanuel of Chicago, board member of the Cities Initiative, praised the work of SOM and added, “The Great Lakes and St. Lawrence are our Yellowstone Park, and this vision will help people in the region and around the world understand even better what a treasure we have in our front yard.”

Chair of the Cities Initiative and Mayor of Milwaukee Tom Barrett remarked, “By bringing large and small cities together from across the basin, we have been able to think and act much more effectively as a region to tackle the tough problems of invasive species, chemical pollution, beach closures, and much more.  We are also making sure that the economic benefits that come from an abundant fresh water supply, unlimited recreational opportunities, a $7 billionfishery, and other advantages are fully utilized.”

Vice Chair Mayor Keith Hobbs of Thunder Bay, Ontario, noted, “Even though here on the north shore of Lake Superior we are many hundreds of miles away from most of our Canadian and U.S. neighbors, the unifying force of the water is bringing us closer together all the time. It is helping us act much more effectively as a cohesive community to solve the problems we face and make a better future for our children and grandchildren.”

At the far eastern edge of the basin along the St. Lawrence is Quebec City where Mayor Regis Labeaume , secretary treasurer for the Cities Initiative, remarked “When the first French explorers came to what is now Quebec City, little did they realize what a boundless treasure would unfold as they moved up the river to the Great Lakes. Over 400 years later, it is time we do even more to bring about a future that matches the magnitude and quality of the resource we are so fortunate to share.”

“The basin’s mayors are bringing to life a shared vision of a healthy and prosperous region in harmony with nature,” Enquist said, “Executive director Dave Ullrich and the Cities Initiative’s elected leaders have been fantastic partners who are making changes for the better happen from Chicago and Duluth to the Gulf of St. Lawrence.”

January 17, 2013   Comments Off

SOM’s Great Lakes Century Receives AIA’s 2013 Honor Award

The American Institute of Architects (AIA) recently recognized the Great Lakes Century Vision as a distinguished achievement that expands the role of the architect in urban design, regional and city planning, and community development. It is an incredible honor to recieve the 2013 award for regional and urban design.

Here is what the AIA jury had to say:

This is a strong environmental vision for an important global natural asset. There is power in the grand scale and how it looks at regional sustainability less in terms of direct environmental protection and more in terms of a transformational shift to a green regional economy catalyzed by high speed rail connectivity.

This is a compelling effort that promotes international coordination around critical issues and necessary thinking if we are ever to address the environmental consequences of regional development. As more global attention is being paid to the scale and issues of the mega-region, this approach to examining the interconnected environmental, social, and design issues across jurisdictions offers a great precedent for practice in the future.

It’s wonderfully responsible that this is being sponsored on this scale and scope. It is a call for larger scale action and vision. These are the issues that architects, planners and urban designers should be focusing on.

We are thrilled to have Editor in Chief of Metropolis Magazine, Susan S. Szenasy, celebrate this award!


January 14, 2013   Comments Off

Metropolis Magazine’s Game Changer in Planning: The Great Lakes Century

Philip Enquist, Partner in charge of Skimore, Owings & Merrill’s global city design practice, was recently featured in Metropolis Magazine as a game changer in planning for “envisioning a future for the (Great Lakes) region that would make Daniel Burnham proud.”

SOM’s Great Lakes Century team is thrilled by this honor!

Read the full feature here: http://www.metropolismag.com/story/20130109/game-changers-planning-the-great-lakes-century


January 9, 2013   Comments Off

Aquam Perdemus

In his book Geography of Time: On Tempo, Culture, and the Pace of Life, author Robert Levine dedicates some early chapters to a historical understanding of time in an attempt to shed light on its current and varied perception in modern societies across the world. As with any deft historical account, Levine’s book naturally touches on a number of less obvious bedfellows of time, including water.

As Levine notes, ancient time measuring devices lacked the degree of granularity necessary to track the passing seconds, minutes, and hours of their ancient creators. The advent of sun dials, hour glasses, and water clocks – the sky, earth, and water trifecta of the ancient temporal world – some 5,500 years ago brought the passing of those ancient days into much sharper focus. Water clocks and hour glasses, in particular, also allowed for a revolutionary and meaningful division of nighttime, which had until then occupied the dark hours beyond the reach of the sun’s marching shadows.

The Aral Sea, once one of the world’s four largest lakes, has steadily atrophied as a result of water diversion for irrigation projects beginning in the 1960s. (NASA Earth Observatory)

Not surprisingly, the material matter so vital to the measuring of time soon became entwined with time itself. According to Levine, ancient Roman lawyers would commonly request that a judge “aquam dare,” or give water, when beseeching more time for the development of a defense. Conversely, a lawyer might refer to a measure that could cause one to “aquam perdere,” or lose water, when referring to time lost in a case. Practically speaking, water had become a proxy for time; conceptually, time had become water, flowing and finite.

As we look out over the next 100 years of the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River basin we might be well served to adopt this sort of conceptual entanglement. Unlike alarming calls to action that equate water to the next oil – a finite resource that may be essential to our way of life, but not necessarily to life itself – the progressive loss of fresh, uncontaminated water is a sort of water clock for all types of life, human and otherwise: as it runs down, so too do we. When “aquam perdemus” – when we lose water – we also undermine the perpetuation of the improbable and fragile experiment that is life on Earth.

January 8, 2013   Comments Off