New YSoA seminar tackles questions of inequality and climate change

A new, university-wide seminar brought together graduate, professional, and undergraduate students to research and develop an online platform to facilitate migration through an exchange of needs, and to explore the numerous exchange networks that exist for agricultural or environmental information. The class addressed migrations related to both climate and labor, among other topics.

What lessons can Saitama, a heavily populated and commercialized city in Japan, have for Hamilton, a tiny town situated along the Skagit River in Washington State?

The answer, according to students in a new Yale School of Architecture (YSoA) seminar, lies in a technique called land readjustment, which can be used for a number of purposes, from urban planning — which took place in Saitama — to the reshaping of a landscape to prevent further destruction and migrations from flooding — which could be used in Hamilton.

In the case of land readjustment in Hamilton, plots of land adjacent to the at-risk area would be pooled together, redeveloped, and then redistributed back to the original owners. The parcel given back to the land owner may be of a smaller size, but is of greater value because it is removed from the risk of the environmental hazards, and the population in that area would no longer be at risk of relocation due to a deteriorating landscape.

The students researching land readjustment were part of a university-wide, cross-disciplinary seminar titled “MANY: Facilitating Migration Through an Exchange of Needs.” The seminar was designed to bring together students with different skills and experiences to work on a project already underway. Graduate, professional, and undergraduate students researched and developed an online platform that facilitates migration through an exchange of needs, and explored the numerous exchange networks that exist for agricultural or environmental information. The class was divided up into teams that addressed migrations related to both climate and labor, among other topics.

MANY: Facilitating Migration Through an Exchange of Needs” was initially created as an online platform — or app — in 2017 by Keller Easterling, professor and director of the Master of Environmental Design Program at YSoA, along with a small cohort of faculty and students from architecture, computer science, and graphic design.

Global infrastructure space has perfectly streamlined the movements of billions of products and tens of millions of tourists and cheap laborers, but at a time when over 68 million people in the world are displaced, there are still so few ways to handle political, economic, or environmental migrations,” says Easterling, who was awarded a USA Fellowship, in part for her work on the MANY platform, a beta version of which was exhibited at the U.S. Pavilion of the 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale “The Dimensions of Citizenship.” (See related story.)

The purpose of the “MANY” seminar is to compile practical research and divergent viewpoints about migration, but also to give students an opportunity to rehearse the social and political entrepreneurialism necessary to realize the projects they envisioned. In the seminar, the app was used to further research two topics: inequality and climate change. “In one way or another, in all of our disciplines, these topics engage most of our work,” says Easterling.

The seminar was also an opportunity to further some of the ongoing research on related topics by individual students in their senior essays, dissertations, and theses.

This course seemed to be the perfect organ to allow students to rehearse what it really takes to realize such a project — all of the contacts you have to make, all of the research that you have to do, all of the ways you have to test weaknesses in the idea, what it’s like to have your ideas rejected. ‘MANY’ is trying to prompt change in spatial, legal, and social realms,” says Easterling.

The Yale School of Architecture as a school of design wants to be a crossroads for this kind of activism at the university,” she adds.

The students on the land readjustment team imagined a potential information exchange between the tiny hamlet of Hamilton and Saitama, the capital and the most populous city of Saitama Prefecture in Japan. Saitama is a leading expert on land readjustment, and has had upwards of 40% of its properties redeveloped and redistributed. Hamilton is actively trying to relocate from its flood-prone downtown to an area at a higher elevation.

Participatory land readjustment is a proactive strategy that is well established in other parts of the world, and is a blueprint that communities could use to facilitate climate resiliency — in particular, retreat from areas that are at high risk for damage from climate impacts, explains Katie McConnell, doctoral student at Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. “While it hasn’t to my knowledge been used in a climate adaptation context, land readjustment seems to offer a blueprint for reconfiguring the built environment so that it is less vulnerable to environmental hazards,” she adds.

To this end the MANY platform could be used to connect individuals or communities that are trying to move away from climate-impacted areas with other communities or organizations that have specific expertise and success with land readjustment,” says McConnell.

In addition to the land readjustment project, students in the course explored topics related to the graying, or aging, of the construction labor force. The entire global population is aging. People who have the skills and expertise in construction are retiring, and that knowledge is not being passed on, explains Michelle Badr, M.Arch I candidate. “There has been an increase in secondary education, and parents and students alike are valuing higher education over vocational and technical training. Also, the United States has seen an increase in migrant labor — 42% of the current construction labor workforce is composed of migrant workers.”

The team researched how the MANY platform could help reinvigorate the construction industry and alleviate the divide in the vocational workforce. “We hope that we can elevate the value of construction work at large and shift societal thinking when it comes to construction,” says Badr.

The team determined that while new construction leads to overdevelopment and negative environmental impacts, renovation and deconstruction are innovative ways of bettering the existing building stock. “Taking a building apart is very educational. It’s one of the best ways to get on-the-ground training, learn how buildings are put up, and bring unskilled migrant labor to a highly skilled level,” notes Badr.

Miami was identified by the group as an area that can benefit from deconstruction. Rising sea levels there are jeopardizing coastal residential and commercial waterfront properties, resulting in a decrease in value for them. A partnership — or exchange — between the city of Miami and construction companies specializing in deconstruction would be beneficial, says Badr. Deconstruction would involve salvaging the material from the existing homes that are on the coast and at risk for rising sea level damage, and relocating and reconstructing the homes elsewhere on higher ground.

One of the biggest takeaways from the seminar for Badr was learning to be both strategic and entrepreneurial. “The course breaks down large systems by jumping scales from a one-to-one level to a global network, and challenges students to question how they can contribute to social change. For me, this translates to ‘What is an architect’s role in society? How can we leverage design and planning skills to solve global issues?’”

For the students’ final project, Easterling asked the teams to invite outside experts to critique their ideas. “I particularly enjoyed watching my students act as advocates. They were so good  at it. I was really proud of them,” she says.

Both Badr and McConnell agree that the cooperative nature of the “MANY” seminar was the most impactful aspect of the course.

Keller pushed us to go beyond our academic silos and reach out to organizations, community members, and experts that shed insight on our work. This is probably the most critical skill learned in the course — collaboration on all levels,” says Badr. “Gaining a deep understanding of systems and learning how to broadcast your projects to the world at large are invaluable skills. These broad interdisciplinary courses equip students with purpose, diverse perspectives, and means to tackle global issues beyond Yale.”

For McConnell, working with students across disciplines has allowed her to better contextualize her research and has enabled her to start thinking about future collaborations. “After finishing my degree, I imagine I will end up working broadly in the area of climate adaptation. Adaptation will necessarily involve the built environment, so I know I will be working with architects and planners. It’s been great to start working with them here at school, rather than staying siloed in just one academic department.”

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Bess Connolly: elizabeth.connolly@yale.edu, 203-432-1324