Urban Design Program Focuses on Climate Change and Social Justice

February 21, 2017
Oyster living breakwaters ecosystem

Associate Professor Kate Orff’s Oyster-tecture is a plan to bring oysters back to New York Harbor. Oysters filter water and form reefs that can buffer against storm surges. The project, expected to be completed by 2019, will create bays to host finfish, shellfish and lobsters while reducing erosion. It will also serve as an environmental education site. Courtesy of Kate Orff

As cities worldwide attempt to redefine the relationship between urban ecology and design in response to a changing climate, landscape architect Kate Orff is approaching her work as a synthesis of art, science, nature, climate and community.

“We try to teach our students not only design-thinking methods, but also how to apply these skills directly,” said Orff, an associate professor at the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation and director of the school’s Urban Design Program. “They learn how to improve people’s everyday lives through sustainable, interconnected systems—housing, mobility, landscape, affordability and access.”

Since 2015, when she became director of the Urban Design Program, Orff has worked to revamp the curriculum by shifting focus to this grassroots approach to design. Over the course of three semesters, students are taught to look critically at all aspects of the urban environment, to see design as a problem-solving tool and cities as living investigative labs.

“Kate Orff is rethinking cities in relation to environmental and infrastructural concerns,” said Amale Andraos, dean of the Architecture School. “Her practice and teaching are framing new critical concepts as well as pioneering design strategies, new modes of implementation and testing of actionable design outcomes.”

The Urban Design Program is structured to allow students to conduct research outside the classroom. In the summer, students examine the environmental, demographic, cultural, political and architectural aspects of New York City neighborhoods. In the fall, they investigate the Hudson River Valley.

Since 2014, students have focused on the cities of Newburgh and Poughkeepsie, N.Y. Their research has included discussions with residents and representatives of local organizations and government offices, and is on display in Poughkeepsie’s Mid-Hudson Heritage Center. Student proposals for a food hub and transitional housing for homeless people who suffer from mental illness have attracted the attention of local officials, who are working to advance these projects.

In January, faculty and students visited Jordan and India to study the relationship between water and urbanization, focusing on migration, growth and resource conflicts. In collaboration with the Columbia Global Center and Studio X, the school’s international design lab—both of which have affiliates in Amman, Jordan—students investigated how agriculture in the Jordan River Valley and industry and tourism in the Dead Sea region relate to Amman’s water footprint. “It’s equal parts vision, civil engineering and sociology,” Orff said.

They studied similar issues in Kolkata, India, which sits on the banks of the Hooghly River and is close to the Sunderbans, a 4,000-square-mile UNESCO World Heritage site that is both the delta of four rivers and one of the largest tidal mangrove forests in the world. Rapidly rising sea levels and increasing storm severity put millions of Kolkata’s poorest residents at risk. “This is the front line of climate migration—and our ability to anticipate and design large scale climate response,” Orff said.

Like many Columbia architecture professors, Orff has her own design practice, SCAPE, which she founded in 2007, the year she arrived on campus. She captured public attention in 2010 with Oyster-tecture, a plan to bring oysters back to New York Harbor; the oysters filter water and form reefs that can buffer against storm surges.

After Hurricane Sandy in 2012, the idea, known as Living Breakwaters, became part of a $60 million federally funded program off Staten Island’s south shore after it won Rebuild by Design, the New York State Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery’s waterfront resiliency competition. The project, expected to be completed by 2019, will create bays to host finfish, shellfish and lobsters while reducing erosion and buffering against strong wave action. It will also serve as an environmental education site.

In April, Orff will discuss the critical role that cities play in shaping the agenda on climate change as part of a public panel with New York Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman, who teaches a seminar on global cities and climate change at the Architecture School. Weiping Wu, professor of urban planning, and Adam Freed, a principal at Bloomberg Associates consultancy and former deputy director of the New York City Mayor’s Office of Sustainability, will round out the discussion. Climate response and social justice are the issues that underpin all of her work at Columbia, Orff said.

“We have students from all around the globe who each bring incredible creative energy and diversity of perspectives to bear on the world’s most pressing issues,” she said. “We teach them how to build not only physical urban landscapes, but also how to build connected communities.”

—By Eve Glasberg