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(Bio) Diversity as key driver in adaptive capacity of Urban Landscapes

Shared Value Creation through Integrated Systems Design. Exploring the case of the Port Authority Bus Terminal, Manhattan.


With last year’s record high temperatures and droughts in the USA the general public seems to catch on to the fact that climate change is upon us[1]. Coupled with the recent superstorm Sandy and hurricane Irene (2011) the estimated damages run into the multiple 10’s of Billions of $’s. The resulting economic, ecological and socio cultural loss is undeniable not only for individual citizens but also for businesses and society as a whole.

Time Square View (by Noemie Benoit)

Time Square View (by Noemie Benoit)

As an illustration of the potential effect superstorm Sandy has on New York City, Michael Kimmelman[2] identified the persisting vulnerability to hurricanes as a threat to the economic resilience of New York City, leading to the closure of small businesses, and the relocation of financial power houses, like Goldman Sachs.

The design for the ‘Ecological Productive Infrastructures of the Port Authority Bus Terminal in 2030’ is exploring an integrated systems approach to sustainable design for the built environment. Started as an exploration on how to refocus the architectural designer into a role of addressing ‘real’ issues, the design question developed from ‘Design a new transportation hub’ into “How can the PABT support life in an ever-changing world”?

The design strategy for the PABT integrates a man-made infrastructure with a natural infrastructure and focuses on root cause mitigation of climate change, improving system resilience and absorption capacity, and improving well-being.

Which steps are then necessary to turn this thought-provoking design into a reality? Is a design solution, integrating man-made and natural elements and focused on diversity, a viable alternative to conventional ‘single issue’ solutions, aimed at ‘blocking out the water’? Does the creation of additional real value from an economic, ecological and socio cultural standpoint outweigh the added complexity? What is this additional value?

The ‘Shared Value Stakeholder Proposition’, developed with the design for the PABT, is a tool aimed at exploring these questions. The qualitative model allows a range of PABT stakeholders to understand which design features support their mission, and what value is ‘generated’. It is a first step to understand how the new PABT supports life, and helps to pinpoint how solutions not only protect us but also deliver other values that make the investments worth further consideration.

The Brooklyn Bridge Park Pier 6 salt marsh, designed by Michael van Valkenburgh Ass., is an interesting example of how natural elements can increase absorption capacity, while creating a wealth of other (recreational and other) benefits.  An inspection after hurricane Sandy showed the park survived with hardly a scratch, proving the value of installing natural edges along waterfronts[3]. In contrast, the engineered fortifications on Sandy Beach, have been proven to contribute to the permanent loss of beach sand, requiring even higher walls for ongoing protection[4].

Given the damage sustained, and the massive investments that conventional solutions require, the challenge seems not to be about money. Also technology is not the issue, given the wealth of studies and design proposals available. The challenge here seems to be to connect all relevant stakeholders to the benefits or value that an integrated design, like that for the PABT, brings.

A basic understanding of the underlying design principles of the project helps to better understand the structure, content and outcomes of the Shared Value Stakeholder Proposition’. The key elements for building a ‘Shared Value Stakeholder Proposition’ are stakeholder analysis and ecosystem services[5], as a starting point for identifying ‘value’, and the PABT design features.

Design Vision and Starting Points

Conceived as an interface between a man-made and a natural infrastructure (i.e. a bus terminal and a wetland), the design for the PABT supports life by focusing on three goals: (1) mitigate root causes, (2) improve system resilience and (3) improve well-being[6].

Root Cause Mitigation

Given the ‘real’ issues we are facing as a result of climate change, (architectural) design should move beyond addressing symptoms, and address root causes. Keeping the water out with a technological solution does not make sense if the solutions itself is part of the problem and aggravates the issue in the long run. Designing for root cause mitigation takes a more holistic view on climate change.

While it is hard to provide exact scientific proof of the contribution of our human activities to the ecological issues witnessed, there is shared scientific consensus that our western, globalized, material consumption society is likely to play a significant role in the climate and natural changes we are experiencing.

In contrast to the ‘business as usual’ attitude expressed by President Obama (“we will rebuild all ravaged neighborhood to pre-Sandy conditions), a smarter approach is needed. Rebuilding to pre-storm conditions does not address the root cause, it is not focused on increasing adaptive capacity, nor will it prevent similar damage in future storm conditions.

We need to look at nature for answers. Our current ‘dominate and exploit’ approach to nature and the biosphere to further the development of our man-made world[7] begs reconsideration. Design can play a pivotal role in forming a balanced co-existence[8] between the natural and man-made world, where both support and enhance each other in a positive way. Finding new combinations and interfaces of man-made and natural objects is one of the driving forces behind the design for the PABT.

Systems + Resilience

In addition to root cause mitigation, the design for the PABT supports life by protecting it from the immediate effects of climate change by improving the resilience of the surrounding human and natural/biological systems that support it.

Systems, like ecosystems, economic systems and socio cultural systems are basically networks of connections and interactions between actors within those systems generating certain functional outcomes. They support life in the broadest sense, by providing the ingredients for actors (humans, flora, fauna) to thrive. Climate change is causing the functioning of these systems to change at an increasing speed and in unanticipated directions.

A resilient (eco)system has the capacity to absorb shocks and surprises and, if damaged, to rebuild itself. [9] Functional redundancy is one element that allows a(n) (eco)system to cope with disturbances and shocks (such as storms, floodings and pollution) without shifting into a qualitatively different state.

Many researchers and authors have pointed out the interdependencies between ecological, economic and social cultural system functioning, including Paul Gilding[10]. He describes the reciprocal and intricate relationship in the development of these systems. Simply put, good ecology gives good economy and good socio cultural conditions. Bad ecology means bad economy and bad socio cultural conditions.

(Bio) diversity of system actors and their connections has been identified as a key driver of resilience[11],[12]. Homogeneous (i.e. low diversity) systems, with their constrained functional redundancy, are susceptible to changes in the context. Critical system functioning may be impaired by the loss of a limited set of (natural) actors or connections generating these functions.

To illustrate this with an example, consider the combination of a wetland with an existing sewage system. Two systems (one natural, one man-made) work together to create a functional redundancy, thereby supporting system integrity. The natural retention of rain and flood water allows the man-made sewage systems to function effectively without peak condition dimensions. Simultaneously it facilitates ecological diversity, the continuation of daily social and economic life, food production and prevents local urban overheating.

Well Being

Supporting human life, as a result, means healthy and diverse ecological, economic and socio cultural support systems, generating the necessary functional output. The notion of Ecosystem services[13] allows us to identify the value the design for the PABT brings. Ecosystem Services are services central to human life, and consists of supporting services, like nutrient cycling and primary production, provisioning services, like food, water and energy, regulating services, like carbon sequestration and water purification and retention, and cultural services, like cultural and spiritual inspiration and scientific discovery. We (humans) depend on all these services to be available to us, but it also implies a healthy ecosystem to be able to generate them.

The design for the PABT 2030 is a physical expression of these three different concepts, by re-imagining the man made, single purpose, bus infrastructure into a co-existing relationship with a natural infrastructure, the wetland. Nature supports and enhances Human existence and vice versa.

The Shared Value Stakeholder Proposition

Does an ‘integrated model’ like the design for the PABT have a convincing story to tell? Is a design strategy based aimed at mitigation of root causes of climate change, improving resilience of ecological, economic, and socio cultural systems, and well-being of ‘life’ a model that is worth serious consideration? Are the benefits tangible enough to warrant further exploration?

In answering these questions we focused on three sets of variables, 1) the stakeholders of the PABT, 2) the value sought by these Stakeholders, and 3) the design features providing this value.  Figure 1 shows the outcome of this analysis.

Ecosystem Business Model / Port Authority Bus Terminal in 2030 (by Noemie Benoit)

Ecosystem Business Model / Port Authority Bus Terminal in 2030 (by Noemie Benoit)

By identifying the twenty main stakeholders of the PABT (being the Port Authority, the water company, commuters, neighbors, businesses, real estate owners, researchers, municipality and a number of others) the focus was firstly on understanding their mission and goals as organizations or individuals. Why do these stakeholders exist and what do they need in order to function?

Confronted with the effects of climate change, the next step was to identify the problems these Stakeholders are facing in fulfilling their missions. How do climate risks, like flooding and urban overheating, impact the mission of the PABT to ‘keep the region’s commuters, travelers and global shippers moving’? How are surrounding offices, companies and inhabitants impacted? How is social contact impacted, crucial for living and doing business? Understanding mission and resulting ‘needs’ determines the interest of the stakeholders in the PABT and the value the PABT brings.

The concept and thinking behind Ecosystem services[14] were reinterpreted to form a Biosphere / Technosphere Value set that identifies the services needed by the stakeholders and generated by the design for the PABT. These services include (see figure 1) stimulated ecologies, education, human interaction, physical stimulation, water & food resilience, air quality improvement, safety, change adaptation, flood resilience and a few more.

As a final step we ‘mapped’ the expected stakeholder need or expected value to the diverse array of design features within the vision. The additional value or benefits, above and beyond ‘keeping out the water’ are undeniable. The value model enables each stakeholder to understand HOW the diversity that the design brings supports their interest, needs and mission, given the impacts of climate change. Understanding what value, for who, and how is an important step in building coalitions to move this vision forward in a meaningful way.

Conclusions & Next Steps

The value generated by the design for the ‘Ecological Productive Infrastructures of the Port Authority Bus Terminal in 2030’ is the result of a reconsideration of the purpose of architecture as a design profession. If redirected in a meaningful way, urban and building design can play a groundbreaking role in supporting life. Developing the ‘Shared Value Stakeholder Proposition’ has brought a number of insights to the team.

–        Integrated design solutions are informed by asking how the design will support life at a systems level

–        The value of solutions lies in creating resilience through supporting diversity of actors and connections within and between natural and man-made systems

–        Ecological, economic and socio cultural systems are interlinked. If one goes bad, the others will eventually as well

–        A design strategy based on root cause mitigation, system resilience and well-being addresses many needs simultaneously and supports life in a sustainable way

–        In contrast, a design strategy based on ‘blocking the symptom’ addresses few needs, creates little value, and to a limited set of stakeholders. It is ineffective in supporting ecological, economic and socio cultural systems

–        Value created is only valuable if it supports stakeholders in their mission

–        Sustainable design is context specific and temporal. Likewise, ‘stakeholders’, value need, and challenges are local and cannot be generalized. There is no one size fits all solution

–        The ‘Shared Value Stakeholder Proposition’ is a tool or framework that helps to visualize the ‘value system’. It shows which value is created, for whom, and how design supports this.

Understanding design value is a first step in a long-range of steps to be taken. Who is willing to take the next step with us?

For more information please contact Peter de Ruijter (idesign2sustain@gmail.com) or Noemie Benoit (noemie.benoit@gmail.com). Other team members are Martine Verhoeven and Jan Wouter Vorderman, Guido Trevellini and Taeke de Jong, Professor in
urban ecology and environmental differentiation TU Delft

[5] Millenium Ecosystem Assessment 2005: http://www.maweb.org/en/index.aspx

[6] Chapin, F.S., et. al., Ecosystem stewardship: sustainability strategies for a rapidly changing planet, Elsevier, 2009

[7] @ www.design2sustain.eu: Design as a Change Agent towards Sustainability | Redefining Enlightenment’s Dominance over Nature, De Ruijter, P., 2011

[8] @ www.design2sustain.eu: Design as a Change Agent towards Sustainability | Redefining Enlightenment’s Dominance over Nature, De Ruijter, P., 2011

[9] Resilience and Sustainable Development, Swedish Environment Advisory Council, 2009

[10] Gilding, P., ‪The Great Disruption‬: ‪Why the Climate Crisis Will Bring On the End of Shopping and the Birth of a New World‬, Bloomsbury USA, 2011

[11] Resilience and Sustainable Development, Swedish Environment Advisory Council, 2009

[13] Millenium Ecosystem Assessment 2005: http://www.maweb.org/en/index.aspx

[14] Millenium Ecosystem Assessment 2005: http://www.maweb.org/en/index.aspx



2 thoughts on “(Bio) Diversity as key driver in adaptive capacity of Urban Landscapes

  1. I’m sorry, but if ecology’s condition determines the condition of the human economy and of human socio-cultural relations, not the other way around, then ecology is in the driver’s seat, and our species’ economy and socio-cultural relations should not be “in balance with” ecology, with Gaia, with the planetary organism, but should conform to it, be subservient to it, be respectful of it, etc. We humans keep trying to be in the driver’s seat, or share authority, with the natural scheme of things, of which, yes, we are a part, but our part is not the compelling part or even the co-equal part. If you doubt that, keep watching what the impacts of our attitudes will be upon ourselves,and of course, on all the other dying and extinct populations we have slain around us. It is just the beginning of–as James Lovelock, ever the leader in the identifying and naming of these phenomena–has put it, the revenge of Gaia. Stay tuned for the rest of the story.

    Posted by jpmonro | February 12, 2013, 2:24 pm
    • Hi Peter, thanks for you interesting comments! Although phrased differently I don’t have the impression we have very different opinions about humanities’ ‘role’. In my words, yes, the human|environment fit should prevail before anything else. Respect for ecology should be the driving force behind our decision and actions as a species. This is achieved through understanding off and engagement with ecology|environment. Kind regards, Peter –

      Posted by deruijterp | February 14, 2013, 2:23 pm

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