April 30, 2017

By Justin Henceroth and Ashley C. Thompson (MDes R&R 2017)

The future of humanitarian aid should focus on finding ways to better integrate with local contexts, including the land, politics, and cultures of at-risk and affected communities. That is the takeaway message from Retreat | Rebuild, a Harvard University colloquium that was convened by Professor Rosetta S. Elkin of the MDes Risk and Resilience Program at the Harvard Graduate School of Design and Vincenzo Bollettino from the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative. The Keynote Address was delivered on Friday night at the Harvard Art Museums by Dr. Sara Pantuliano, Managing Director of the Overseas development Institute and Editor of the Journal Disasters, to a crowd of more than forty attendees including leading researchers, humanitarians, designers, and graduate students. All of the attendees participated in the invitation-only colloquium on Saturday.

A critical aspect of this local context, and a key one for designers to consider, is how the relationship between people and land—including how people access land, how people use land, and how the land itself shifts and changes over time and in space—influences the programming, operations, and structures that can and should be supported by humanitarian aid, and specifically by disaster preparedness, response and recovery. Land-based resources and processes drive everything, including agriculture, industry, building materials, and social processes, that dictate and define national and local contexts. Starting with an understanding of the landform and living systems, designers have the skills and knowledge  to collaborate in the development of contextual, sustainable, but also adaptable, long-term interventions

The colloquium provided a rare opportunity to push the bounds of both fields. While traditionally distinct, contemporary focus on escalating worldwide disaster has brought the fields in unprecedented contact. More people than ever before are affected yet the land remains an understudied yet foundational aspect. Beyond similar contexts and settings, both fields recognized the internal challenges that make it difficult to respond to the increasing complexity of catastrophic events, not least of which are driven by urbanization and globalization. Both fields operate within and through fixed paradigms but in settings and contexts that are fundamentally in flux. As a result, terminology and concepts between the design and humanitarian disciplines, most notably resilience, often mask underlying inconsistency and diverging operations. Striving towards more transparent terminology and outcomes, while allowing for greater flexibility in the operations, programs, and modes in each field may allow for a greater ability to respond and collaborate within new and changing conditions.

With the reality of population growth, urbanization, and climate change conspiring to expose increasingly more people to disaster; turning to practices that place design within local landscapes and contexts is necessary to shift society and the built environment towards practices that are better attuned with local risks, particularly the physical, and thus support capacities for resilience. The ambition of this nascent research agenda is to further an important conversation between design—which can integrate across scales—with humanitarian aid—those who have immediate ground knowledge of the post-disaster realities—and not least the local communities and the land itself.

To access the full program, please click here.  I  To access the colloquium cases, please click here.