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Designing living systems to adapt to a changing climate

April 05, 2022

By Amy Seek and Amanda Ludlow

How incorporating plantings and living systems provides greater adaptability, livability, and flexibility than conventional systems

The following is an excerpt from Climate Change and the Built Environment published through the American Council of Engineering Companies (ACEC). The authors contributed the chapter “Climate Adaptive Stormwater Management: A Living Systems Approach.”

The most significant design challenge presented by climate change isn’t higher seas or stronger waves. It is uncertainty. We face uncertainty about how dramatically climate change will alter weather patterns, how quickly the Antarctic Ice Sheet will melt, how soon the seas will rise, and whether we may ever meaningfully reduce our carbon emissions. Uncertainty causes us to fixate on the damage brought about by the most recent disaster, leaving us vulnerable to risks we can imagine less vividly. Uncertainty pits safety against quality of life, causing us to enlarge pumps, to elevate edges, to build expensive structures that separate us from the water. Uncertainty can bring about inequitable distribution of protections, and, perhaps most consequential of all, uncertainty can lead to ambivalence and inaction. 

The Blue and Green Corridors Project in New Orleans, Louisiana, uses a “living with water” approach to community resilience in order to mitigate damage from future storms.

Uncertainty is our biggest design challenge, and yet often the systems built to address climate change are fundamentally ill-equipped to deal with uncertainty. Many of these systems remove or alter natural hydrologic or ecologic operations: they get rid of the stormwater, block the storm surge, resist the wave. They mitigate risk for one scenario but magnify it for another. These systems offer no forgiveness beyond a certain contingency; a breach in the system means a community cannot operate normally until a lengthy restoration has been completed.

Protecting ourselves is necessary, but it alone is not sustainable. It takes a measure of optimism to consider what it means to live well amidst an unprecedented degree of uncertainty about an unprecedented level of risk. Can we build coastal safeguards substantial enough to protect us against storm surge without building so high that we make our waterfronts unpleasant places to be? Can we make our neighborhoods more beautiful and habitable as well as resilient? Can we contribute to carbon reduction through nature-based solutions? Can we collaborate across site boundaries to act at multiple scales, creating layers of protection and redundancy? Can we work as communities from the ground up to ensure solutions that are effective for all?

The Tottenville Shoreline Protection Project in Staten Island, New York, combines recreational trails with shoreline protection.

“Living systems” as a response to an evolved concept of resilience

These questions we have asked ourselves in our practice have led us to consider the role of “softer” systems as part of a response to new imperatives. We have been exploring ways to replace or enhance what have conventionally been designed as grey infrastructure with what we are calling “living systems,” to accomplish or contribute to the same goals, whether it be wave attenuation, water quality improvements, or flood mitigation.

Living systems offer promise as adaptation tools, and they inherently enhance quality of life for our own and for other species. They also point to an evolved concept of resilience. Resilience has commonly been defined as an ability to “bounce back” and return to the pre-event state after a disruption, with the measure of a community’s resilience being the speed with which it can achieve that return. ¹

But bouncing back to the status quo is not necessarily feasible or desirable. Instead, we should be using disruption as an opportunity to improve and gain feedback on existing systems. This concept of resilience calls for interventions that bend rather than break, allowing for impact without total disruption. It calls for systems that maintain functionality within a range of environmental conditions—in the absence of flood water as well as in their exceedance. Resilience cannot be a static state or an end goal; it must be understood as an ability to evolve and grow in the face of shifting conditions.

Systems thinking leads to increased flexibility and adaptability

Living systems have the ability to self-heal and adapt, the flexibility to respond to short-term fluctuations in conditions, and adaptability to evolve over time. Redundancy is also key. Redundancy improves reliability, mitigates risk, and allows for operational continuity. Redundancy can be realized as a set of diverse living systems layered at a range of scales: urban green infrastructure installations, floodplain reconnections, and living shorelines might all contribute to a city’s resilience. 

Uncertainty is our biggest design challenge, yet the systems built to address climate change are fundamentally ill-equipped to deal with uncertainty.

This calls for systems thinking—that is, analysis of the interacting systems beyond site boundaries to understand the potential synergistic impacts that an intervention in one system has on the others. ² Systems thinking means that we consider downstream, watershed-wide, and ecosystem impacts to provide benefits across multiple systems.

Living systems are most often accompanied by aesthetic, recreational, or habitat co-benefits. They may provide park space or natural beauty that can be appreciated even during periods when protective functions are not deployed. Although the term co-benefit might make these aspects of a project seem secondary to safety or flood control functions, they contribute to social resilience, to natural carbon sequestration, to community health, and to quality of life. Design that accommodates a range of uses is necessary in the context of climate uncertainty. It has purpose, function, relevance, and benefit within a wide range of scenarios, ensuring return on investment regardless of future outcomes. 

Restoration of the Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge is an example of a healthy coastal habitat that naturally increases resilience.

The big tent of living systems design

Design of living systems calls for multidisciplinary teams and sometimes turning for leadership to landscape architects and ecologists, professionals trained to think broadly and to design for recreation, habitat creation, and aesthetic value. These professionals can provide a wide scope of analysis, identify multiple design goals, and then assemble a diverse team of experts to achieve the greater project goals. Living systems signify not a softening of approach but a broadening of perspective.

When we describe living systems, we refer to both an approach—one based on systems analysis and community engagement—and a physical intervention—one that nurtures natural processes, accommodates adaptation, and prioritizes aesthetic and community benefits along with protection. Living systems are promising as adaptation tools in part because they adapt to changing conditions—sometimes by changing themselves. We believe that as designers we have a responsibility to do the same. The urgency of the climate crisis requires designers to be proactive in developing project approaches and advocating innovative solutions. We must monitor completed projects and share knowledge generously. In the face of uncertainty, the power of designers to envision a future, to expand the imagination of our clients and stakeholders, and to generate a constituency in support of action is critically important. We must not undervalue our role nor underestimate our responsibility in realizing a livable future.


1 Bogardi, J. and Fekete, A., 2018, “Disaster-Related Resilience as Ability and Process: A Concept Guiding the Analysis of Response Behavior Before, During and After Extreme Events,” American Journal of Climate Change, 7, 54-78. doi: 10.4236/ajcc.2018.71006.

2 Elmqvist et al., “Urban Tinkering,” Sustainability Science. 2018; 13:1549–1564. Published online 2018 Aug 6.

  • Amy Seek

    In her position, Amy helps to establish and develop the landscape vision for multidisciplinary projects from waterfronts to urban parks within New York City and across the United States.

    Contact Amy
  • Amanda Ludlow

    With over two decades of experience in the development of sustainable treatment solutions for water and wastewater, Amanda is a principal in our South Burlington, Vermont office.

    Contact Amanda
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