Building Circular Cities: ‘Designing with Disaster’

An interview with exhibition curator and UCLA urban design researcher Professor Hitoshi Abe encourages us to consider what makes a resilient and sustainable city.

By Nina Purton

With climate-related disasters more imminent than ever, the ecologically orientated urban design exhibition, Designing with Disaster, offers a beacon of light into a future where society and nature meet as one living organism.

It’s not every day that you get to hear about something as futuristic as a hydroactive or biophilic city. Although the whole thing feels a bit like something from a sci-fi movie, the cities are a visual recollection of studies about the possible responses to existing or potential natural disasters threatening communities around the Pacific Rim.

The exhibition is born out of the ArcDR3 initiative, a platform that enables 11 prominent universities across the globe to expand and showcase their research on climate change and urban design.

Where it all started

ArcDR3 came about as a response to the United Nations Conference on Disaster Reduction that took place in Sendai as a measure to tackle the devastating consequences of the Great Japan Earthquake in 2011. The natural catastrophe ensued in Tsunami-Tendenko and the Fukushima nuclear power disaster that marks our collective memory to this day.

Since 2020, the initiative has held several events, exhibitions and symposiums exploring alternative relationships between urban structures and nature based on resilient and sustainable city design.

The latest of these events, Designing with Disaster, was first exhibited in Tokyo from April 6-24 in 2022 and, most recently, in Japan House LA from January 27 to April 2 this year. It was curated by Professor Hitoshi Abe of UCLA and his team of experts at xLAB in collaboration with IRIDeS at Tohoku University in Japan.

Designing with Disaster Exhbition Interior
Inside at the exhibition: Designing with Disaster
Designing with Disaster Exhbition Interior
Designing with Disaster Exhbition Interior

Rethinking cities as circular

The exhibition, consisting of seven hypothetical city designs displayed in visual wells, emphasises the concept of Regenerative Urbanism. This entails a symbiosis between human beings, their material constructions and nature in such a way that cities become living-like entities that are in a constant process of transformation.

Designing with Disaster Exhbition Interior
Designing with Disaster Exhbition Interior

In a recent interview, Professor Abe explains to me that regenerative urbanism is fundamentally about rethinking environmental design whilst bearing in mind that urban landscapes ‘are a part of the larger flow of nature.’

‘It is an abstract concept,’ he says. ‘but it means we should redesign our human environment as a small loop within the larger flow of nature, and format it in various areas so that the entire environment will circulate smoothly. This will create an environment that is close to the original state of nature, while at the same time ensuring the stable residential areas necessary for modern everyday life.’

In other words, it’s about considering cities as circular organisms with processes of destruction, construction and regeneration – a bit like a human organism would with all its chemical reactions. This was certainly the image that came to my mind as professor Abe elaborated on the periodical transformations cities undergo: ‘their maintenance is essential, and they are gradually replaced and eventually torn down to make way for new ones. In this way, cities themselves continue their own cycles of gradual metabolism, and at times, wars, disasters, and redevelopment cause rapid destruction and regeneration.’

‘We tend to think of cities as fixed and permanent, perhaps because we think of the city as the foundation of society, based on an oppositional concept of nature versus artifice,’ he states whilst introducing the idea that cities and nature are, in reality, simultaneously part of each other. For this reason, he reminds us that, ‘It is necessary to consider all environments as part of a continuous, large cycle.’

Each city design integrates the principle of circularity according to its particular cultural, social and environmental conditions. These unique attributes are the key to establishing each settlement’s models of economic growth, methods of generating renewable energy, educational programs and leisure activities.

Psst! Here are a couple of examples to give you an idea:

The Hydroactive City

 Up close visual of a designed city with house on water
The Hydroactive City

As a receptor of large inputs of water, the surface of this city design is porous – a bit like a large sponge – absorbing, storing and distributing water according to the fluvial cycles of the region. As it hits the surface, the water infiltrates the ground through residential yards and green zones that are fitted with bio-filters that purify the water as it makes its journey to designated reservoirs. Eventually, the clean water can be redirected and repurposed for urban use.

But the reservoirs are not for storage alone. Since water is a central component of this city, the designers made sure to integrate educational facilities at the reservoirs, inviting residents to learn about their environment, the fluvial cycles of the region as well as the processes taking place in their local neighbourhoods.

The resulting green belt that weaves its way through the city is not only a strategy to cope with disaster but also serves as a public amenity that enriches urban life, where people can walk their pets, enjoy a picnic with friends or just rest during a sunny afternoon.

By the seafront, the urban projection includes sea walls that separate the city from the threat of tsunamis. These walls are also designed as infrastructures to accommodate the generation of renewable energy.

The Dialogic City

Up close visual of a designed city with boardwalk over forest
The Dialogic City

The dialogic city finds its resilience by turning to cultural heritage as a source of knowledge for the survival of natural disasters, and a tool for economic growth fuelled by cultural exchange. This ensures that long-lasting traditions, architecture, skills and expertise are integrated into contemporary urban development.

Befittingly, the ‘Memorial Landscape’ is one of the city’s main attractions. Located in a coastal area that has been susceptible to natural disasters for many centuries, this region preserves the remains of ancient canals and monuments that show how the community’s ancestors built breakwaters and tidal forests to protect their dwellings. The same mechanisms ensure the population’s survival in the face of harsh environmental conditions to this day. Here, the remains conveying past strife and survival stories serve as a tool to communicate across generations.

The city’s designers emphasise its cultural roots by projecting models of economic growth that prize time-honoured activities. Whilst the memorial monuments and canals invite tourists to reflect upon and value local culture and wisdom, the city’s economic model also includes initiatives like community trails that lead tourists through traditional villages. This way, tourist activities generate income for the locals whilst educating visitors about the resources and culture that already exist in the region.

Up close visual of a designed city with bushfire
The Archipelagic City
Up close visual of a designed city with bees
The Biophilic City
Up close visual of a designed city like a rat's maze
The Chronosystemic City
Up close visual of a designed city seen on a maps showing points of interest
The Nomadic City
Up close visual of a designed city in a series of photos
The Pyroactive City

How realistic are the designs?

The more I delved into this project, the more I felt like I was reading utopian fiction. So I decided to ask Professor Abe how realistic these projections are, and here’s what he told me:

‘From a solely technical standpoint, most of the plans proposed here are feasible. However, there are many obstacles to realization brought about by the economic, social and political conditions specific to each place.’

Despite the economic and political complexities out there, Abe points out that there are examples of similar technologies being explored and put into practice. This includes the ideas proposed by the collaborative solutions company Rebuild by Desing – one of their studies inspired the plan for Staten Island’s five-mile sea wall – and East Japan’s multilayered response to protect the region against a future tsunami.

What about disadvantaged minorities and the global South?

During the interview, I asked professor Abe if the project took into account marginalised communities which tend to be located in areas of higher risk and where people suffer from restricted access to educational and financial resources as well as basic infrastructure.

He tells me that by focusing on the Pacific Rim where each participating university is located, the project deals with a range of cities with different socio-political backgrounds. This includes communities in areas that have been severely impacted by climate-related disasters and where disaster risk remains high.

‘Each city has its own unique issues and context, and it is important to see the variation in response unique to each locality,’ he emphasises. As an example, he cites the Chilean communities as well as the Shaji Tibetan Village in Sichuang Province, China. These two regions have been adversely affected by environmental, economic and social disadvantages, but are also cultural centres that keep ancestral culture and knowledge alive.

The city plans consider the ‘historical, local context, and dialogue among residents, and between residents and government,’ Abe explains whilst using the Dialogic city as a study case. ‘The concept behind these projects is making sure residents’ concerns are treated with a high level of importance while being mediated with the different entities at play.’ Abe states.

Finding interdisciplinary and plural solutions

Today, with the increasing number of wildfires, floods, and draughts amongst other natural disasters, it is clear that the conflict between our natural ecosystems and existing human habitats is accompanied by the destruction of nature, cultural conflicts and disputes over limited natural resources.

Hitoshi Abe argues that ‘we need a new philosophy of urban design to coexist and prosper together with nature while incorporating the possibility of disasters into our everyday lives.’ By featuring the findings of several universities with an interdisciplinary approach, the exhibition suggests that this new philosophy and the resilient urban solutions we want to see are plural and unique to environmental, social and political contexts.

According to the professor and his team, the exhibition is both an educational tool to spark action and bring visibility and political attention to the issue of urban design and climate resilience.

‘But most importantly,’ he concludes, ‘ we believe that integrated intelligence through interdisciplinary and cross-cultural collaboration such as ArcDR3 is the way to approach this difficult mission and this exhibition can encourage such a collaborative effort to continue to expand throughout the world. Establishing and maintaining this platform to explore these issues through an interdisciplinary lens is the first step towards finding and implementing a new approach to disaster risk and resilience in architecture and urban design.’

About the Author

As a sustainability, innovative materials and well-being writer, Nina Purton is an avid investigator of all things circular. She is set on researching behavioural patterns, pioneering materials and initiatives that are revolutionising the way we produce, consume, and relate to other human beings and the natural environment.

You can find out more about her on her LinkedIn profile and website.