Mitigation Strategy

(Adiel + Sarah)

While it is difficult to plan a full mitigation strategy without a clear and certain approach to our topic–disaster resiliency and relief in Puerto Rico–we will attempt to list a few considerations that would hopefully mitigate any proposed strategy by making sure we are aware of any issue as it arises. Central to this is strategy is to try, to the best of our ability, to make no assumptions. Of course, this is easier said than done, but we will try to check all “facts” we base work on not only with scientific studies, but also with community conversations, where we might understand better the extended web of correlations and causation. We believe it is crucial to speak not just with community leaders but also with the members of the community, those who might not feel comfortable representing a larger group of people, but still have invaluable experience. While of course we know it is impossible to talk to everyone affected by any topic as large as those we are addressing in this course, our hope is to still try to balance voices of leadership and those of membership in conversations we have. With these people we can coordinate and plan for the next disaster, and turn the study of a topic into something more actionable and realistically possible. We would also mitigate by constantly looking at precedents of previous hazard scenarios. A cross-historical and cross-cultural comparison can provide insights into potential unintended consequences. While we do this, though, it will be important to remember that each case study is particular also to the culture of any location; not all successful strategies can be successfully transposed.

To explain more specifics related to these general strategies: first and most important is making sure that we are using participatory processes to plan for the future. To do this, it will be key to make sure that it is easy to participate. We would need to spend time and resources to ensure that there are mechanisms for community engagement and mobilization, whether through existing outlets or by creating new ones. These organizations will look different for different communities, and we would need to be constantly evaluating their effectiveness and reach. When any plan is determined, we would rely on advocacy and marketing–spreading information both related to the disaster and related to our proposals. In this, though, it is also imperative to leave room for critique. We must inform the community of how we plan to help, and then openly accept feedback on those proposed strategies.

Interviews (last week)

(apologies for the late post! Adiel and I each thought the other had posted this last week, and realized this week that neither of us had posted it at all…)

We currently have several interviews scheduled, so this post will focus on our first completed interview, which insightful and helpful as we expand our knowledge on our particular topic.

Our project interests, broadly, include probing the organizational aspects of disaster relief (and preparedness) with a particular interest in how communities are involved in these efforts. We are starting by looking at the perceived needs and systemic structures from both the perspectives of the community and from those of the experts/agencies working to provide aid.

With our interview work, we are trying to get a better understanding of this very complex network of systems from as many perspectives as possible, with the hope that we can then find a space–even a small space–within which to intervene.

Our first interview was with David Moses of MIT’s Urban Risk Lab. For those who are unfamiliar with the work of the Lab, “The Urban Risk Lab at MIT develops methods, prototypes and technologies to embed risk reduction and preparedness into the design of cities and regions to increase the resilience of local communities. Operating at the intersection of ecology and infrastructure, rural and urban, research and action; the Urban Risk Lab is an interdisciplinary organization of researchers and designers.”

A few key takeaways:

There is no such thing as a natural disaster. That is, natural occurring phenomena amplify, to the extreme, existing issues, social vulnerabilities, and inequalities. The reference to a “natural disaster” as a term, and concept, works to belittle human agency to make a change.

We learned that the emergency timeline often works as a system of phases. Response, stabilization, recovery, and mitigation. Response is what you might think of when you consider agencies like FEMA or the Red Cross. The later stages, recovery for example, are the messier periods, involving greater strategic organization.

The Risk Lab offers a great example of design working as a conduit between the top down and the bottom up. They work closely with emergency managers, learning how these other experts have established mechanisms to respond to hazards, while also conducting field work and working directly with the victims. Their focus is in systemic changes, designing for long term impacts that can strengthen resiliency, better equipping communities to handle the next disaster that may come their way.

When I asked David how the lab engages with the communities of people who are vulnerable, or may have already experienced a tragic event, he responded simply but clearly,

“We go talk to people.”

When referencing a single project the lab was working on, he mentioned talking to over 150 different people.

Ideo Method: 5 Why’s

Adiel and I have been working together to consider the topic of disaster relief, with a focus so far on Puerto Rico, but an intent to extend our scope to New Orleans (with some related scheduled interviews). In this comparison, we hope to uncover some of the nuances and specificity related to culture, politics, economics, and other broad systems and relationships related to a place that are exacerbated by disaster.

We practiced Ideo’s suggested “5 Why’s” in an interview with Carlos, a Masters of Architecture Candidate at MIT, born and raised in Puerto Rico, and now studying in here in Cambridge. The questions are often simple and seemingly obvious, so we preface this with an acknowledgement of the possible offense that such an oversimplification can bring. Still, the reductive and obvious questions, when compiled, do expose the complexity of systemic issues surrounding the disaster, and how inextricable these issues are from the history and memory of the island.


Here is a summarized breakdown of the questions and responses:

S: Why do you think Hurricane Maria was so devastating to Puerto Rico?

C: No one in anyone’s lifetime had seen anything like this. We had seen hurricanes, but there was never something so big–a Category 5. And it went through the entire center of the island, diagonally. It was completely without precedent. Not even in my grandparent’s lifetime. There was a fading collective memory of what these hurricanes are capable of. There was an immediate hysteria–supermarkets were empty–and in Puerto Rico, where all things were imported, the supermarkets only last a week. No one was ready.

S: Recognizing that this is a broader human question, and that it does not need to necessarily be specific to Puerto Rico, why do you think no one was ready for this?

C: It is a broader question, but I think this is culturally specific to Puerto Rico, too. We were not ready because of our authorities, and what our authorities do. We can’t expect people to consider these things on their own accord. People have other things they are worrying about. But we can’t forget about them, either. Hurricanes are not the 100 year flood. This one was maybe a 100 year flood. But still, even those happen.

S: Why do you think the authorities were not preparing people?

C: There’s an economic crisis. Everything that goes into preparing for a disaster costs money. The hurricanes feel intangible. Also, to what extent to politicians care? They are also entrapped in the same culture. It is hard to consider hurricanes when there are also other things to consider–making new jobs, for instance. There are so many other concerns.

S: Recognizing this is a very complicated question, why is Puerto Rico dealing with an economic crisis?

C: It is a really complicated question. A lot relates to our relationship with the US. We rely on it for some many things. Puerto Rico was a manufacturing economy–that collapsed when big companies at home left for abroad. Pharmaceuticals found it was cheaper to produce elsewhere. There were also–and I’m not completely sure about how this works–weird bonds. Foreign investors would buy bonds in Puerto Rico for high profit to them, but would bring huge debt to us. Also, the Fiscal Control Board oversees the financial power of the governor. There’s no autonomy, no say in our own foreign policy. And the Board, appointed by Congress, controls our spending, setting a high percentage of government to go toward paying off an unpayable debt.

S: Why is Puerto Rico in this relationship with the US?

C: It comes back to the Spanish American War in 1898. Puerto Rico was about to be an independent state. But then the US invaded Puerto Rico right when the Spanish would have freed us. It became a territory. It helped the geopolitical strategies of the US. It had a good position; it was a gateway to the Caribbean and a good military post. Then, in the 1940s or 50s the UN was pressuring the US because the US still had colonies when no one else did, so the US had to legalize it. They gave Puerto Ricans citizenship and labeled us as a “Commonwealth.” But that didn’t do anything for Puerto Rico. The governor only has control over local or trivial issues. And now we owe the US money.


This process, in some senses, brought what we had expected: the “why’s” exposed broader oppressive systems (economic, political, historical) that are, in many ways, responsible for the response to the disaster. Yet this, I think, comes with less clarity than the transcription suggests, because what is not mentioned are interviews we have done which differ in their responses to similar questions. While these differences are not drastic, they do (rightly, we think) suggest that the linear thinking of the five consecutive “why’s” is also reductive–that this cannot be clearly traced to just one historical condition, but that these “why’s” present one of many possible paths that could have been followed by this interview. We intend for this to suggest the depth of the issue of post-disaster relief in Puerto Rico while not defining it, and not yet beginning to uncover the breadth.

More Fake News

While the “fake news crisis” has been identified as an issue contemporary to today, I believe that the topic might be better understood within a grander sociological history. Problems of agreeing on fact and fiction, especially related to science, have troubled humanity since scientific revolutions, accusations of heresy, as long as there is an association between knowledge and power. Facts come with power. News empowers. Fake news, when believed, also empowers. This is, ultimately, why the topic is important–fake news often spurs action, and misinformed actions are often harmful, and rarely helpful.

By this same (over?)simplification of the problem, fake news harms everyone because of the subsequent actions taken. Even those who are not caught by the bait see the repercussions of its hold on others through real consequences. The most publicized of these suspected consequences, of course, is the 2016 election. Contemporary concerns with fake news also derive from the ease of publishing (without vetting) and the power of click-bait (sensational simplified one-liners proving more easy to ingest than more complex news stories). These exaggerate the reach and harm of fake information, and call for new means and methods for slowing its spread and limiting its consequences.

Events such as Fighting Abuse @Scale have begun to consider how the platforms that enable the spread of fake news can actively try to limit it. Fact-checking articles has been used to pair fake news with real sources, or decrease the visual prominence of articles known to be false. Of course, deleting these articles outright is dangerous territory, as in all of these cases we are trusting the “fact-checkers” to, indeed, represent true facts–a power that suggests in its formation also its potential abuses. It is less common to see events and strategies catered to the end-user–the person scrolling through their Facebook feed–teaching and then trusting them to discern the true from the false.


Fake News Fiesta

Five Core Values for the Fake News Fiesta:

  1. No one is stupid. Maybe this seems to basic, but I don’t believe that it is. In order to begin to deal with this issue at all we need to break down barricades erected because of personal attacks. While not all facts are equal, all people are, and that is a very very important distinction to make.
  2. Diversity is good. This includes diversity in histories and diversity in beliefs, often (but not always) coming hand-in-hand. Diversity brings more representation, and more representation brings (messier but) more comprehensive news.
  3. Knowledge is power. News brings power to people. All people deserve the power to better themselves and their situation, and therefore all people deserve access to accurate news.
  4. Voluntary consensus is important. Without going to the extreme of a pluralistic news source, it is important to consider the agreement between news- and fact-determining agencies and the people who receive such news. Those forgotten and unrepresented will flip the channel. Yet, in the consensus also is the ability to make those hearing about themselves also hear about others, as through consensus we always get a bit of what we want and a bit of what everyone else wants.
  5. News is not always new. Often, “news” includes old things–century-old stereotypes revealing themselves, awareness of ecological damage that is already so far gone that there really is no going back. These facts are the hardest to deal with, and the most likely to unravel trust structures, as this information always has a sinister undertone to it–we have not told you this before, but does that mean that we were lying to you before? does it mean that we are lying to you now? New facts related to old things make us question what is true, because they show us so plainly how little we know about the world. They make us feel stupid, and that brings us back to point number 1.

How to throw a party to fight fake news.

First of all, there’s no way this could be solved with a party. But, maybe a really good party could help. The ideal party would gather people representative of various socioeconomic backgrounds, ethnicities, orientations, education levels, professional occupations (or lack thereof), etcetera. Party-goers would need to recognize that personal experience is knowledge, and in personal experience all people are equal. Instead of creating a hack-a-thon or similar problem-solving environment, this party would be a place of sharing stories and creating trust. Maybe something like a slower version of speed dating. It would be hard to fight the hierarchies that are already so present in our society in the context of the simulated party, but my dream would be that people would be able to talk openly about their own experiences with news and facts, how these structures have helped them and also how they have failed. I think it would be in the failures that we learn the most, because I think that often a trust in news is not wholy about its veracity, but about it’s ability to create a better world.

So it could become a sort of story-telling party, centered around one-on-one interactions, with food and drinks to share. A fiesta! A small step in building diverse relationships that might extend to a broader trust in the community that exists around us, and a broader awareness of who must not be forgotten in that community.

3 Topics & their Levers

Fake News Crisis

Obviously this is a huge topic (but aren’t they all?). I’m from Kentucky; I remember even in middle school how divisive the topic of climate change was; I remember some of the brightest students in my class arguing with the science teacher against the facts. What can we do to help people trust experts again?


Laws already do a lot of work to prevent the spread of fake information. Laws regulate drug advertising (although perhaps a better law would ban it). Slander and libel laws allegedly protect individuals from false rumors. Laws can change a lot more. They can require information sources to publicize more clearly their agendas, so that the American College of Pediatricians is not so easily confused with the the American Academy of Pediatrics when cited in news articles (or even to force a change of name).


I wonder if there is a way to use the market to decrease the strength of small organizations like the ACP. This seems like an extremely dangerous path, though, because such market regulations could silence minority voices. Any kind of taxation on information also seems extremely dangerous, because free information has always been considered so fundamental to the US democracy. But maybe, when newspapers have to put up paywalls and academic sources are often only available with a university email address on hand, we have already already changed and need to recognize a new society of paid information in order to address the issue effectively at all. It’s hard to say.


Norms affect Kentucky; so many people are so set in their beliefs, because beliefs reinforce their lifestyles and incorporating new facts (news) would tip that balance. While the importance of norms is overwhelmingly apparent, how to address the issue is not. Any campaign runs the risk of engaging those who already agree with it, since those it aims to convince are so quick to recognize the manipulation and turn off the TV. How can this possibly be addressed from a bi-partisan platform?


So much of the blame for fake news falls on Facebook (and it’s algorithms) that code (like norms) seems absolutely central to the topic. This problem is currently engaging experts, and I feel that these experts might find a means to address the problems (at least of isolated bubbles of like-minded information) in social media. What is at risk at this point is that these measures won’t be integrated into a larger plan that addresses the other levers, and will be destroyed when people simply turn to different websites for their news.


This has hit the architecture community as much as any other; just last year a list of “Shitty Men in Architecture” was released as an attempt to catalog the names and offenses of important individuals after the news on Richard Meier was published. I could narrow this topic, too, and talk solely about offenses in architecture (primarily in offices, without the protections of university regulations and resources), but I’m not sure.


To my knowledge, companies are not required to have any sort of personnel to deal with misconduct in the workplace. Larger companies often have HR departments, but these tend to cater to the needs of the company rather than those of the individual. Smaller companies often have no one to turn to if the boss is the perpetrator. How can companies be required to provide resources without (see markets) the laws being prohibitive to starting a business at all?


In addition to the above question, markets remind of a fear of reporting abuses–making oneself less marketable. I hear of this often in architecture; a firm can threaten to withhold reference letters, or even worse (and often threatened more often) to influence the hiring of other firms (because it is a small discipline with many mutual friends). How can the job market make these concerns less important? I actually have no idea, but I think it’s an interesting question.


#metoo was so successful because it addressed norms, but now the question would be how to sustain that momentum when the trending hashtag seems to have passed. Maybe workshops in schools and companies can help this, or maybe also making support groups more frequent, accessible, and confidential could help.


I’m not sure how code can discourage workplace abuse, but maybe it could even be through something as simple as protections of anonymity to something as complex (and potentially authoritarian) as a program that monitors human interactions for signs of potential abuses.

Suburban Housing

Also maybe–urban sprawl. Perhaps this topic is already becoming less “hot” as cities become, once again, more “hip,” but I don’t think that leaving the issue to resolve itself will mend the underlying problems that cause Americans (a case example, but one I am certainly most familiar with) to idealize the single-family home.


Architecture in the US is already restricted by certain code requirements that ensure the safety and well-being of people in the home–from fire codes to ADA considerations, to even requiring certain amounts of natural light and fresh air. These same codes can be expanding to concern also the well-being of the environment. Already LEED certifications (flawed as they are) provide standards for measuring the impact of buildings on their environments, and the Living Building Challenge holds even higher standards. These regulations encourage house types different from the regular American suburban home simply by the practical solutions to the problems the codes present.


Marketing, in this case, is not simply about subsidizing solar panels to fit on top of existing homes. Rather, it must aim to make multi-family housing desirable. Home ownership is extremely desirable in the US, and most often associated with with single-family homes (rather than condominiums). On top of that, multi-family housing is often in cities, and cities continue to be a generally expensive place to live. How can subsidies encourage city living, or how can markets find new models that make investments on single units in multi-family residences more valuable?


I remember reading somewhere that my millennial generation is already more inclined to live in cities than generations before–I’m not certain of the source so I won’t claim that statement is necessarily true, but it does suggest (and I think it is true) that cities are currently cool. This is great, however, sustaining this trend will require making cities not just cool for young adults, but for families as those adults marry and have children, and for seniors as those same parents grow old.


My ideas for the potential impacts of code all seem a little too simple right now–such as the monitoring of house performance that encourages a switch to more sustainable models, or existing technologies that already make city living easier (like app-based food delivery and transportation services). I think there is much more potential in code, but I am not yet sure of what that might be.

Just Say No

When we first landed in Baja, California, the question the M.Arch Core 3 studio had set out to answer–how can you design a winery for one of the driest regions in the world–already seemed wrong. We spent one week traveling from one winery to another, treated to drinks and food and admiration that was so clearly juxtaposed by the communities existing just outside of each winery’s wealthy purview. I will admit a certain excitement with all the spoils of our travel, from both the wineries and from MIT, but all of this came with a creeping sense of guilt. Who were we hurting with our presence?

The studio instructors, to their credit, encouraged us to address the political nature of the project. They would bring up questions of community, of public space, of water-saving techniques for producing wine that might help the winery minimize its impact on the existing infrastructures. But, of course, we were never allowed to ask the looming question: does Baja California really need another winery? Can architecture help with the issues that exist in the region, or will it, through both the economic and social costs of building, actually exacerbate the problem?

These are questions, I have noticed, that architects don’t like to ask. Nader Tehrani’s famous-within-the-department advice on how to begin your own architecture firm is to “never say no to a project.” Rem Koolhaas’s Junkspace makes a claim for the influence architects can have over the small moments of beauty and community within a building, even if the purpose and outlook of the architecture is the junk of its developers. All of these arguments begin from a dangerous claim: the proposed architecture will be built anyway; if you can do it better than it might otherwise be, then why not take the project?

One of the greatest oversights of this question relates to the community for which a project is proposed. Most US states–most countries–include a community review of building plans before construction permits are approved. This gives neighbors a chance to claim their right to views, to fresh air, to not facing another building’s back-end. It also often stops projects that seem detrimental to the surrounding community (too big, too corporate, too impersonal). This process (along with other permitting and financing challenges) stops a huge percentage of building proposals before construction ever begins. Hiring a well-known, well-respected architect often makes this process easier. An architect can make a not-so-great program more palatable to the public with promises of public space, minimal environmental footprint, and beautiful renderings. At what point does this become disingenuous work?

This question brings me back to the Baja California winery prompt we began our second year with. It is true, of course, that architecture above a certain size requires someone certified (architect, engineer, or otherwise experienced) to verify the health and safety requirements of a building. In that sense, architects are always needed. This does not mean, though, that architects are always best suited to address the problems of a particular region. Architecture is often a media that promotes itself–promotes development–in places that will not always benefit from it.

The answers to the specific questions given in class have been vague so far, so I’ll clarify a bit. A prompt like the Baja winery does not address the full scope of the problems in Baja, Mexico because it assumes as a premise that architecture must be a solution, and works backwards to discover problems architecture might address. The community surrounding is often only understood as a community to make some concessions for, although they are the people most affected and most aware of how architecture could help or harm. Architects, however, are working to convince communities of new projects, and these persuasions do not trust the community to know what will be good for them. The predictable consequences of something like a winery studio for Baja have to do with the related media. We know in school that our designs will never be built, but by supporting an exercise of creating a winery in Baja, and sharing these ideas and renderings and writings with the existing wineries and the MIT community, we are through just an academic project promoting the development of the region. Even if the projects are conscious of the environment and the neighbors, by the very fact that we must use architectural projects to address issues of the region, we are supporting development. I wish, at some point in school, we would be taught to just say “no.”

Tech Aesthetics

I’m a third year student in the Masters of Architecture program here at MIT, which means I am now taking my 13th architecture studio (add 4 years undergraduate and count one studio per semester). Architecture and technology, I think, have a very complicated relationship–a lot of architects would like to claim that good buildings are technological advances, although often I think those claims are a slippery slope into a dissolution of definitions.

But, since even the earliest cathedrals, technology has been very closely tied to major movements in design history. This is probably most apparent in the case of Modernism and mass production, but it caries also clearly into more contemporary work, like Zaha Hadid’s parametric wonders and today’s crazy digital mash-ups. Technology is so clearly embodied in aesthetics, and then, often, aesthetics are rationalized as they might relate to social change. Or maybe social change comes first–and the technology to produce it subsequently enforces a particular aesthetic. It’s a chicken-and-the-egg question; in some cases it seems the chicken came first, and in other cases I am certain it is the egg.

Maybe it’s just an unlucky semester, but I find myself doubting more and more often the effectiveness of architectural technologies to spur social change. I think more often than not I am convinced that technologies are filling first the aesthetic agenda, and claiming a social agenda only to convince investors of their designs. But I want to turn this criticism into something productive; I want to learn to judge better in my own work when technologies might be helpful to the communities they serve, versus when the excitement that comes from novelty actually shrouds or exacerbates more important problems.