When Hurricane Sandy struck New York city, it struck a metropolis unprepared for a natural disaster of this scale. But unless global cities like New York adapt to the reality of extreme weather events, it’s only a matter of time before one goes under - literally.
That’s why Rob Roggema, Professor of Sustainable Urban Environments at the UTS School of Architecture, is focused on the challenge of creating resilient cities that can adapt to the challenges posed by climate change and natural disasters.
“I prefer to look at cities as urban landscapes,” says Professor Roggema whose professional background is in landscape architecture. “This means we need to apply environmental thinking to their design and planning, on the one hand, but also recognise that they are complex systems, like any other ecosystem."
It is this complexity which fascinates Roggema because he believes it is a key factor in creating cities that can withstand massive environmental, social and economic disruption:
“A complex city is comprised of entities that self-organise: people, spaces, buildings... The question is how can we create a situation where all of these elements adapt to new realities, whether environmental, social or economic. Complexity means looking at these many different layers separately - from transport, to stormwater management and low-carbon emissions - and then reconstructing them in a local context so that each place can be designed individually."
In a recent article written for The Conversation, 'Cyclone Debbie: we can design cities to withstand these natural disasters’, he argues that instead of building flood levies and dams - which can actually amplify natural disasters - the key to cyclone-proofing our cities might lie in better water sensitive urban design. For example, large public spaces like car parks or sporting fields could be used to store excess rain water.
Roggema joined UTS in late 2016 and is one of the leaders behind the Faculty of Design Architecture & Building's research into urbanism and future cities. Working alongside some 25 academics from across the faculty, including industry adjunct professors, Roggema is looking at a number of key research areas in addition to urban resilience and complexity.
He sees particular potential in the areas of data-driven design - using data sets to create better living conditions for cities - and the potential for design in the rise of smart cities. Social and economic aspects of urban sustainability are also critical.
There is, he believes, a strong connection between all of these.
"Big data provides big opportunities to society. We want to use that data for design purposes - to bridge data with the everyday experience of people. For instance, at a building level, we can design spaces that respond to the regular usage patterns of its occupants. At a city level, we should be able to use design to influence entire systems - by linking real-time data with traffic planning, say, to reduce congestion and create more liveable, productive environments."It’s a far cry from the traditional role associated with designers – ‘God on the Hill’, as Roggema jokingly puts it. Instead he sees a role for designers working closely with communities and organisations to co-design solutions. And collaboration across the disciplines is more critical than ever; he’s hoping to connect with researchers and partners across other disciplines and industries to create sustainable and liveable urban environments.
“I came to UTS because it was very clear that UTS was ambitious in achieving new goals and driving change. But ambition without innovation is not possible: UTS is focused on finding new ways of approaching problems.”