Walking in the rain is good for learning about sustainability or lack of it

Below is the advertising text for the walk that I led in Otaniemi earlier this week as part of Designs for a Cooler Planet events for Helsinki Design Week 2020.

The weather was appalling.

The wind and rain, however, were excellent for demonstrating the importance of infrastructure design in climate changing times. Thanks to Henriette for the photos – I think they convey the atmosphere!

Our blurb: Physical infrastructures are crucial foundations of ordinary life, conditioning our shared futures and guiding individual choices. Infrastructures connect the far-away to the near-at-hand. They blend almost unnoticed into the landscape, yet they carry hidden costs, about which only experts are normally aware. These include energy or material flows whose negative effects are distant. Infrastructures also harbour hidden risks, such as water damage and ecological disturbances, dangers with both local and far away impacts.

Of course, the point of infrastructures is to make life run smoothly. Today, however, we know that combinations of old and new technical improvements also generate novel problems. As intensified land-use meets changing Earth systems, designing for sustainability and for usability will require new ways of thinking. Innovating for resilient futures demands that we identify and communicate better about both the technical and meaningful aspects of our surroundings, and anticipate problems before it is too late.

Walking is part of fieldwork, a way to learn to pay attention. The infrastructure walk is a convivial and educational practice, combining technical expertise with local knowledge. It is guided but open-ended, aiming at identifying qualities worth noticing.

On this walk we combine forces with the Environmental Hydraulics Lab of Aalto University to focus on stormwater management on campus. The intensification of construction, more active and varied use, and land use and planning in Espoo beyond Aalto, are exactly the kinds of incremental changes that easily go unnoticed.

Specialist understanding of the challenges of stormwater management will be combined with small-scale techniques for heightening our awareness of the landscape. The goal is to notice what is often hidden in plain sight and then to imagine better alternatives together.

Walking and talking together, experts and users alike learn from each other and from the surroundings. An ancient learning practice, walking projects in recent years have drawn attention to public discomforts with mainstream development.

Professional urban experts can learn from these. Embodied experience leads to understanding the practice, not just the theory, of life in urban space. Besides educational, we hope learning to see with others will also be a joy.

Sustainability requires understanding flows of matter and power. This walk joins the dots – it will help us connect large-scale and somewhat abstract goals related to climate (13), land-use (15), water (6) or sustainable cities (11) to the local environment.

The walk was hosted by me, Eeva Berglund and Idil Gaziulusoy, of NODUS, the sustainable design research group in the Department of Design. Our guides to nature-based stormwater management solutions – and lack thereof – were Chun Lin and Juha Järvelä (below) from the Water and Environmental Engineering, Department of Built Environment, Aalto University. To our delight, Professor Harri Koivusalo and Aalto University Campus & Real Estate’s new chief, Ville Jokela also walked with us, so the conversation as we walked and talked really was a conversation.

With different weather and perhaps with more success suppressing COVID thus making people happier to join large groups, our walk might have been huge. As it was, we were a small group who braved the elements. I hope some of us will come together again to discuss our surroundings. I’m particularly keen to continue walking with folks together. Watch this space…

The one thing that stuck in my mind from what was said during the walk, was something Juha said. He pointed at a bin shelter in one of Aalto’s ubiquitous car parks. It was originally built with a green roof. It was not just a standard flat one. Nobody, Juha explained, had been taking care of the shelter and eventually a rather large tree grew on top of it.

Then it was cut down and the roof replaced with something lower maintenance.

It put a new spin on the design world’s justified interest in care.

As for walking as a practice or method of research. I think it became apparent that walking helps us slow down enough to notice things we’d not otherwise care about. This has professional significance of those who do fieldwork, whether surveying for naturalist purposes (counting trees, say) or more humanist ones (the deep hanging out that ethnographers do, say). I will write more about that on this blog later.

I look forward to walks that do both. And that get me out of the head-only world of Zoom meetings to the full-body experience for which my physique was, I guess, designed.

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