07/14/20 MLA+U Students Develop 360-Page Atlas for Drylands Design


The design of cities has evolved, but Los Angeles, a relatively dry land region, is still highly dependent on importing water from remote locations. This process has met needs at scale for decades but is carbon energy-intensive, relies heavily on capital technology, and demands a huge engineering undertaking. As climate change continues to force us to rethink many current actions and procedures, a group of 11 third-year MLA+U students set out to see if ancient arid cities might have something to teach us. 

Hadley Arnold, MLA+U adjunct professor and co-founder of the Arid Lands Institute, joined the USC School of Architecture faculty this past year to teach a year-long Advanced Design-Research course dedicated to water adaptation and the global history of drylands design. The goal was to form a laboratory that drilled into the history of how humans around the world have adapted to long, hot, dry periods through designing innovative infrastructure and landscape systems that helped inform our relationship to water. The studio culminated in a draft of a physical 360-page Atlas for Drylands Design, one of the most comprehensive publications on the subject ever crafted. 

Given the limitations of time, each student researched two early water systems to start a stub or framework for an evolving atlas. Many of the systems emerged from archeological and anthropological sites in the world’s ancient cultural hearths. Students began by researching the location, time period, and cultural context; the meaning(s) behind the system’s name; and the combination of hydrologic functions performed (catchment/filtration/storage/distribution). They also studied whether these water systems arose independently or evolved from other systems in the global family-tree of hydrologic design.

The interdisciplinary studio also examined how people organized socially around water, looking at water and people as coupled systems. Arnold noted that many of the systems were hard to document or in deteriorating conditions, but this course was unique in that it allowed these systems to be drawn and analyzed through a designer’s lens. In addition, students were asked to consider how these systems were related to issues of environmental justice and resource scarcity, and in turn, what the systems may be able to teach us today about governing democratically in contemporary cities. 

The students’ work culminated in a final discussion with drylands experts from around the world, including Melbourne, Pretoria, Cape Town, Beirut, and Teheran. “It’s a gift to our students to say, ‘if you’re part of the conversation on water and climate, you’ll be part of the solution to global climate issues for the rest of your lives,’” said Arnold. 

Arnold notes, too, that the students got enormous value out of making sure their work would be intelligible and accessible to larger audiences. It was important that non-specialists—including travelers, educators, public utilities, and NGOs—could understand the impact of this research. 

"The process of assembling the atlas feels like a journey in those remote areas on this planet, either rural or urban. I immersed myself in reading the literature of those historical systems and then interpreted them as my drawings,” said recent graduate Yuliang Jiang, MLA+U ’20. 

“All this work is about training landscape architects to embrace and adopt systems that do not require large amounts of carbon input. We need to work to uncouple water from energy,” Arnold explained. “Our students will graduate more sensitive to that fact and be able to embrace that as a design opportunity. How do we start to design an urban landscape that helps every LA citizen understand the importance of water capture?”

Click here to read the Atlas for Drylands Design (selected sample).

 Related Links: Graduate Programs: Master of Landscape Architecture + Urbanism

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