Retreat | Rebuild
colloquium held April 21-23, 2017

Disaster recovery is entrenched in the landscape. Lives are put at risk when land heaves, slides or shakes, when it becomes inundated or undergoes drought, when it is submitted to unrestrained development. Land issues are at the crux of conflicts and post-conflict reconstruction efforts alike. And yet, disaster response operations— focused on alleviating suffering and meeting immediate human needs— cannot account for the fluidity and longer time horizons that define the risk. As a result, land rarely serves as the primary topic of research in the humanitarian field.

Efforts at rebuilding suggest that resilience is embedded in the act of a return to everyday life. As a spatial practice, these recovery models prioritize resettling affected populations on land that is actually proven vulnerable. This debate is embedded in the tension between static rebuild procedures and ongoing landscape processes. If greater resilience is an ambition of humanitarian actors, then rebuilding in place might not always be a viable activity. Evacuation and retreat must become serious long-term considerations.  

This conference brings into view the necessarily fluid effects that disasters have on the land and the humanitarian action that unfolds in response, with the aim of furthering the necessary collaboration between humanitarians and designers. While it recognizes humanitarian actors and designers’ shared goals, the event also examines the differences and tensions in norms, modes of operations and expertise in the two fields. In the context of a changing climate and resilience measures, the discussions will employ a comparative method between design pedagogy, spatial theory and humanitarian aid operations. In the process, it opens an essential dialogue on the study and scholarship of disaster.

Rosetta S. Elkin, Assistant Professor of Landscape Architecture and Co-Director Master in Design Studies in Risk and Resilience, Harvard University Graduate School of Design

Vincenzo Bollettino, Director of Resilient Communities Program, Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, Department of Global Health and Population at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health 

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