Keller Easterling

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39: Wet Matter


Climate change causes sea level change, which is measured in fractions of an inch, but hurricanes and other extreme weather events model a sea that can quickly erase major settlements. In the United States—the bastion of global warming naysayers—hurricanes Katrina and Sandy have rewritten the rules about property and insurance. Along the coast, many are asking how to retreat, relocate, or concentrate development. Some homeowners spend $100,000 to elevate their homes, avoiding nearly the same amount in increased insurance. But in New Orleans, poverty, poor documentation, and a host of other problems have often paralyzed the city’s recovery, leaving a checkerboard of vacant lots and little ability to leverage investment. Beleaguered planners typically say, “The financials don’t work.”

But maybe this failure of the financial industry is good news. No matter its context, property is managed as a generic product. Banks, insurance companies, and real estate firms quantify differences between assets with technical indicators to mark things like mineral resources, wind, or underground aquifers, which are added to the already bureaucratic layers of jargon—from mortgage points to actuarial tables—that game the buying, selling, and insurance of property. In this argot, many of the physical, volumetric, and climatic attributes of a property are ironically called “intangibles.” And when a property ceases to behave like money, it ceases to possess value.

What if, rather than relying solely on generic econometrics, a parallel market of spatial variables could offer more tangible risks and rewards as well as the agility to avoid and recover from either natural or financial disaster?

Imagine an entrepreneurial effort to create a property exchange focused on an interplay among properties. An information-rich index with the benefit of intelligence from urbanists, landscape architects, and regional environmentalists could rate properties for their complementary risks and benefits or their counterbalancing attributes. Like a matchmaking website, the exchange would rate not only properties themselves, but the benefits of changing use or swapping positions in their landscapes. It would rate or certify mortgage transactions that result in an advantageous relocation or consolidation of property with reduced collective risk. The more beneficial the swap, the higher the rating: a year-round coastal property becomes a seasonal vacation home; a municipality can aggregate land for levees, dunes, or sand replenishing programs; a clearing adds value by providing views and water retention. And, since the trade itself is worth a quotient of flood insurance, and since it becomes an increasingly viable mortgage, insurers and banks are drawn to invest. Both incentivize transactions with lower rates and streamlined deals. In many cases, a basic rating would simplify mortgage and exchange transactions, stripping away many of the quantitative languages and replacing them with qualitative indicators. Deadlocked and devalued properties could then be revalued and released into circulation.

Perhaps most important is the idea of interplay itself, as an art and an object of design. Rather than being restricted to the more familiar singular object form or masterplan, leveraging relationships and interdependencies allows architects and urbanists to organize a stream of objects. The artistry involves not the representations of planning arrangements, but the population effects in a larger reconstituted landscape. New habits of mind about counterbalancing interplay may inform the design of many spaces and territories like those by the sea.

Keller Easterling is a writer, principal at Keller Easterling Architecture, and Professor of Architecture at the Yale School of Architecture. She is the author of the recent Extrastatecraft: The Power of Infrastructure Space (2014), among other books.