Designing Resilience:

Sustainability from a Complex Systems Perspective

This paper appears as a chapter in New Directions in Sustainable Design, edited by Adrian Parr and Michael Zaretsky (London; New York: Routledge, 2011).


"What allows some systems to weather change, adapt, and survive over the long term, while others experience catastrophic failure and collapse? The question is central to sustainability. It is also a question of system behavior — in this case, behavior of the complex social-ecological system. An understanding of complex systems and the related field of network theory can help designers navigate the dense terrain of sustainability, and has the potential to inform the design of the multitudinous systems that comprise the built environment, from energy and transportation systems to communities and cities."
~ from "Designing Resilience," p. 152

The chapter presents a high-level overview of "resilience" from the perspectives of complex systems theory and network theory. It then explores the application of resilience design to the built environment via three urban-scale case studies: the master plan of Greensburg, Kansas, by NREL and BNIM Architects; the proposed redevelopment of Lloyd Crossing in Portland, Oregon, by Mithun; and the proposed development of North Innisfil in Ontario, Canada, by William McDonough + Partners.

Publisher's Description of New Directions in Sustainable Design

Recently there has been a plethora of work published on the topic of sustainability, much of which is purely theoretical or technical in its approach. More often than not these books fail to introduce readers to the larger challenge of what thinking sustainably might entail.

Combining a series of well know authors in contemporary philosophy with established practitioners of sustainable design, this book develops a coherent theoretical framework for how theories of sustainability might engage with the growing practice of design. This book:

  • brings together new and emerging perspectives on sustainability
  • provides cohesive and jargon-free reading
  • articulates the specificity of both theory and practice, to develop a symbiotic relationship which allows the reader to understand what thinking sustainably entails
This volume describes a variety of new ways to approach sustainable design and it equips the next generation of designers with necessary conceptual tools for thinking sustainably.

copyright © 2013 by carl s. sterner, unless otherwise noted. more...