The Design Observer Group


Posted 10.17.09


Charlie Cannon

Partly Sunny


ruralZED, ZED Architects

“The weather is changing. . . . If we are to avert the most significant effects of climate change we cannot just talk about the weather, we must act.”

So begins the exhibition statement for Partly Sunny, a design showcase conceived and produced by students at the Rhode Island School of Design in 2008. This collection of 36 projects aims to provide an antidote to our sense of helplessness in the face of accelerating climate change by featuring individuals, organizations, corporations and municipalities acting with foresight and ingenuity to create a more resilient future. Drawing inspiration from such a wide array of actors, Partly Sunny defines design broadly. In addition to artful landscapes and well-proportioned buildings, we have identified public policies, technical systems and business plans. Uniting these elegant, if disparate, solutions is a pragmatic concern for their environmental, economic and human impacts.

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To be sure, few of these projects were expressly conceived to combat global warming — but each illustrates how comprehensive thinking can produce near-term results as well as the long-term environmental improvements needed to address the unfolding challenges of climate change.

Some projects — such as the web-based ride-sharing service GoLoco — reduce carbon emissions through their operations. Others, such as the solar village in Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin, suggest how existing design and planning strategies can help communities adapt to changing weather patterns. By favoring established projects with proven track records, Partly Sunny runs the risk of being viewed as a retrospective. But it is not. However dated some of the projects may appear to a design culture focused on the next innovation, this catalog privileges immediately implementable ideas over futuristic dreams.

As a body of work, Partly Sunny invites a reading that is greater than the sum of its projects, with 6 themes — buildings, food, energy, water, land and transportation — that can be viewed as reinforcing strategies. Consider the potential interlocking effects of three projects collected in the “land” section: a municipal ordinance, a planting regime and an infrastructure investment. The goal of the Providence (Rhode Island) Street Tree Ordinance is better air quality. But if these mandated trees were located in planters like those in the Portland (Oregon) Green Street program, then improvements to stormwater management could save the city millions. Further, if these new gardens were arranged to support “shared space” projects (as at Exhibition Road in London), then those same trees would improve traffic efficiencies and create a richer pedestrian sphere. 

Cumulatively, these strategies address climate change challenges in two significant ways. First, they would decrease a city’s production of greenhouse gases by lowering electricity demands (trees reduce heating and cooling loads in adjacent buildings) and they would also decrease automobile emissions (street trees absorb carbon dioxide). Second, they would make a city more resilient in the face of rising temperatures (extensive tree canopies reduce the urban heat island effect) and changing weather patterns (through more effective stormwater management). 

Of course, such interrelated actions require deliberate and concerted efforts by many parties. Although the United States government has finally recognized the significance of global warming, our legislators show no urgency to address it. In the absence of comprehensive climate policies, it is municipalities, organizations, corporations and individuals that must continue to lead the effort to confront climate change. The projects surveyed in Partly Sunny suggest that we need not wait for federal intervention or for the invention of new technologies to make demonstrable steps forward. Nor can we afford to. 

It’s Partly Sunny — let’s change the forecast.