Survival of our cities in the face of climate change depends on innovative planning.

Luna Khirfan with student looking a designs on a drafting board.

This summer, School of Planning professor Luna Khirfan teamed-up a select group of Planning students with Geography students to travel to the island of Tobago to research ways communities there could adapt to rapidly changing climate.

Planning isn’t often associated with climate change, but researchers like Khirfan, are leaders in a new field of study examining how the design of our cities can adapt to a more chaotic climate.

Places like Tobago are especially at risk to shifts in climate due to rising ocean levels, economic reliance on tourism, and a fragile food supply.

The research Khirfan is doing with her students is part of the Partnership for Canada-Caribbean Community Climate Change Adaptation (ParCA), a research project led by the University of Waterloo’s Canada Research Chair in Global Change and Tourism, Professor Dan Scott.

Initially, ParCA hoped to investigate how innovative community design could help Tobagonians adapt to their changing climate. But when Scott saw the impressive work Khirfan’s classes had been doing with urban spaces and community gardens in Canada, he recruited her to assemble a student research team to and travel to the Caribbean to gather information at the community level, and begin to design solutions.

What Scott saw, and what makes Khirfan’s research approach so effective, is her commitment to incorporate input from every day people into resilient design.

While in Tobago, her students literally recruited volunteers by walking through the streets and asking people from all walks of life if they would participate in a design project and share their local knowledge of everyday climate related challenges.

“You have people who walked in who were over-researched, so they are tired of these foreigners coming in and trying to ‘do this, do that,” says Khirfan. “They enjoyed the process because we were not talking, we were sitting and listening to them, so they felt empowered.”

The information they received was invaluable. “We were told by a lot of ordinary people that the rainy season is becoming too wet and the dry season is becoming too dry,” says Khirfan. This imbalance affects both potable water supplies and food growing capacity. Residents were also concerned about the region becoming too hot and the repercussions on bio-diversity.

“How can we, through small interventions, help local communities adapt to changing climate?” Khirfan challenged her students. In the following weeks, the student researchers synthesized their design skills, the local information they’d gathered, and geographic climate modeling to propose simple yet elegant solutions.

“An integrated design approach,” Khirfan says proudly, “where a combination of design interventions at various urban scales help to increase the local communities’ resilience to climate change.” Some of these interventions build on the eco-system’s aptitudes such as protecting and expanding the mangrove forests and their wetland habitats by channeling rainwater to them. Other interventions seek to modify building practices.

“Roof gardens,” Khirfan says “capture and harvest rain water, and at the same time insulate the house. You can combine that with a wind catchment system, solar energy and grey water management.”

While Khirfan’s student-led design project is tailored for Tobago, it shows that as our climate challenges increase here in Canada, similar design strategies could be used to protect our cities and citizens from an increasingly chaotic climate.