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Penn Design Welcomes Back Students and Discusses Superstorm Sandy Credit: Patrick Hulce , Patrick Hulce, Patrick Hulce

Since Hurricane Sandy ripped through the East Coast, demolishing everything from houses to grocery stores, designers have been rethinking their role in shaping the way people live.

This was the general focus of Tuesday night’s seminar, “Responding to Hurricane Sandy,” sponsored by the School of Design. Nearly 100 PennDesign students and faculty members — along with experts from outside the University — began the new semester with an open-ended conversation concerning the role of design education and practice in disaster response and prevention.

“There is no such thing as a natural disaster — just a disaster of design,” said Dilip da Cunha, a lecturer on landscape architecture. Da Cunha advocated for designers and architects to take more responsibility in the chaotic aftermath of events like Hurricane Sandy.

When disaster hits, he added, “it’s a slap in the face to the designers.”

Despite the hurricane’s large size and its depiction by the national media, Randall Mason insisted that “this was a very ordinary event.” Mason, an associate professor in the Department of City and Regional Planning, reinforced da Cunha’s message. He discussed the role of designers in knowing and planning for these ordinary events.

“Design can create more problems than it solves,” Mason said. “These houses cannot simply be rebuilt, they have to be reinhabited.”

Some speakers used their own backgrounds to discuss the use of planning and designing as a prevention tool.

Jonathan Barnett, professor of practice in city and regional planning and director of the Urban Design Program, was on an architectural planning team in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

“One thing I noticed is that people tended to blame the victims for living where they did,” Barnett said. He added that deciding where to live depends on an important question: “Is this type of event once in a lifetime?”

Barnett informed the other architects and designers that unpredictable storms like Hurricane Sandy may occur again in the near future. Shifting air patterns caused Sandy to move onto land rather than deflecting into the ocean, which had been the predicted course for the storm. “The air patterns are continuing to change,” he said.

Many speakers mentioned climate change as the cause of these shifting storm patterns.

“Landscape is now a sponge. It’s acting, it’s moving,” said Richard Weller, professor of landscape architecture at the University of Western Australia. “We have to respond to that.”

Dean of PennDesign Marylin Jordan Taylor closed the conversation on a note of possibility. “As designers, we have a visual literacy … in a way that can gauge excitement,” she said, referring to new design opportunities in the future. “We are not consuming life, but creating quality of life for everyone.”

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