Skip to content
MIT Better World

By Michael Blanding

“These absolutely huge boulders had bounced down from 16,000-foot mountains, hit the river, and then bounced up like marbles and landed in this garden,” Kennedy recalls. This was no accident. Climate change has reduced the snowpack keeping the mountains stable, leading to increasingly dangerous avalanches. In the spring, melting snow leads to flooding from below.

“These are tangible threats,” Kennedy says. “And it was profoundly moving to see the present impact that these multi-hazardous climate change challenges bring to these people.”

She was in Tajikistan in 2019 along with a colleague, emeritus landscape architecture professor Jim Wescoat, and a group of MIT graduate students to help design a radical response to the village’s problems: moving the entire community 300 meters higher into the mountains, to a stable plateau where they would be protected from the perils of the changing climate. The ambitious undertaking is a collaboration between the nonprofit development organization Aga Khan Agency for Habitat (AKAH); Kennedy’s firm, Kennedy & Violich Architecture; and MIT’s Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture. The goal is to provide a replicable new model for how communities can voluntarily relocate in response to climate change.

The project has been overseen and coordinated at MIT by the Norman B. Leventhal Center for Advanced Urbanism (LCAU), a multidisciplinary center in the School of Architecture and Planning (SA+P) focused on applying design to large-scale urban challenges.

The Tajikistan project was one of three case studies LCAU presented as part of Moving Together, an exhibition at the 2021 Venice Architecture Biennale, which was curated by Hashim Sarkis, dean of SA+P. The project addressed the issues of the 150 million people worldwide who will be forced to relocate due to climate change in the next three decades. “It’s a particularly challenging topic because relocation is usually the last resort, and it’s often implemented poorly,” says Wescoat, former co-director of LCAU.

The projects included in Moving Together examined how to plan and implement such relocations equitably and proactively rather than reacting as climate refugees flee their homes. In addition to the Tajikistan project led by Kennedy and Wescoat, the exhibit also included an analysis led by architecture associate professor Miho Mazereeuw on efforts to aid a community in a Puerto Rico flood zone and an examination by urban planning professor Janelle Knox-Hayes of attempts to relocate a vulnerable Indigenous community in Louisiana.

Mountain move in Tajikistan

For the Tajikistan project, Kennedy and Wescoat led a two semester–long course that included a 2019 trip to the Pamir Mountain village with scientists and planners from AKAH, including Kira Intrator MCP ’12. “Our role was to expose students to this challenging technical planning and design problem and bring a series of design options forward that would allow the people of the village to retain their autonomy,” Kennedy says. The MIT team used AKAH’s drone imagery (analyzed by doctoral student Dorothy Tang) to map the plateau, analyzed sunlight exposure, and assessed existing water and vegetation to determine the most efficient placement of homes and farms.

Working with community members, the team developed an original method of insulating houses with sheep’s wool, which the village had in abundance. “The biggest challenge was to shift everyone’s mindset from an all-or-nothing point of view and create a design that would be actionable and attainable,” says Kennedy.

The project includes a proposal to use gravity to siphon water from higher altitudes down to the valley and keep it under pressure to rise to the village, rather than the more costly alternative of pumping water from the river. Wescoat used his background in water resources to estimate the village’s domestic and agricultural water requirements. While the project was put on hold due to the pandemic, LCAU hopes to help AKAH and officials in Tajikistan implement it in the coming year. “We all feel a profound commitment to this project and community to take it to the next steps,” Kennedy says.

Flood zone in Puerto Rico

In Puerto Rico, Mazereeuw analyzed an unusual effort to relocate a community along El Caño Martín Peña, a canal on the outskirts of San Juan that has become a flood zone, especially during hurricanes. “There are not many options for communities to move together,” Mazereeuw says, noting that US relocation processes typically center on moving individuals. “The social networks we really need during a crisis are broken up.”

As an alternative, a local public development corporation called Proyecto ENLACE developed a plan to relocate some 1,000 families to make room for an ecologically sustainable expansion of the channel to mitigate flooding. “They created a committee to guide the whole process for residents to move into new housing or find existing housing within the neighborhood,” says research scientist Larisa Ovalles SM ’16, who interviewed residents along with Mazereeuw and urban studies doctoral candidate and LCAU doctoral fellow Lizzie Yarina MA ’16, MCP ’16 to assess the project. “So, they’re made aware they’re in a high-risk situation, but also given options and resources, rather than just: ‘Here’s some money, and you figure it out.’”

The project included mental health counseling to address the emotional impact of leaving family land. In addition, ENLACE worked with a nonprofit land trust to ensure residents would retain ownership stakes in the land. “There is a history of forced relocation in Puerto Rico,” says Ovalles. “This way they know it’s not something that can be taken away from them. The residents are part of the entire process from the beginning.” So far, more than 600 families have been relocated, and the US Army Corps of Engineers has begun work on the canal infrastructure.

Working with communities

Despite these success stories, moving people from their homes always raises issues of power and trust. For her part in the Moving Together project, Knox-Hayes and her students analyzed the difficulties faced by the members of Isle de Jean Charles Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Tribe displaced by climate change in Louisiana.

The residents of the Isle de Jean Charles have been struggling with the effects of sea-level rise, exacerbated by canals built for the oil industry; much of their land has been lost. Yet, attempts to resettle to the mainland have been complicated by lack of federal tribal recognition and by state bureaucracy. “There has been a lack of understanding from state and federal authorities about the nature of the tribes and their identities that makes working in a way that is culturally sensitive and appropriate more challenging,” Knox-Hayes says.

In response to such challenges, Knox-Hayes led efforts this summer for LCAU to develop an Equitable Resilience Framework (ERF) as part of the MIT Climate Grand Challenges Initiative, putting together a plan for community adaptation planning that goes well beyond the usual cost-benefit analysis, taking into account social and racial inequities. “Climate adaptation can either exacerbate existing inequalities or provide new opportunities for more equitable transformations,” she says.

The ERF proposal seeks to pilot the framework with the City of Boston to develop specific adaptation plans for communities vulnerable to climate impacts. “The kind of losses we’re seeing in the Gulf of Mexico now are going to happen in the Northeast in a matter of decades,” Knox-Hayes says. “There’s a critical opportunity to learn from what’s happening in other parts of the country.”

Farther afield, LCAU is reaching out globally to cities where climate change has led to loss of land, food insecurity, and other issues. Most recently, it has begun work with the World Food Program to look at issues around climate and migration. “We are in a climate crisis right now, and it’s one of the biggest challenges cities face,” says Sarah Williams MCP ’05, director of the LCAU and the Norman B. and Muriel Leventhal Associate Professor of Advanced Urbanism. “I hope we can be a hub for how cities can address this issue, from Boston to Tajikistan.”