Friday, February 22, 2008

Mapping C-change

Hawaii Blue Line Project | Photo: the sceptical futuryst

/Continued from two previous posts.../

For the first piece in what has become a sort of mini-trilogy, I described the Hawaii Blue Line Project, a climate change consciousness-raising effort recently staged in Honolulu, which involved drawing a line in the streets behind Waikiki to mark the new waterfront -- other things being equal -- if the sea level were to rise one metre, as projected by the end of the century. I said that the project exemplified what we call ambient foresight; the embedding of cues in our mental environment today to encourage the consideration of alternative tomorrows.

The second post looked at why, psychologically, people tend to discount long-slow risks -- temporally and spatially diffused crisis states -- such as climate change; which provides a rationale for ambient foresight in public spaces.

In this third and final post, I want to close the circle by situating the Hawaii Blue Line Project amid other efforts along similar lines, so to speak, which may help folks who share the concerns articulated so far, to design more effective future-oriented interventions like this.


I asked Jeff Mikulina, President of the Hawaii Chapter of the Sierra Club which organised this event, where the idea came from. He replied that he had thought it was an original, but then discovered it had been done before elsewhere.

I've looked into this and found several examples of similar initiatives in other American cities, though I haven't found even a cursory comparative examination of them anywhere else. In no particular order, here's some info about the ones I've found...

There's the San Francisco-based, "a collaboration of Aquarium of the Bay Foundation, the Sierra Club and the San Francisco Department of the Environment (SF Environment)". Enterprisingly, they have produced "future sea level" tape which you can order at the website. They have staged a series of related events dating back to September 02006.

Another strand of work has been going on in Seattle, where an art collective called Watermark staged a number of walks through the city's downtown area, "using soil to mark a line of new 'terrain' -- the shoreline that would be created in the case of a twenty foot rise in sea-level, as could occur with the melting of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets".

The group's website explains:
For each performance, participants walk the line of the future shoreline, sometimes marking it with different materials such as seeds or water. The idea is to help each one of us envision a possible future and some of the ramifications of climate change. While we cannot predict exactly what the impacts of climate change will be, we seek to use the power of imagination in order to acknowledge the possibilities and open up new ways of thinking about our impact on the planet. We hope that through this process of visualization, we can create a call to action.

One such performance was promoted as part of "Step It Up 2007", a climate change awareness initiative [more background] cofounded by environmentalist Bill McKibben, which is how I found it.

Image: Watermark

Image: Watermark

Not to be left out, of course, New York has its own project in this vein, called High Water Line, charting a ten foot sea-level rise around Brooklyn and Lower Mahattan. (I found this via Bruce Cahan at Stanford). HighWaterLine was initiated by artist Eve Mosher, in partnership with The Canary Project (global warming never looked so pretty!) and she's been blogging its progress since April 02007. Mosher elegantly outlines its philosophy at her website:

High Water Line seeks to engage people on the street, in the neighborhoods where they live, work and play. People will encounter the chalk line and the beacons while going about their daily lives. The work is an intervention in routine - the public's as well as my own. This aspect of the piece ensures catching the public's attention, and it provides easy and direct access. The simplicity of the project, aesthetically and visually, will appeal to people of all ages, ethnicities and economic backgrounds. Climate change is a silent, invisible threat - High Water Line gives voice and makes visible the affects of this threat. High Water Line is designed to engage the community and promote thoughtful, informed dialogue and action.

Image: Eve Mosher, High Water Line 02007 via The Canary Project

(I have a feeling the above image was a visualisation produced before the installation itself started. Here are some actual photos from Mosher's blog...)

Finally, a controversial campaign to enable this kind of ambient foresight on a semi-permanent basis has been unfolding under the banner of lightblueline in Santa Barbara, California; "a public information project to paint on the streets the message that human induced climate change will impact coastal cities. Whenever you cross the light blue line, remember that the coastline is an outcome of our collective human efforts."

Bruce Caron, lightblueline's "#1 painter", said in November 02006:
This is where the original idea for lightblueline occured-- I was walking down Anacapa between de la Guerra and Cota after watching An Inconvenient Truth. And this is where a dedicated team of volunteers has been working to create the first lightblueline street painting action.

We are working hard with the City government to create a best-practice example for this public education effort, so that we can pass on this information to volunteers in other cities. The lessons we learn here will help grow this movement across the globe.

Here in Santa Barbara we have so much to lose should global warming create a rise in our sea level. Our beautiful beaches and the entire waterfront (not to mention the freeway, railroad, and airport--planes, trains, and automobiles are all at risk), would be ravaged over the decades, with each year sending new waves across roads and into our cliffs.

The plan (from lightblueline's photos at Flickr):

Early in August 02007, the Santa Barbara Independent newspaper reported that Caron's proposal for a permanent (painted) "light blue line 1,000 feet long throughout downtown Santa Barbara to show where the sea would rise if Greenland were to melt as a result of global warming" seemed good to go [original emphasis]. Just two weeks later, Caron withdrew the plan, under heavy pressure from people concerned about adverse impact on property values.


We can see from the above that there are various ways of approaching or carrying out a blue line project. There are three dimensions of variation I want to mention.

One is the sea-level projection around which any given project will revolve. A choice has to be made as to the relevant timeframe (02050? 02100? centuries beyond that?). Likewise, it matters which particular climate change model you're working from -- because different assumptions about the sea-rise model produce widely differing forecasts (not to mention variable levels of behaviour/emissions change). The Honolulu project "assumes" one metre of level rise, as does the New York effort. Santa Barbara chose a "predictable, worst-case scenario" of seven metres due to complete melting of the Greenland ice cap over a period of centuries. Which begs the question whether a more conservative, near-term impact might not have been more successful for an already ambitious painted-line project.

Another dimension of variation between projects, a category of options among which an organiser needs to choose, is the medium in which the sea-level changes are marked. Different media express a range of visual properties (colour, visibility) and degrees of permanence. So, soil (Seattle), chalk (Honolulu, New York), or tape (San Francisco) are obviously more temporary than paint (as proposed for Santa Barbara). It stands to reason that greater permanence could yield greater impact over time, but also attract greater difficulty in the process of obtaining approval -- or greater legal risk in going ahead without approval. The proportionality of potential impact and installation difficulty became a familiar dilemma during our FoundFutures:Chinatown art project (e.g., getting permission to install a bronze plaque "commemorating" a bird flu outbreak in 02016).

Finally, location is another dimension of difference. One option is to map the projected "new shoreline" -- how far the water could reach "inland" in scenario X. Here the line on the ground represents a hypothetical demarcation between waterlogged buildings and dry ones. This was the Hawaii Blue Line strategy, and seems to be the most common. However, an alternative way of mapping sea-level change is not on the ground, but on existing buildings, say along the current waterfront, showing where the risen seas would reach -- the "new watermark". (Both approaches to line location, it is important to mention, assume "other things being equal" -- ceteris paribus, as the economists say -- i.e., no mitigating intervention to hold back the rising tide.)


So how effective is this type of project in achieving the ends its animators typically have in mind?

An interesting and difficult question.

It's worth pointing out that since awareness-raising and behaviour change are the goal -- which the actual manifesting of blue lines is merely one way of approaching -- a campaign for a high-stakes, high-visibility, ongoing (i.e., relatively permanent) "ambient foresight" blue line exstallation could succeed as a political intervention even if it failed as an art project. That is to say -- for example in Honolulu -- in principle, an effort to get approval for a monitory sea-level rise marker along the hotels on the beach at Waikiki, could successfully raise local awareness of the risks of climate change even if the blue line were not approved and thus never painted.

It would be interesting to know how the (so far "unsuccessful") Santa Barbara project is doing in terms of catalysing public discussion. I don't know how to verify this, but I suspect it could well have started and sustained more conversations as an idea alone than the equally noble, and so far, more photogenic -- yet ephemeral -- chalk n' soil efforts mounted elsewhere.

As for Hawaii's Blue Line Project, it seems to have been quite successful, as far as it goes. Not only was it reported in the local media (the Honolulu daily Star-Bulletin; the University of Hawaii's student paper Ka Leo), but nationally and internationally also. Let me again emphasise the exceptional difficulty of gauging how well a political art intervention, such as those described here, engages people and changes minds. But more qualified than I to address that question is Jeff Mikulina, who organised the event, and responded to my request with this assessment of the project's impact:
In this case, I think it worked pretty well. Of course, when first envisioned I saw a line of children wearing blue shirts and holding hands across the entirety of Honolulu--blocking traffic, the whole works. That would have been a loud blow on the conch. But this is Hawaii, and we have limited resources and laws to follow. So chalking a line 7 blocks with about 50 kids was pretty good. The message got out. The Associated Press and Reuters picked it up and the story (or mention of the students chalking the sea level rise) made it into a few hundred papers worldwide. CNN and New York Times mentioned it--and followed through with an editorial:

So their were a number of targets that we were seeking to reach with the event: the delegates at the meeting, the general local public (in the vicinity and through local media), the actual students and participants chalking the line, local opinion leaders and decision makers (ie lawmakers), and finally, the international community. The last one was a big component because we wanted to really highlight the vulnerability of not only Hawaii, but of island states and nations globally--no one is immune from this. The iconographic "Waikiki" was the perfect poster child, so to speak, for the loss that Hawaii (and other coastal areas) might experience. The fact that something so well known could cease to exist hopefully opened some eyes.

The other challenge we have with this issue is credibility. Many probably asked if the line was legit or if we were just using some scare tactics. That's why I wanted to have a strong, respected academic voice developing the line (Prof. Chip Fletcher) and err on the conservative side in explaining the factors behind the line. So hopefully that message penetrated as well.

Now did people go home and immediately change their bulbs to CFLs and trade their cars in for a bike? No. But this action hopefully contributed to the growing unease or cognitive dissonance of behavior and effect. The students doing the chalking was meant to deliver that message in a more emotional (this is their future) approach.

So, there's no way to guarantee that it works. Still, from my point of view, despite the systemic uncertainties inherent in collectively steering this Titanic, it's too important a challenge not to try. And, as a mechanism or catalyst for forward thinking, it can't fail to affect at least some of those who encounter it, and thereby contribute incrementally to the solution rather than the problem. Indeed, we have good reason to think that, carefully designed, this kind of intervention can make an important difference. Jeff again:
It gets people thinking. Wow, this is what will happen. It makes the invisible future visible. Ideally, it links current actions with future reactions and emboldens people into believing that they can actually shaping the outcome (which they can).

That's ambient foresight.


bruce caron said...

This analysis is really helpful in raising questions that cities will need to face. Thanks. We've blogged your blog on our blog:

Stuart Candy said...

Thank you, Bruce. And best of luck with Santa Barbara's light blue line.