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On Costa Rica and its Natural Disasters

Thursday, October 12, 2006
In November 06, m7 will travel to Costa Rica to partcipate in ‘Estrecho Dudoso’ - an international art event arranged as part of San Jose´s celebrations as Iberoamerican Capital of Culture 2006. m7 are organising an iteration of Inundacion! to be played in a four-day workshop. This post collects together information found on the internet about local flooding conditions, which could in turn inform how the framework for the version of the game in San Jose is constructed.

Not necessarily directly related to flooding….I like this fact nonetheless: the idea that Costa Rica is ‘geologically speaking’ rather young: it is only three million years old. It suffers frequent earthquakes caused by the collision of two main tectonic plates (the last serious one was in April ‘91), active volcanoes (in the sixties the Irazu volcano showered ash and clouds of smoke over San Jose for two years) and during its rainy season (May to September), flooding and landslides. The average yearly precipitation is 100 inches nationwide, with excess of rain often causing flooding in low-lying areas of the country along the Atlantic Coast. Droughts sometimes occur in the Northern Pacific section of the country.

The most severe flooding in recent years was in late November and early December of 2002 when a cold front generated rains which inundated 110 communities, with waters rising to a metre and a half in some areas. 7 people were killed, 53 injured, 25,000 homes damaged, 3000 acres of crops destroyed and 65,000 people were affected in sum by the worst flooding in more than 30 years. A month’s worth of rain fell on the night of Nov 23rd alone. The provinces of Limon, Heredia and Cartagon were most severely affected.

CR Turrialba Map

The Emergency National Commission organised the search-and-rescues and provided food, water and shelter for evacuees. It was aided heavily by the Costa Rican Red Cross, who also received supplies from their German and US counterparts. Emergency strategies were informed by a team of disaster experts located in the region known as PADRU (the Pan American Disaster Response Unit).

In May 2004 Costa Rica declared a state of emergency when flooding killed two, forced the evacuation of 7500 and damaged twelve bridges. In January 2005 the Carribean region of Costa Rica received 35 cm of rain in one day, the biggest volume ever recorded in a single day in this region. Five people died and 6062 people evacuated. In September 2005 major flooding was caused by Hurricane Rita, the hurricane that followed close on the heels of Katrina. Meanwhile some 50% of disaster related damage and losses in San Jose over the last 35 years have been caused by floods. Apparently “hypotheses suggest that recurrent flood events are the result of a progressive risk building by hydrometeorological events, and not the consequence of the hydrologic and meteorological dynamics of the rivers themselves”. Hmmm, tell me if you understand what this means!

NASA CR image

Turrialba City suffers particularly severe urban flooding, related to the occurrence of torrential rainfall from humid winds off the Caribbean Sea but also due to “wrong policies in urban and land use planning”. For example uncontrolled urban expansion along river courses has narrowed their channels and discharge capacity so that the amount of rainfall necessary to cause a flood has been decreasing. Flashfloods are caused by small rivers coming down from the mountains of the Turrialba Volcano. The maps below are from flood vulnerability assessments that mapped several different flood scenarios onto information about slope, drainage pattern, grain size, permeability of different areas of the city. The diagram underneath them shows the ´flood risk assessment methodology.´

CR Vulnerabiliyt Maps for Varying Flood Depths

CR Flood Risk Assessment Methodology Diagram

San Jose, perhaps unsurprisingly, seems to be a locus in Central America for disaster-related conferences. These are summaries of a few different ones I found.

A conference on “Components of an Integrated Program for Flood Vulnerability Reduction and the Development of Local Warning Systems in Central America” brought together national and municipal governments, local planning, health, water and emergency managers, representatives from agriculture, transport and energy sectors and NGOs active in environmental, community and infrastructure development “to develop planning processes for management and response, damage mitigation projects in the river valleys and community preparedness for emergency warning and response”. Topics discussed included the design of warning systems, local monitoring and flood forecasting models and the implementation of a preparedness program, presented in the form of local workshops and response simulations.

CR Water Measuring Device

In May 1999 San Jose hosted the "World Meeting of NGOs, Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples on Wetlands" with the participation of 110 delegates from 21 countries and more that 500 local, national and international organizations and coalitions. The representatives were concerned about the destruction of wetlands around the world from dam construction and the serious impact, including increased flooding problems, that dams have on the communities that depend on the resources provided by wetlands. They called for a moratorium on the construction of new hydroelectric dams, including a cluster of eighty small but destructive dams in Costa Rica.

In January 2006, the World Hyperbase of Disaster Reducation Technology Implementation Strategies had a third meeting in San Jose. The Hyperbase is a plan for an evolving public database of disaster-reduction information. Rather than just providing information about hazards, the goal is for the project to contain useful mitigation experiences, procedures and methodologies for prevention. At the conference participants discussed its content, its architecture and its management. Will it be an active catalyst or a passive library for example? What is the relationship between the ‘knowledge producers’ and the ‘change agents’ (users)? How can they make it accessible to a wide variety of users with limited access to technology? Will the architecture be a traditional database or a self-organising system? What will motivate people to contribute to it, “in short be sure that if you build it, they will come”?

To imagine the database from the perspective of users they created three stories, using the scenario of a library (“who goes in and out, what is on the shelves, why are people going there, what advertising or events led them there”), an interagency agreement with technological implementation, and a local government using it to prevent flood loss. Interestingly they used Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point as a reference in a discussion about how to get more grassroots actors to care about risk reduction. The conference notes also record that “around 8pm there will be a surprise” but unfortunately that was the last of the text. Perhaps Malcolm himself showed up!

In March 2006 The International Workshop on Flash Flood Forecasting was held in San Jose, co-ordinated by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Adminstrations National Weather Service and the World Meteorological Organisation. The conference provided information on types of flash flood prediction capabilities for ‘at risk’ regions in developing countries, determined weak links in the warning systems and engaged in dialogue with potential donor organisations. The workshop which perked my interest from the list was entitled ‘Ice Jams and their Hydrological Implications’ by a Mr Sergei Borsch from the Federal Service for Hydrometeoroloy in Russia! In looking up exactly what an 'ice jam' is ('an accumulation of broken river or sea ice caught in a narrow channel') I also discoverd there exists in technical terminology ice aprons, ice blinks, ice fogs, ice veins, ice quakes and ice cakes!

San Jose has also hosted a group of Latin American Disaster Researchers known as La Red, who argue that not enough attention is given to small and medium size disasters that are more common than the catastrophes that catch national media attention. They have developed a computer based accounting system called DESINVENTAR for compiling chronologies of these disasters. The information “underscores the vulnerability of people in rapidly growing megacities in a period of economic stringency” and demonstrates how the cause of floods is often not rainfall itself but "uncontrolled development of green spaces and natural water catchment areas, along with broken or refuse-choked drains."

The NWP (Netherlands Water Partnership) also seems to be developing some kind of dialogue with Costa Rica on the theme of ‘Global Climate Change and Urban Flood Mitigation.’ Their program explores how to integrate urban flood planning with urban planning….how to incentivise local actors to consider flood risk and the ‘long horizon’ in the context of uncertainty about future climate change….and how to use flood management not simply for safety but also to ‘minimise economic damage’ and to ‘improve spatial qualities’.

Lastly, I also came across a PHD report entitled Developing a Paradigm for Disaster Recovery in Central America.’ Although the four case studies were from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador there was some interesting, more general content in the introduction. For example: “disasters are not solvable problems. They are physical, political, economic and social events to be mitigated, managed and learned from.” In Central America where “disasters are woven into the fabric of community life” the generic recovery model, used to organise and manage post-disaster efforts involves “a series of linked actions are programmed, ending in a return to normalcy.” But a second paradigm is gradually emerging – the transformative path. This emerging paradigm “views disaster recovery as a mechanism of social transformation at many levels, but predominantly local and regional.” The report explores four examples of the latter paradigm using a comparative conceptual model based on vulnerability, community assets, claims and access, where “the ability of a community to sustain any improvement over time is a function of both its internal capacities (the degree of horizontal integration) and its external capacity (vertical integration) to utilise the non-local resource within its sphere of influence (national, state and international cooperation).” Etc!

CR Flooding 02

On Networked Publics

Wednesday, October 04, 2006
In my unintended tradition of profiles about American architectural academics, here’s another. This one is Irish but has been living in Los Angeles and is now moving to New York. Ladies and Gentleman – Kazys Varnelis. He’s going to be Director of the new Network Architecture Lab at Columbia, a research unit which “investigates the impact of computation, communications and telematics on architecture and urbanism”. Before that he was at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Center for Communications ‘Networked Publics’ program, which explored “the roles of audiences, activists, citizens, and producers in maturing networked media ecologies, including the changing relationship between production and consumption, viral and peer-to-peer distribution, and networked lateral political mobilization.”

He was interviewed recently by Geoff Manaugh of BLDGBLOG, whose blog is full of weird and wonderful references from literature, science, architecture, art, philosophy, to, well, anything and everything that has form in some way. The first bit of the interview that I’ve sampled is naturally related to questions about Walmart, logistics and architectural roles:

Varnelis: "Building code and computer algorithms are not actually that dissimilar....Of course, the idea of architectural code is also a question of logistics. With the rise of the internet, ever more sophisticated forms of logistics are being put to use by very large, very powerful organizations – Amazon, FedEx, UPS, Wal-Mart, Home Depot....(At NetLab) We’re going to be running a studio on the role of logistics – how do you load a space, or organize a space, and what kind of activities might you prescribe for that space?

BLDGBLOG: Speaking of logistics, Wal-Mart has suddenly and – at least to me – unexpectedly become a kind of one-man cartographic avant-garde. In other words, Wal-Mart’s attempt to track all its goods in real-time has led to literally classified techniques for understanding economic geography, the most sophisticated modeler of data sets outside of, say, the NSA or DARPA – and yet it’s all to sell bath towels and non-stick pans. What do you make of Wal-Mart’s sudden ascension to the heights of geography, and how has Wal-Mart’s use of radio-frequency ID chips (RFIDs) facilitated this mastery of commercial space-time?

Varnelis: One of the things that’s both amazing and kind of frightening about RFIDs is that they remain with you long after you leave the store. There’s no reason why RFIDs couldn’t already be the subject of incredibly sophisticated, long-term forms of tracking – or why, if you enter Wal-Mart already wearing clothes tagged with RFIDs, you couldn’t be greeted with highly specific and individualized forms of product information. Let’s say Geoff walks in, and he’s already bought two t-shirts and a pair of pants: from the RFIDs still embedded in his clothing, the store will know exactly who he is, even what he might be shopping for.

Paco Underhill must be excited.

Some of his thoughts on reality vs fiction and on documentaries vs novels:

Varnelis: Reality is ever more perverse and ever more fascinating. Proportionally, more and more people are reading nonfiction today. The documentary, which, twenty years ago, was this kind of weird, unpopular genre that was maybe only shown on PBS, is now being watched by millions of people. Whether that’s March of the Penguins or the Al Gore movie or a reality TV show, there’s a kind of obsession with reality now, an obsession with finding new ways to represent and document existing conditions. It’s a counterpart to the culture of political surveillance: working with the fact of being watched everyday becomes one of the quickest available routes toward cultural participation.

Fiction just seems to be adrift. Where fiction does thrive, it’s in video games – and those aren’t so much fiction as alternate realities. In either case, the world is bizarre enough. The new content we are seeking is already out there. Right now we’re captivated by the proposition that reality is the strangest thing we can think of. Sixteen years ago, a friend of mine went to Kowloon Walled City in Hong Kong, and I have yet to see an architectural project that rivals that. Or Quartzsite, Arizona, for that matter.


On the ‘myth’ that the Internet is good news for democracy:

Varnelis: It’s become clear that the converse is also true, however: that the intense centralization of networking infrastructure makes it all too easy to track and control internet traffic. Over a decade ago, Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron identified The Californian Ideology as a dominant strain in thinking about networking technology. Drawing on counterculture individualism and misunderstanding the basic structure of the internet, they suggested that the supposedly distributed nature of the internet would give nearly-unlimited freedom to the individual. But the Californian Ideology is incredibly naïve. By adopting a laissez-faire attitude, we’ve failed to realize how tight the noose has gotten as government and industry collude to create unprecedented forms of control.

As well as public space in the age of the networked city:

Varnelis: "I would caution against thinking that this is some new and frightening division between the public – which is usually theorized as good – versus the private, which is usually seen as atomized and isolated and bad. This new digital geography is not a reversal of the public sphere; it’s just a mutation. The “public” simply doesn’t exist the way it used to. If you look at “the public” – even when it consists of fragmented demographics – there are still greatly shared experiences by various clusters of individuals.

There’s a fascinating book called The Clustered World by Michael J. Weiss that talks about this. The company that does this analysis, Claritas, has a website where they break down American consumers into, I think, 48 distinct clusters – and they’re really dead-on. These groups are dispersed across huge geographical distances, but they’re connected telematically – those are real links – whereas you might go just five miles away and feel totally alienated. So it’s hard for me to buy into the argument that we need to endlessly lament the end of the public sphere – when different kinds of human relations are clearly coming into being."


His comments on the changing nature of public space reminded me of similar comments, within a more lower-tech frame of reference, by (another American academic, sorry) Margaret Crawford, an academic who was once part of the school of thought “which bemoans the loss of public space and makes dark predictions about how that loss is contributing to the erosion of democratic values”. She contributed a chapter to Michael Sorkin’s ‘Variations of a Theme Park’, positing the idea that the entire world had become a gigantic shopping mall. She has changed her position in the last few years though - "I don't think public space is dead, just changing. We can't even say what public space is. In fact, there are different public spaces that address different publics." As part of the Everyday Urbanism movement she has spent time closely examining the garage sale phenomenons of Los Angeles. Crawford calls the process by which groups use unauthorized means to transform the urban landscape "reterritorialization."

“Selling used merchandise at garage sales is a flourishing business in many parts of the city. Although city ordinances generally impose limits on the number of sales an individual can hold per year, these limits are frequently ignored, and yard sales sometimes become permanent, in effect a store on private property. Garage and yard sales tend to intersect with other venues at which used goods are sold, such as flea markets and antique stores. There's an entire informal economy that's very rich and that brings about a lot of cross-class activity. It's a whole neighborhood web held together by used things."

garage sale

Garage sales change the meaning of the single family home by activating the front yard, which is usually the ‘buffer space’ to keep people out. Though ‘these activities seem trivial’, Crawford sees them as a way in which people ‘demand to use space, which can be seen as a new form of urban citizenship. For many of these people (in particular illegal immigrants who have fought to be accepted as entrepreneurs rather than criminals) this type of action is more significant than electoral politics”. Nor are these yard sales a leveraging point only for the poor:

“During the early 1990s, when real estate prices plummeted, leaving many homeowners with mortgages they could no longer afford, yard sales sprouted along the manicured streets of Beverly Hills. Owners of million-dollar homes could be seen offering leather jackets and other luxury goods at bargain prices.”

garage sale weekend


While assembling this post I unearthed a host of conferences with broadly similar themes related to 'Networked Publics'.

- 'The Architecture and Situated Technologies Conference' (held by the Center for Virtual Architecture and The Institute for Distributed Creativity) is set to take place in a couple of weeks. The conference is not interested only in scenarios where “everyday objects and spaces are networked with computational intelligence” but in how ‘situated technology’ can incorporate “an awareness of cultural context, accrued social meanings, and the temporality of spatial experience". Situated technologies “privilege the local, context- specific and spatially contingent dimension of their use”.

One of the questions the conference 'poses' - "How might this evolving relation between people and "things" alter the way we occupy, navigate, and inhabit the built environment?" - refers to a recently released UN report by the International Telecommunications Union predicting an ‘Internet of Things’, “where the “users” of the Internet will be counted in billions and where humans may become the minority as generators and receivers of information” (the majority being automated sensors, radio frequency tags, GPS modules etc).

- Breaking the Game is a series of offline interdisciplinary workshops and an online symposium to connect “a growing community of artists and designers who mine the resources, code, and aesthetics of video games"....opening up the "art of game modification" to the "contingencies of everyday life." One theme of the workshop is 'Overclocking the City' and proposes that "we look more critically at gaming technologies and culture as storehouses of tools, code, interactive strategies, possibilities for social networking, new spatial/perceptual metaphors, and graphical worlds that can be used, manipulated, and re-energized for purposes that lie outside corporate goals of the game industry. We propose using these popular technologies to help cure ourselves of old habits of thought, not necessarily for designing better working buildings, but for designing new kinds of perceptual experiences that might influence, disrupt, expand and integrate with the social and material practices of our public urban spaces."

My favourite example question is: "how might anthropological fieldwork and ethnography change if its practitioners had to create a 3D virtual world rather than an essay or a book; if anthropology's disciplinary object was an updatable, media-rich, networked, and navigable space, rather than a text?" Interessante, no?!

- CONFLUX is the annual festival of ‘contemporary psyschogeography’, also happening in NYC (where I guess you just spend your time going to conferences if you live there). Projects range from "interpretations of the classical approach developed by the Situationists to new methods being developed today in cities throughout the world." The city becomes "a playground, a laboratory and a space for the development of new networks and communities. Preemptive Media have designed AIR [Area's Immediate Reading] - a public, social experiment in which people are invited to use portable air monitoring devices to explore their neighborhoods and urban environments for pollution and fossil fuel burning hotspots.


And lastly, if you like the world neatly packaged and categorised for easy digestion, here is Kazys Varnelis's user-friendly matrix for understanding our contemporary condition of ‘transcontemporaneity’.

Kazys Diagram


"If you are a utopian modernist, the prognosis isn’t great. Architecture is the last thing horizontality needs" (Kazys Varnelis on his support for 'altomodernista's fotolog).