Desert Futures: Scenarios for a World of Extremes is part of a series of studios and research projects spearheaded by FAST: Foundation for Achieving Seamless Territory that aim to spatialize and make visible the tensions between cultural and natural systems and design visions along with strategies for habitation, transformation, and remediation that center environmental justice and care in the face of the climate crisis and future uncertainties while focusing on arid and semi-arid environments. These territories are characterized by their unique challenges and opportunities, as they require innovative approaches to sustainable development that balance the needs of human communities with the preservation of fragile ecosystems. The following book summarizes the result of a studio taught by Malkit Shoshan at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design in the fall of 2022. The studio explored the North American desert ecoregion along a selection of sites in the Mojave and the Sonoran deserts. These sites demonstrate the entanglement between extraction, perpetual waste, irresponsible water management, inhabitation, and environmental degradation and the urgent need to reimagine these spaces in the face of future uncertainty and the climate crisis.
Instructor: Malkit Shoshan
Teaching Assistant: Areti Kotsoni
Students: Aakanksha Jain, Akiva Blander, Eunsoo Hyun, Jingyi Jia, Jonathan Boyce, Kai Guo, Kian Hosseinnia, Kun Wei, Liene Baptista, Mike Lidwin, Pranav Thole, Tomi Laja.
Guests: Diana K Davis, Gili Merin, Joseph Grima, Kyle Bocinsky, Matthijs Bouw, Maureen McCarthy, Marina Otero and Valerie Rangel.
Desert Futures: Scenarios for a World of Extremes is part of a series of studios and research projects spearheaded by FAST: Foundation for Achieving Seamless Territory that aim to spatialize and make visible the tensions between cultural and natural systems and design visions along with strategies for habitation, transformation, and remediation that center environmental justice and care in the face of the climate crisis and future uncertainties, while focusing on arid and semi-arid environments. These territories are characterized by their unique challenges and opportunities, as they require innovative approaches to sustainable development that balance the needs of human communities with the preservation of fragile ecosystems. To achieve this, designers and planners must engage in a collaborative process that involves local stakeholders and draws on indigenous knowledge and practices.
In the past century, the desert has been settled, mined, farmed, and bombed and has served as a ground for all sorts of human experimentation and exploration. Transforming the desert into a productive or hospitable space has been the fixation of many (scientists, economists, industrialists, politicians, ideologists, artists, designers, engineers, and the market) and, by extension, modernity. The environmental consequences of these extractive practices are grave and include uncontrolled urbanization, soil pollution, depletion of resources, perpetual drought, disease, and extinction—all exacerbated by the climate emergency.
The World Atlas of Desertification predicts that by 2050, 90% of Earth’s land will be degraded because of human actions, rendering many places across the world uninhabitable and expanding desert regions and the precarity of life within them. Learning from the desert as a planetary site and understanding these processes can help us not only develop scenarios and strategies for change but also speculate on how resources are governed, managed, and shared in extreme conditions.
This studio was developed for Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design to explore the North American desert ecoregion along a selection of sites in the Mojave and the Sonoran deserts. These sites demonstrate the entanglement between extraction, perpetual waste, irresponsible water management, inhabitation, and environmental degradation and the urgent need to reimagine these spaces in the face of future uncertainty and the climate crisis.
In the desert, more than in any other environment, the fragile relationships between human settlement, spatial design, and the devastation of nature are visible. Some examples are outlined below.
Before the arrival of European settlers, California’s native population, according to archaeologists, was about 300,000 with various sociopolitical groups and over sixty broad linguistic designations. The area was inhabited for at least thirteen thousand years when European settlements began. The indigenous population’s deep knowledge of the soil, plants, and animals produced a rich culture that inhabited, tended, and shaped the region’s landscape with a careful, regenerative, and non-extractive biome synergy. However, colonization of the region violently eradicated the deep indigenous knowledge, care practices, and life. Today, the surviving indigenous communities are marginalized, concentrated in reservations that lack access to essential resources, and are subjected to systemic environmental and spatial racism.
The Colorado River Basin in the Southwestern United States allocates water to states, including Arizona, California, Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah. The water is carried through a 336-mile-long, 1-foot-deep, and 80-foot-wide concrete aqueduct across the desert to cities like Phoenix, Tucson, and Las Vegas. Until recently, a large part of the power needed to pump and level the water was generated on the land of the Navajo Nation using explosively cracked coal mines and coal-fired plants. These methods had devastating consequences for the environment and the health of the surrounding communities. The intensity of mining and coal depletion led energy companies to seek alternatives.
California’s unaffordable and volatile real estate market has forced over 160,000 people out of their homes and developers out of the cities. New neighborhoods and a range of experimental settlement typologies such as gated communities, alpaca and camel farms, vineyards, and breweries are being extended from the so-called wildland-urban interface zones into the desert. These areas require excessive use of water, deplete aquifers, exacerbate water scarcity, and contribute to desertification processes. They are also highly susceptible to wildfires, which burned more than 7.13 million acres in the United States in 2021.
Overshadowing the vineyards and the gated communities is an entirely new landscape of gigastructure logistics infrastructure. One box after the other, the material footprint of Silicon Valley now extends across the desert at an unprecedented scale and pace, including data and fulfillment centers and logistics hubs.
Forty miles north of Las Vegas, the Sedan Crater was created in 1962 by a 104-kiloton nuclear explosive device that displaced more than twelve million tons of soil and created a crater 100 meters deep and 390 meters in diameter. The Sedan fallout reached Iowa, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Illinois, and the expansive scale of their residues is difficult to comprehend. Today, the military infrastructure in the desert is extensive. Large compounds and barracks are part of a global network of the United States army and its arsenal, similar to Creech, the notorious Nevada air base that controls drone missions across the world. Further south, along the United States-Mexico border, new and complex security infrastructure is being built, bombing hills and threatening more than human life. Walls, fences, checkpoints, smart sensors, and detention centers are reshaping the desert rural and urban landscapes.
Desert Futures. Scenarios for a World of Extremes focuses on the North American desert ecoregion, particularly on a selection of sites along the Mojave and the Sonoran deserts that demonstrate the entanglement between extraction, perpetual waste, irresponsible water management, inhabitation, and environmental degradation as well as the urgent need to reimagine these spaces in a time of future uncertainty and climate crisis.
The Desert Futures. Scenarios for a World of Extremes studio’s goal is to analyze and make visible the processes of desert colonization; to identify extractive typologies of architecture, urbanism, infrastructure, and land use; and to design scenarios for their transformation based on values of environmental and social justice and radical care.
In the face of uncertainty, the studio used a pedagogy that encourages interdisciplinary collaboration, a whole environment/system approach, multiscalar thinking, and an awareness of the relationships between physical and social environments. Using this structure, we experimented with the agency of design to conduct research, interact with various stakeholders, tell stories, create strategies, and design interventions at the scale of the site and the system.
This book includes four parts. The first part introduces the Desert Futures: Scenarios of a World of Extremes studio, scope, and framework. A visual report complements the introduction and showcases the challenges of desert colonization, urbanization, militarization, and environmental degradation along the selected sites. The second part includes a series of essays by experts from the fields of architecture, urban design, anthropology, and archeology, who visited the studio and offered an additional lens to examine and understand the desert or the agency of design. The third part contains a compilation of five essays and design propositions that were developed throughout the semester with the students in correspondence to the given sites and areas of inquiry.
Read the book:
Course link: https://www.gsd.harvard.edu/course/desert-futures-scenarios-for-a-world-of-extremes-fall-2022/