Credit: Dana Hoff

Anthony Abbate, AIA, is an architect based in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and the associate provost at Florida Atlantic University. Over the last 10 years, he has been central in encouraging research into how climate change affects subtropical cities, where roughly half the world’s population lives. Abbate has branded the problem that subtropical cities face not as a design issue (although design can mitigate some of the environmental devastation that rising water levels and temperatures incur), but as a professional issue for architects. Architects must, Abbate argues, collaborate more effectively with policymakers, biologists, planners, and engineers if some of the largest population centers in the world are going to survive the 21st century.

In all of the discussion about climate change, I think we need to keep in mind that subtropical cities are not just about climate. They have to do with existing networks and communities as well as migrations in and out of larger regions, like the Sunbelt in the United States, which is a relatively new frontier that has rapidly urbanized. And that’s the starting point for a conversation about sea-level rise.

To me, all of this has to do with developing a design perspective. Look beyond Vitruvius and there are very deep wells of local knowledge in cities and towns about how to build. It’s easy to talk in abstractions about changes in our environment that have a global impact, but the real work has to do with interpreting localized knowledge. I think the term “glocal” is clever, but I believe we need to emphasize the local half of that.

What I’m trying to do with my colleagues in Australia is to think laterally. Sure, there are a lot of successful knowledge-sharing partnerships longitudinally—say, between a North American school and a South American school, or a New York–based firm and a São Paulo–based architect. But we have to develop partnerships along the subtropical band of cities where a lot of people live and work.

My personal optimism aside, the reality is: Unless the decision-makers and leaders in our society convert their thoughts into actions in the next five years—policy, code legislation, and so forth—we will need to seriously design for retreat from the coasts. To a certain extent, we can predict what will happen if no action is taken, but it’s harder to see how things can improve with piecemeal, scattered, and uneven investment and change. We no longer have the luxury of time, and so a concerted, focused, multilateral investment is needed. And I believe that architects should—as designers and as informed citizens—lead this discussion, think creatively and realistically, and be at the table with policymakers. —As told to William Richards