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ISUS + RISD Address Global Water Issues

ISUS + RISD Address Global Water Issues

Elizabeth Dean Hermann’s current concern is water.

Elizabeth Dean Hermann’s current concern is water. As a professor in RISD’s Landscape Architecture and Architecture departments, she has continued the research she began at Harvard on how pre-modern cities in the Muslim world used their built environment to respond to prolonged periods of environmental, social and political upheaval. Her current work taps into this understanding of history to address contemporary problems in the megacities of South and Southeast Asia. And that’s where water comes in.

In vulnerable regions, water represents both a valuable resource and a significant danger: “The impoverished are the most affected by issues related to water,” Hermann explains. The flip side of the persistent need for clean water is the threat that global warming poses to coastal communities. An accelerating rise in sea levels places many of the planet’s most densely populated cities at risk for regular devastating flooding, which will likely lead to mass migrations away from the coast. “The full implications of displaced populations on settled populations elsewhere are not well understood,” she notes.

In 2004, Hermann and colleagues in Bangladesh and India founded the Institute for Sustainable Urban Societies (ISUS), an international coalition of educators, urban designers, landscape architects, scientists and engineers that develops innovative solutions to the complex issues facing the dense metropolises in endangered coastal zones. Acting on the conviction that “academic institutions have a fundamental responsibility to prepare the next generation to understand the situation before us,” Hermann then launched an educational initiative to address the gap in teaching design and planning in the South and Southeast Asia regions.

Hermann has introduced many RISD students to these concerns through ISUS initiatives and academic courses. She has led groups of students and faculty on trips to India, where she continues her study of pre-modern water management. Students balance their time between drawing and studying the natural and built landscape and “wandering and discovering,” Hermann says. For some, the visual records and memories of the experience feed into their final thesis projects at RISD; for others, the on-site exposure to very real problems in the developing world may well inspire long-term involvement in this crucial area of research, education and advocacy.