When the water started rising in October 2011, the ground snapped and squeaked as it broke into pieces. Bricks shattered, floor tiles cracked and water rushed up through the fissures. The deluge blindsided the 150 families living here, in a cluster of villages known as Kittiyarak nestled in Thailand’s Sai Noi district in Bangkok’s northwest suburbs. By the time the devastating flood receded some three months later, it would be on record as the worst natural disaster in modern Thai history.
“No one expected it to be this bad,” says Fongpol Konpruek, a 52-year-old former farmer from northern Thailand who moved to Sai Noi 16 years ago. “We were the first ones wet and the last ones dry.” Konpruek remembers the overwhelming confusion of those early days. “The water came from everywhere. It came slow, but it also came fast. I don’t know any other way to explain it.” Rising 20 to 30 centimeters per day until reaching a height of 1.5 meters, the debris-clogged tide submerged streets, sidewalks, parking lots and the ground floor of every building in the area.
What happened next says a lot about the power of social networks and informal systems in moments of urban crisis. Left with little official help, residents here — along with hundreds of thousands of people in other flood-struck parts of Bangkok — sprang into action. They quickly improvised a series of informal networks, and repurposed existing ones, to perform the vital tasks normally carried out by the government in emergencies. People with no training and few resources built barriers and monitored flood levels, delivered food and drinking water, evacuated residents trapped in their homes, provided medical services to the sick and injured, and policed their neighborhoods for looters. And when the water receded, these networks shifted focus and led a localized cleanup and rebuilding effort that helped the city rebound.
A child waits in the shade while workers harvest nearby in Sai Noi. These fields were inundated during the flood in 2011.
As cities around the world grapple with rising sea levels and strengthening storms, governments are responding with an array of infrastructural solutions. Since Hurricane Sandy, New York has increased the minimum elevation required for new and reconstructed buildings in flood-prone areas, and is raising subway entrances and ventilation grates off the ground. San Francisco is redesigning its water and sewage treatment system to the tune of $40 million to prevent rising sea waters from entering the pipes during storm surges. The Netherlands — nearly 60 percent of which is prone to flooding — is reimagining its entire coastal protection system, one of the most elaborate in the world, by allocating at least a billion euros annually to extend storm-surge barriers, relocate tidal channels, nourish beaches and increase the flood-protection levels of diked areas “by a factor of 10.” And for every mega-project like these, there are smaller, micro-targeted ones: The modest but growing Vietnamese city of Quy Nhon, for example, is spending $550,000 to restore 150 hectares of mangrove forests, helping to protect 14,000 households along its coast from strengthening monsoons.
But there’s also a growing awareness that combating disasters with hard infrastructure alone ignores half the equation. Perhaps just as important is a city’s social infrastructure. Recent research suggests that informal networks are critical to dealing with calamity and that areas with strong social cohesion fare better than areas where such networks are weak.
Bangkok isn’t the only place recognizing this. San Francisco’s Empowered Communities Program is working with local neighborhoods to increase their resilience in advance of disasters. The initiative supports communities as they develop action plans, but also generates higher levels of social capital among key stakeholders that can be invaluable during traumatic events. Participating groups include Neighborhood Emergency Response Teams (NERTs) and merchant associations. The city has even created a role-playing game called Resilientville that helps communities test and streamline their informal emergency response capabilities.
One of the most comprehensive efforts currently underway is in Wellington, New Zealand, where the largest unit of that city’s emergency management office is the Community Resilience Team (CRT). Dedicated solely to equipping and empowering informal networks to respond when disaster strikes, the CRT trains “Community-Driven Emergency Management” (CDEM) volunteers in how to promote preparedness among their own networks, as well as to respond as a community or plug into the official government response. Community response plans are facilitated by the CRTto guide planning at the local level to coordinate activities and manage resources like food and fuel. “Our whole model is getting normal people involved,” says Dan Neely, senior adviser for emergency preparedness at the Wellington Emergency Management Office. “People who are capable in their daily lives will be capable during an event. We’re trying to get to those people now… so that when a large-scale event happens, John Doe can tap into the wider community response plan.”
Wellington sent some of their CDEM volunteers to Christchurch when that city was devastated by an earthquake in 2011. But Neely emphasizes that you can’t just parachute in an informal response. “Part of this is building social capital,” he says. “We’re working to increase connectedness. Strong communities have better outcomes during a response.”
For evidence of this, look to Chicago, where informal networks played a major role in determining survival rates when a five-day heat wave killed 733 people in 1995. As Eric Klinenberg recently reported in The New Yorker, the neighborhoods that lost the fewest lives during that event weren’t necessarily the richest, but rather the ones that had especially strong social ties. His book Heat Wave documents the surprisingly high survival rate in the working-class Latino neighborhood of Little Village: “The social environment of Little Village protected not only the area’s Latino population, but the culturally or linguistically isolated white elderly, who were at high risk of death as well.” He points to the neighborhood’s “social contact, collective life and public engagement” as factors that “foster tight social networks among families and neighbors.” When crisis struck, those networks responded almost instinctually.
Such informal networks were critical lifelines for many in Bangkok in 2011, and as storms intensify and sea levels rise, they’ll only become that much more crucial. Cities everywhere are grasping the importance of such networks, but in many ways Bangkok has a head start — it’s a place where informality already infuses many aspects of everyday life. “The government is inefficient and corrupt,” says Bangkok-based engineering professor Visit Hirankitti, who is working on methods to enhance the city’s informal disaster response. But what Bangkok lacks in bureaucratic competence it makes up for in people-powered strength.
Ideally, a combination of capable government and robust informal networks, working in tandem, could provide the bulwark that cities will need in the age of climate change. This will require not only social cohesion, but a willingness on the part of governments to help equip communities for self-reliance and develop disaster plans that allow for a citizen-led response. There are signs that this is slowly occurring — from New York to Bangkok, recent events have forced cities to let informal networks react to disasters with relative autonomy. Whether they embrace a model in which private citizens and government agencies work in partnership could define their resilience as the coming storms arrive.
In Bangkok, informal networks are not only strong, they’re omnipresent. They have their roots in rural society and are intricately interwoven with the social fabric, even in urban areas. The greater metropolitan area has grown rapidly in the last several decades, doubling in size since 1980. In search of economic opportunities, migrants from the countryside have driven much of that growth. Despite the speed of this population expansion — or perhaps because of it — its residents have maintained strong social bonds. Such robust informal networks are also the product of a population that expects little of its government, aside from two revered institutions, the monarchy and the military.
Those networks attained new importance in late 2011, after Tropical Storm Nock-ten had made its way overland from Vietnam to Thailand in July. Over a period of weeks, rain from the storm, combined with heavy seasonal monsoons, overwhelmed the city’s dams. The Grand Palace was deluged, and Don Mueang Airport shut down after water flooded its runways. Panic gripped the city as the government declared a five-day emergency holiday. When all was said and done, 815 people were dead, 14 million were affected and over $45 billion in damage was left in the catastrophe’s wake, making it the fourth-most expensive natural disaster ever.
But in the days before the flood arrived, official channels of communication were strangely sanguine. The government urged Bangkok residents to stay calm, insisting there would be no emergency. As late as October 13, the Bangkok Post quoted the city’s governor, MR Sukhumbhand Paribatra, saying: “Right now, everything is under control. If we can’t control it, we will let people know straight away.” And even as the news media reported on the gigantic rain-fed pool growing ominously to the city’s north, they assured Bangkok’s residents that the water would never reach them.
Soon, however, dramatic images of the destruction of Southeast Asia’s second-largest economic powerhouse were swirling around the globe. But hardly anyone was looking at Sai Noi — not the media, and certainly not the government, which proved overwhelmed, unprepared and impotent in the face of a worst-case scenario. By late October 2011, the villages of Sai Noi were isolated and in dire straits.
A little over a year after the flood had receded, I hopped in a taxi one weekday morning and made the 45-minute drive from the gleaming shopping malls and high-rises of Bangkok’s central districts to the district of Sai Noi. I wanted to speak to residents there about how they had dealt with the flood, and how they’ll respond to the next big one, which nearly everyone is expecting someday soon.
Sai Noi is where booming New Bangkok collides with the rural customs and lagging economic growth of Old Thailand. In feel, it is neither urban nor rural. Instead, it’s a mishmash of the two, with rice fields and winding village lanes abutting the strip malls and multi-million-dollar commuter villas of Bangkok’s ever-expanding urban sprawl. It was areas like these, on the city’s north side, that were hit hardest by the flood and where the citizen networks were strongest. In part, they bore the brunt for geographic reasons, but also because the authorities decided to sacrifice them, releasing water into suburban areas in order to staunch the flooding in central Bangkok.
Vichain Kongsub, the elected chief of his village in Sai Noi. He and the local residents’ committee quickly improvised a plan when it became clear the flood would reach their area.
Surprisingly, there is little bitterness about this among the residents; their attitude is more like resigned acceptance. “It’s true that we were sacrificed, but not as badly as other areas,” says Vichain Kongsub, an affable man of 75 whose energy and trim build make him appear 20 years younger. “And anyway, what can you do? We had to suck it up.”
Vichain was at the center of Sai Noi’s informal flood-relief network. As the phu yai baan — which translates roughly as “village chief,” an elected, semi-official advisor found in nearly every community this size in Thailand — the people looked to him for direction. When it became obvious that the floodwaters would reach them, Vichain quickly called a meeting of the local residents’ committee, a nongovernmental body of 15 elders, to create an action plan for the community’s response.
Through consensus, the committee members decided how best to use the two resources the government had provided: Sandbags and a large water pump. “It was all very informal,” says Vichain. They organized residents into work crews — men shoveled sand and women carried the sandbags — and collected money from community members to buy a second water pump. The hope was, at least in these early stages, that they could stop the water from entering the villages. As it surged in, however, their defenses were overwhelmed. “We did our best,” says Vichain, “but it just didn’t work.”
Undeterred by this initial setback, the community found its stride as the situation worsened. Using a loudspeaker mounted on an electricity pole, Vichain and the residents’ committee organized a distribution network for food and water that was flowing into the area courtesy of a city-wide volunteer network formed by the television station Channel 3. Then, with the floodwater rising rapidly, they set into motion an orderly evacuation of residents. They selected six volunteers who would stay behind to monitor the situation and police the area for looters. All the while, this crew of volunteers was in touch with officials at the local sub-district government office by cell phone, to whom they provided updates, as well as the military, which was intermittently delivering aid to Sai Noi.
As one of the leaders of his village’s informal response network, Kritsada Rotcharatch was one of six people who stayed behind during the flood.
Kritsada Rotcharatch, a brash construction foreman who favors t-shirts with the sleeves cut off and carries a cell phone that rings constantly, was one of the six who volunteered to stay behind. He moved to the second floor of his house (the ground floor was underwater) where he kept an eye on property for his evacuated neighbors, who checked in regularly by phone. Kritsada armed himself with a gun for confrontations with looters. “There were no police. My role was to protect the neighborhood,” he says. I asked if he was prepared to use it. “Yes. And I wouldn’t have aimed for the legs,” he chuckles. Kritsada maintained a running list of who was in the community at all times and relayed the information about what he saw to the sub-district office. During this period, he and the five other volunteers were the sole authority governing this area of Sai Noi.
By the end of December, the floodwaters had receded from area. Residents returned and turned their attention to recovery. Cleanup crews made up of five households each collected debris from public areas and worked to put their homes back together. Then, through a system of barter and labor exchange — money was scarce due to the disruption of business caused by the flood — community members tackled larger jobs like repairing their houses. The villages were back up and running in less than a week. In the three months since the water had appeared, not a single member of the community had died or was seriously hurt. Against all odds, law and order had prevailed, and life returned, more or less, to the way it was before. With minimal help from the government, the neighborhood had survived the worst disaster ever to hit Thailand.
Near the end of a long conversation with Vichain and Kritsada, the dark stains of the high-water mark still clearly visible above us on a nearby wall, the discussion shifts to other cities that have been struck by natural disasters in recent years. I bring up Hurricanes Sandy and Katrina, and the hostility that residents of New Orleans and New York felt toward their own governments in the aftermath of those events. I ask them if they felt something similar. “No,” Vichain says without hesitation. “The government already had their hands full managing the water as it moved down from the north. They can’t take care of everyone.”
Cooperation came naturally to the residents of Sai Noi, in this case partly because of another shared identity: Their background as migrants from rural northern Thailand. In these regions, in particular the hardscrabble Isan area in the northeast, flooding is common and the people know how to deal with it. The residents of Sai Noi brought that knowledge with them to Bangkok. “I experienced my first flood when I was four years old,” Vichain says. “People in the countryside are better prepared. We had boats and built our houses on stilts.”
But there was more to it than that. Although they hadn’t come from the same province and didn’t know each other when they arrived, the residents shared a cultural sensibility that, when they found themselves in unfamiliar urban surroundings, brought them together as a community. “It’s very normal for us to cooperate like this. It’s instinct,” says Kritsada, echoing a sentiment I heard from a range of Thais involved in relief networks, including those who’ve spent their entire lives in cities. Sai Noi’s flood network now lies dormant. But when the next disaster comes, the community will re-establish it quickly. “Next time,” Vichain says, “we will be ready.”
Next time may come sooner than the last time. Researchers at MIT and Princeton University have found that the types of superstorms that used to make landfall once a century could now arrive every three to 20 years, and that so-called “500-year floods” might arrive as often as every 25 years, according to findings published in Nature Climate Change. “The volatility of large events of recent years has really grabbed hold of people, whether it’s Bangkok or Japan or Hurricane Sandy,” says Robert J. Sampson, a professor of social sciences at Harvard. “These things have made it clear that we have to think anew about how to prepare for disaster.” Sampson’s work, for instance, involves a method of disaster planning called ecometrics: “Taking the temperature of communities so you know which ones are vulnerable. It allows one to identify breaches of social defenses, not just seawalls,” he says. Like much of the thinking around social infrastructure and disaster preparedness, this is relatively new territory. But Sampson sees it catching on quickly. “There’s been a sea change,” he says. “It’s now on the radar.”
Part of the reason cities like Bangkok and Wellington seem to be catching on to the role of informal social networks more quickly is simply because they have to. “New Zealanders are a scrappier people,” says Dan Neely from the Wellington Emergency Management Office. “We don’t have the level of resources that the U.S. has, so we’re forced to rely on our communities to a degree.”
Vichain echoes this sentiment. “If you expect the government to help you all of the time, you have to pay more in taxes, and Thais aren’t willing to do that,” he said. (This is a city where 150 formal ambulances attempt to serve 12 million residents, after all). Low expectations about government involvement meant that the people of Sai Noi were under no illusions about the level of assistance they would receive. And even if more outside help were available, they told me, it would have been no substitute for the on-the-ground expertise that residents were able to provide as events unfolded. “Based on our experience with the flood, it would work better for us to propose something to the government rather than waiting for them to help us,” says Vichain. “If we want something, we need to stick together and figure it out ourselves.” In turn, the government recognized its limitations and was prepared to cede authority to local networks.
A villager tending a field in Sai Noi.
This last point is salient for discussions about how to empower such informal networks in Western cities, where governments may be less accustomed to letting local actors take the reins. But maybe Western cities are more willing to cede control than one might expect — especially when overwhelmed by crisis. After Hurricane Sandy, when New York was consumed with major tasks like restoring power and subway service, one of the hardest hit neighborhoods, the Red Hook section of Brooklyn, also benefited from one of the most impressive informal responses. A relatively unknown community nonprofit called the Red Hook Initiative instantly transformed, in the words of its executive director, “from a small youth development center into a major hub for the disaster relief effort here.”
With an operation that was thoroughly informal yet, by all accounts, highly efficient and essential, the initiative turned its tiny headquarters into a makeshift storm-recovery center. It provided hot food, cell phone charging (it was one of very few local buildings to keep its power) and perhaps most important, a central command for much of the neighborhood’s flood-relief efforts. In the weeks that followed, the media marveled at the idea that such a rag-tag group could respond so effectively without being led by the government’s hand.
But they needn’t have been so surprised. Even when the sun shines, Red Hook is an unusually isolated neighborhood. It sits on a peninsula, untouched by the subway, and its denizens proudly consider themselves a city apart. Its remoteness seems to foster a shared identity, which felt palpable when residents later talked about organizing their own response in the wake of the storm. “I think many in the Red Hook community feel geographically and psychologically disconnected from the city,” an aide to New York City Speaker Christine Quinn told Capital New York, adding that confronting Hurricane Sandy’s wrath themselves, without top-down intervention, “may have been more empowering for the people of Red Hook than being rescued by a federal agency.”
In Bangkok, how to respond to the next flood is a question that has consumed Visit Hirankitti for the past year and a half. Visit is a professor of engineering at King Mongkut’s Institute of Technology in Ladkrabang, a district in eastern Bangkok that is home to high-tech manufacturing and the crown jewel of the city’s economic ascendance, glittering Suvarnabhumi International Airport. Until recently, though, Ladkrabang served as a catchment for flood waters, a mostly empty plain for the authorities to divert water into during heavy rains.
Visit was in the midst of exams when the flood arrived. Given the area’s history as a catchment, he expected things to get bad quickly. “But the water stopped rising at just above my ankles. This surprised me. I thought it would be much worse,” he says. As it turned out, with Ladkrabang’s recent development as a key economic zone — Japanese heavyweights Honda and Isuzu have factories here, and the airport is the hub of the country’s $30 billion tourism industry — the authorities were desperate to keep the area dry and functioning.
Throughout final exams, Visit was able to come to his office every day. Some of his students, though, were commuting in from harder-hit areas and decided to temporarily relocate their living quarters to the engineering lab, where they had a dry place to sleep and access to food and clean drinking water. Visit and his students watched with alarm as events unfolded across the city. “I became very frustrated. As an engineer, I wanted to do something and not just sit there and watch it happen on TV. I kept thinking, ‘What can I do for the country?’” When he finished grading exams, he recruited several students to stay on through winter break and assist him in developing a system that he hoped would help Thailand cope with future floods.
Engineering professor Visit Hirankitti has been developing a system through which citizens armed with iPhone apps would collect data during floods.
As far as Visit could tell, the key problem had been a lack of information. The authorities never really had a handle on where the water was and, as a result, couldn’t make effective decisions on how to manage it. In addition, Thai citizens, left in the dark, were caught scrambling when the flood arrived. “What I realized was that, as an engineer, I could provide data,” he says. Visit specializes in developing systems that synthesize complex information. His past projects include the country’s first electronic taxi dispatch system and a detailed GIS map of Thailand’s electricity grid. Visit realized that the country’s water management authorities, who were relying on antiquated sensors installed on a few dozen flood gates scattered around the country, needed something similar to respond effectively.
Perhaps counterintuitively, his first decision was to work outside the government, which he believes suffers from a toxic blend of incompetence and corruption. “I didn’t believe in going that route,” he says. Instead, he would rely on the strength of citizen involvement, which had proven to be so decisive in responding to the flood. Visit and his students set out to create a nationwide flood-monitoring system that would rely on thousands of volunteers, creating a vast, cheap, technologically advanced network that could provide up-to-date information to anyone who wanted it, including the authorities. After producing a prototype, he eventually decided to apply for government grants to fund further development.
On a recent afternoon in his lab, which was strewn with computers, tangles of cable and the fast-food-wrapper detritus indicative of late-night research, Visit showed me the version that he believed would be ready next year. The technology was simple: a PVC pipe housing a piece of twine and a small float, a circuit board to collect measurements and a Bluetooth device to transmit data.
Once he’s secured patents for the system, Visit hopes to set up over 1,000 of these sensors around the country. He estimates that they will cost about $30 USD apiece to produce, and he’s currently assessing various funding options, including donations and corporate sponsorship. The sensors will send data to thousands of volunteers who have downloaded a free iPhone app developed by one of Visit’s students. A central server will then collect the data from the phones and generate a three-dimensional map of water levels throughout the country, to be displayed on a public website. When operational, the system will be the largest flood-related network in Thailand. “With the increase in global warming and natural disasters, I have no doubt that another big flood is coming. The question is, what can we do about it? We want to see if people can help people to sort out the problem.”
Since the advent of the smartphone, developers around the world have launched apps designed to help people in crises. Organizations such as theAmerican Red Cross and the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency have created apps designed for emergencies, while privately developed software like BuddyGuard allows users to send out GPS-enabled distress signals. Meanwhile, city governments in urban areas such as Jacksonville, Florida, and Auckland, New Zealand, have created apps that provide real-time emergency information to residents. But Visit’s system is different in that it harnesses the power of users to generate information.
Given the strength of informal networks in Thailand, there is every reason for Visit to feel confident his system will work. Compared to the monumental tasks undertaken by volunteers to save their communities, installing an iPhone app and traveling to within range of a Bluetooth sensor would seem almost trivial. Yet relying entirely on unofficial networks is no solution to the problem, either. Volunteers working together are capable of powerful things, but there are limits to what they can achieve, especially when the authorities and official services underperform.
The view from the Klong Phraya Suren water gate.
I was reminded of this during a morning spent touring the Klong Samwa area with Samai Charoenchang, a former government official. Like Sai Noi in the northwest, Klong Samwa, located on the city’s northeast side, had been submerged in up to two meters of water. Samai drove me around the area in his minivan, introducing me to dozens of people who had joined relief networks. I met a woman who put her lucrative home-based TV production studio on hold for two months to set up a temporary kitchen in her front yard. When running at full capacity with 30 volunteer cooks, she churned out 3,000 free meals per day. I met a man in his seventies who helped deliver that food with members of his local Buddhist meditation center, which had transformed itself into an emergency distribution network. There were many others, and all said that while their networks were currently dormant — there was no flood to respond to — they could be brought back to life within hours.
But there was another, more sinister side to the networks. We stopped at a floodgate that regulates water on Klong Phraya Suren, a canal that runs north to south through Klong Samwa. In early November, at the height of the flood, the gate divided the area into two vastly different worlds. The area on the north side of the gate was completely flooded, while the southern side was dry. The city government, which controlled the gate, had decided to stop the water from flowing south toward central Bangkok, thus flooding the north. Enraged, residents on the northern side organized themselves into a small fighting force and attempted to seize the gate. The southern side responded in kind, and the two met in violent, pitched battles that lasted for two weeks. Armed men on both sides fired shots and fought hand-to-hand with one another before the police arrived and restored order (no one died, though there were plenty of injuries). “By the end, both sides wanted the other to suffer,” says Samai.
Suporn Rujapan in her living room next to a portrait of King Rama V on which the high water mark from the flood is clearly visible.
Regardless of these conflicts, Thais retain faith in their ability to respond to crises informally. Suporn Rujapan, a mother of grown children living on the city’s north side, stayed in her home for the entire duration of the flood. After initially finding herself a victim of the disaster, she quickly grew into a role as front-line leader of her community’s relief efforts, directing government and volunteer resources and becoming a minor media celebrity in the process. During a conversation in the kitchen of her modest concrete shop house, she echoes the thoughts of many Thais I had spoken with. “During the flood, we found that it was better to help ourselves than to rely on the government,” she says. Although she worries that her children’s generation has lost the sense of collective responsibility she feels so deeply, Suporn believes that the country will continue to rely on informal means to respond to future crises. “We’re Thais,” she says simply. “It’s in our nature to help each other.”
“We have to go! We have to go!” Chetsarish Smithnukulkit says, his eyes wide under the silver bangs bouncing on his forehead. Chetsarish was standing in the offices of VS Service, a Thai production company that assists Hollywood film crews with local shoots, recounting the moment when he knew he would get involved in the flood. He didn’t have to take action; the worst of the water was dozens of kilometers away to the north. But Chetsarish’s calculus was simple: “We have the boat. We have the people. We have everything we need to help.”
The boat. Whereas what happened in Sai Noi was hyper-local, a small neighborhood helping itself when no one else could, a story repeated thousands of times across Bangkok, Chetsarish’s experience was different. His is a story of one man’s initiative, and how he marshaled not just his own resources, but also those of large volunteer networks and the government, to help an estimated 2,500 people. But first and foremost, this is the story of a boat.
Chetsarish Smithnukulkit and his crew with the boat that allowed them to aid people in a province north of Bangkok.
“I bought it five or six years ago from a film crew we worked with. They used it to shoot scenes in Rambo 4,” says Chetsarish. “I thought I could use it for another shoot. It didn’t have a motor, so we had to push it around with a bamboo pole.” Essentially a massive floating platform, the barge could hold nearly 50 people and hundreds of pounds of cargo. As the floodwater bore down on Bangkok, he got a call one day from the governor of Ayutthaya, a province north of the city. “He asked us to help. He said they had no food, no water, and that the people were in danger. He told me where to go,” Chetsarish says.
Chetsarish rounded up a crew of young production specialists from his company and student volunteers from a nearby university. But the journey would take hours, even days, if the crew were to push their way, gondola-style, all the way up to Ayutthaya. Chetsarish got on the phone again, this time reaching his friend Major General Adis Ngamchitsuksri, a high-ranking police official. “He said he needed a motor for his boat. I flew one in by seaplane the next day,” Adis says.
For the next two months, working 14-hour days, Chetsarish and his crew traversed the flood-ravaged city in their barge, which played many roles: Floating hospital, search-and-rescue-ship, mobile power station and aid-delivery platform. In coordination with local sources — government, volunteer networks and trapped citizens — they went to places the authorities simply couldn’t reach. They carried a generator that allowed those left behind to charge their cell phones and reestablish contact with the outside world. They transported doctors who provided medical care to the injured. They became a floating morgue, removing several dead bodies.
A woman feeding catfish at the temple next to the Klong Phraya Suren water gate.
They also had some close calls. Ten crewmembers, including Chetsarish, nearly died when they were electrocuted by a submerged power cable. And then there was their fear — perhaps irrational, in retrospect — of crocodiles, hundreds of which had reportedly escaped from illegal farms. “We heard rumors. We though they might be true,” he says, laughing sheepishly now. But the danger mattered little in the face of the overwhelming gratitude they encountered from those they helped. “When we came into an area, everyone stood and applauded,” he says, rubbing his forearms, remembering the goose bumps.
I ask Chetsarish what lessons he took from the flood. He leans in, his voice lowering to a near-whisper. “I have to say something bad about Thai politics.” The country’s two parties, in perpetual conflict, were not equipped to handle the crisis. “They look after themselves and not the people,” he says. “And besides, we’re ten times more efficient. The police had no way of helping people. That’s why they needed me.” On this last point, Major General Adis agrees. “We’re always ready to go to the public for help. We knew we couldn’t do this alone.” When the next flood comes, Adis will get on the phone and call his friend Chetsarish, the man with the boat. “The engine is working. I just checked it a couple of days ago,” Chetsarish says. “We’re ready to go.”
Jonathan Minard’s documentary of Eyebeam’s recovery efforts (Screen capture by Hyperallergic)
The damage from Sandy’s flooding took Chelsea galleries by surprise. The swelling water knocked artworks from walls and poured into basement storage areas, where art spaces and artists alike often store the work that’s not on display. Zach Feuer Gallery’s sloped space meant that water washed directly toward fragile work. Printed Matter encountered a similar issue, with soaked stock going to waste on the sidewalk. But it wasn’t only physical property that was damaged in the hurricane.
Eyebeam, the new media-focused nonprofit that takes its home in a cavernous Chelsea warehouse extremely close to the water, got hit hard by Sandy. The water line on the inside of the building rose to three feet, and portions of the interior walls had to be removed. But the real damage wasn’t necessarily to architecture but to the space’s archives, which were stored on supposedly stable media formats like DVDs, harddrives, and tapes.
The salt content and the toxicity of the water that came into the building corrupted everything it touched. Years and years of exhibition records, files, and media-driven artist projects were put at risk. Though we think of digital creations as somehow non-physical entities, most of these works were made in the pre-cloud era, and stored as extremely physical things vulnerable to physical problems. The digital isn’t so digital any more when the metal computer tower files reside in is getting eaten away by chemicals. Eyebeam had to go into crisis mode.
Teams of conservators gathered and volunteered to clean, as best they could, the media storage formats that formed Eyebeam’s artistic and curatorial heritage. New media documentarian and Eyebeam resident Jonathan Minard participated in the efforts, and published a short video showing the problems the institution now faces.
Minard also gave Hyperallergic this stirring description of what happened:
Eyebeam Center for Art and Technology resides on the corner of the Westside Highway and 21st street in Chelsea, a neighborhood shared with New York’s most prestigious contemporary art galleries that we now know to be a flood zone.
After Sandy, as the floodwaters receded, Eyebeam’s staff and residents joined to assess the damage.
A record storm surge had swept through the building, leaving three feet of saltwater mixed with sewage and chemicals, claiming over $250,000 worth of AV equipment, computers, and books.
Among the wreckage, an archive of analog and digital media chronicling Eybeam’s 15 years of experimental art and technology had been kept in storage on the first floor. As an artist-in-residence working on a documentary about digital archiving, I had recently participated in conversations with the community about how to digitize this collection to preserve Eyebeam’s history.
Disaster became the impetus. Our organizations’ long-delayed plans to secure a collection stored on unstable formats now had critical urgency.
Kara Van Malssen and Chris Lacinak, media conservation professionals from AudioVisual Media Preservation Solutions, and Eric Piil from Anthology Film Archive, arrived the scene, helping us to implement a system for stabilizing 1,275 items. By promoting our triage effort through social media, we mobilized a volunteer army of archivists including students from NYU’s MIAP program, conservators from MoMA, Rhizome and Heritage Preservation.
In less than two weeks, we have inventoried all the submerged DVDs, VHS and Beta cassettes, Mini DVs, and digital storage media in preparation for transfer to servers. We hope to make the entire collection accessible online in the coming years, working with AudioVisual Preservation Solutions to develop a strategy for the long term preservation of our work, ensuring that the best practices of archiving become ingrained in the culture of Eyebeam.
We hope Eyebeam’s recovery will offer a lesson for other institutions, to secure their archives before the event of a natural disaster or gradual obsolescence renders their media inaccessible.
This story will become part of Archive: a compendium of short documentaries about archiving culture in the Internet age, and the challenges of massive digital storage.
Eyebeam has also opened an online pledge drive to help fund recovery.
“…the decisions ahead come down to nature and numbers, to density, economics and geology. Our relationship to the water can’t stay the same, and at the same time the city is not worth saving if it sacrifices its principles and humanity.”
A flood barrier on the Thames, one of the ideas American experts are looking at in the wake of the destruction wrought by Hurricane Sandy.
Not a month after Hurricane Sandy there’s a rough consensus about how to respond. America is already looking to places like London, Rotterdam, Hamburg and Tokyo, where sea walls, levees and wetlands, flood plains and floating city blocks have been conceived.
The Maeslant surge barrier between Rotterdam and the North Sea. Building similar projects to protect the New York region would test the limits of American democracy
A rendering of a proposed 40-acre park for Governors Island, with a shoreline promenade.
An aerial view of the Thames flood barrier in London.
Robert Moses, about 1938. He accumulated unbridled authority to build major projects.
New York clearly ought to have taken certain steps a while back, no-brainers after the fact. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority ought to have installed floodgates and louvers at vulnerable subway entrances and vents. Consolidated Edison should have gotten its transformers, and Verizon its switching stations, out of harm’s way, and Congress should have ordered the Army Corps of Engineers to study the impact of giant barriers to block parts of the city from the sea.
Scientists, architects, planners and others have, of course, been mulling over these issues for years. They’ve pressed for more parkland and bike lanes, green roofs and energy-efficient buildings, and warned about the need for backup generators, wetland edges along Lower Manhattan and barrier islands for the harbor to cushion the blow of rushing tides.
Hurricane Sandy was a toll paid for procrastination. The good news? We don’t need to send a bunch of Nobel laureates into the desert now, hoping they come up with some new gizmo to save the planet. Solutions are at hand. Money shouldn’t be a problem either, considering the hundreds of billions of dollars, and more lives, another Sandy or two will cost.
So the problem is not technological or, from a long-term cost-benefit perspective, financial.
Rather it is the existential challenge to the messy democracy we’ve devised. The hardest part of what lies ahead won’t be deciding whether to construct Eiffel Tower-size sea walls across the Verrazano Narrows and Hell Gate, or overhauling the city’s sewage and storm water system, which spews toxic waste into rivers whenever a couple of inches of rain fall because the sea levels have already risen so much. These are monumental tasks.
But more difficult still will be staring down the pain, dislocation and inequity that promise to upend lives, undo communities and shake assumptions about city life and society. More than requiring the untangling of colossal red tape, saving New York and the whole region for the centuries ahead will become a test of civic unity.
In New York last week to tour the damage, President Obama named Shaun Donovan, his secretary of Housing and Urban Development, a New Yorker and former housing official in the city, to spearhead federal recovery efforts. Mr. Donovan is an obvious choice. But then the president reflexively pledged (and the vice president followed up with the same promise on Sunday) to restore ravaged neighborhoods and homes in Queens and on Staten Island to the way they were before Hurricane Sandy.
That was business as usual, and the last thing the region or the country needs. At this point there’s no logic, politics and sentiment aside, to FEMA simply rebuilding single-family homes on barrier islands like the Rockaways, where they shouldn’t have been built in the first place, and like bowling pins will tumble again after the next hurricane strikes.
“Retreat is a dirty word,” as Robert S. Young, a North Carolina geologist, has described American sentiment, but better finally to face reality and make plans for smarter construction, compensation and even, where necessary, relocation. Elected officials and utility companies shouldn’t just turn on the lights and heat and restore crippled elevators in forgotten public housing projects that were inadequately designed in the first place.
Common sense dictates upgrading many of these projects to withstand floods but also devising new homes elsewhere for some residents. Cost-benefit analyses, long overdue, should answer tough questions like whether it’s actually worth saving some neighborhoods in flood zones. Communities like Breezy Point should be given knowledge, power and choice about their options, then the responsibility to live by that choice.
This means embracing a policy of compassion and honest talk. It’s no good merely to try to go back to the way things were, because they are not.
This sort of conversation is a third rail of American politics, so it’s no wonder all presidents promise to rebuild and stick taxpayers with the tab. That billions of dollars may end up being spent to protect businesses in Lower Manhattan while old, working-class communities on the waterfronts of Queens, Brooklyn and Staten Island most likely won’t get the same protection flies in the face of ideas about social justice, and about New York City, with its open-armed self-image as a capital of diversity.
But the decisions ahead come down to nature and numbers, to density, economics and geology. Our relationship to the water can’t stay the same, and at the same time the city is not worth saving if it sacrifices its principles and humanity.
So the real test post-Sandy will be negotiating between the two.
Faced with cholera and calamitous urban living conditions in the early 1800s, city planners ran roughshod over property rights to install the street grid. Outrage gradually yielded to rising real estate values, Central Park and the modern metropolis.
During the last century Robert Moses, accumulating unbridled authority to get what he wanted done, bulldozed into existence parks and beaches, highways and housing projects by recklessly destroying old neighborhoods, starving mass transit, crushing opposition and “hounding the people out like cattle,” as Stanley Isaacs, the former Manhattan borough president, said of the hundreds of thousands of mostly poor New Yorkers that Moses displaced.
The defeat of Westway, a Moses-scale proposal during the 1980s to bury the West Side Highway and cover it with parkland and new development, in a sense became the public’s epitaph for Moses. Whether that defeat was bad for the city is a question for another time. But New York became more attuned to community-based initiatives, to preservation, environmentalism and circumspection, all good things in ordinary circumstances.
At the same time it lost something of its nerve.
I walked around Brooklyn Bridge Park last week with the landscape architects Matthew Urbanski and Michael Van Valkenburgh, who designed it. We stood by the salt marsh they installed where an old pier had once been. An acre of formerly obscured shorefront opened to the sky. The park survived Hurricane Sandy with hardly a scratch, proving the virtue of soft edges.
In the design process Mr. Van Valkenburgh had asked the state Environmental Conservation Department, which polices the coastline, for permission to float a north-south footbridge, just 12 feet wide, between the embankment where the old pier ended and the next pier over, where the architects are installing sports fields. The idea: People wouldn’t have to walk all the way around the shore to get from one pier to the other.
The department said no. The narrow bridge’s shadow might disturb the habitats of fish. It was the argument that torpedoed Westway.
Now the task is to create a whole new ecological infrastructure for the region. The hurdles go beyond just a single state authority fearful to concede even a footbridge. They include an alphabet soup of agencies and public officials: Congress and the governors of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut; the Corps of Engineers; FEMA; the Homeland Security Department; the New York State Public Service Commission (which in principle has the leverage to compel companies like Con Ed and Verizon to safeguard its equipment); Amtrak; the Metropolitan Transportation Authority; the city’s planning, transportation, parks and environmental protection departments; and the Port Authority, devised as the organization in charge of such epic undertakings, today a shadow of its former self.
The Australians have a mantra for battling climate change: Protect, Redesign, Rebuild, Elevate, Relocate and Retreat. Guy Nordenson, a New York engineer who has spent years researching the subject, talks about controlling floods and controlled flooding, accepting that the water will ultimately get in. This means thinking like the Australians, long term about evolving nature. Our election cycle tends to thwart infrastructural improvements that can take decades and don’t provide short-term ribbon-cutting payoffs for politicians, which is why it’s a wry commonplace among engineers and architects that autocratic regimes make the most aggressive builders of massive projects.
For New York sea gates alone won’t fix the city’s problems any more than will porous streets with catchment basins and waterproof vaults under sidewalks to secure electrical systems. At the same time this is a golden opportunity for the United States to leapfrog countries that have pioneered innovative architecture like garages doubling as floodwater containers and superdikes serving as parks and high-density housing complexes — a chance for designers, planners and engineers finally to get back, after so many decades, to the decision-making table.
The question is: Can we accomplish this in time and fairly?
The young Moses was a political savant with the vision to operate beyond the boundaries of municipalities, cities and bureaucracies and get big things done. But that same genius enabled him to extend his power beyond reasonable limits and finally to sweep aside the precious, small-scale urban values and human decency that sustain a civic democracy. His biographer Robert Caro wrote in the 1970s that Moses “bent the democratic processes of the city to his own ends to build public works,” albeit “left to themselves, these processes proved unequal to the building required.”
“The problem of constructing large-scale public works in a crowded urban setting,” Mr. Caro added, “is one which democracy has not yet solved.”
And it still hasn’t.
A version of this article appeared in print on November 20, 2012, on page C1 of the New York edition with the headline: Vetoing Business as Usual After the Storm.
Elise Beacom November 10, 2012 – 08:02
Danish urban planner Jan Gehl explains his succesful blueprint for building cities around people
Every Tuesday for a whole year, a young architect named Jan Gehl sat in Strøget and recorded everything that took place around him. It was 1962, and Copenhagen’s main shopping street had recently been closed off to cars – a move so controversial that the then-mayor received death threats and had to be protected by bodyguards.
“We’re not Italians, we’re Danes; we need our cars” that was how the discussion went, Gehl told The Copenhagen Post in his 8m x 8m x 8m house in Vanløse.
Back then, when the daisies were flying and the acid was dropping around him, the time was ripe for changing cultural patterns, so the curious Gehl did something pioneering: He people-watched, observing pedestrians on Strøget. From summer to autumn, winter to spring. When there was a parade, or a protest, or when the queen waved her gloved-hand, Gehl was there to record it.
And it was largely based on his findings that Copenhagen made the shift towards bicycles and pedestrians, today earning it the right to jostle with Melbourne (another of Gehl’s protégés) for the title of the world’s most liveable city.
In Gehl’s view, making a city liveable means breathing life between the buildings. People will always fill the space, he discovered. And Strøget, which celebrates its 50th anniversary on November 17, is a perfect example of that – every year, the street crams in up to 120,000 people on the last Sunday before Christmas.
Scandinavian tourists and Jutlanders make up a large portion of that crowd, causing most ‘clever’ Copenhageners, including Gehl, to avoid Strøget and wander through its more charming offshoots. In his opinion, the nicest places, like Strøget or Venice, get crowded and commercialised because they are in such short supply. Gehl’s solution: more Venices and more nice streets in cities.
“There is nothing we like more than a city with a flourishing public life, where people use the squares, sit in cafes and stroll on the promenades,” he said.
Legacy of a lifetime
Now 76 years of age, the urban planner spends 100 days a year overseas, teaching others how to “win their cities back from the ‘motorcar’”, as he calls it.
His consulting firm’s résumé includes reshaping post-earthquake Christchurch in New Zealand, advising almost every Australian capital city and, most recently, reinvigorating post-Communist Moscow.
These cities appoint Gehl to improve their public spaces and conditions for pedestrians, or to ‘Copenhagenize’ urban life. While some hurriedly take Gehl’s recommendations on board – “They did the things we suggested for New York before we even finished the sentence” – other plans get shelved, like in London: “They have done nothing. Because that’s not the British way,” he said.
In New York – where his firm’s suggestions included introducing new bike lanes and blocking off parts of Broadway to cars – they even dub the new bike paths ‘Copenhagen lanes’, Gehl said. While cyclists are speedily overrunning the Big Apple’s streets – nearly 20,000 locals, more than double the 2006 tally, routinely cycled to work last year – the change in Copenhagen was far gentler. “If you do it slowly and don’t tell anyone, no-one will notice it,” Gehl said.
And that is exactly what happened. Gehl remembered it being easy to find a car park in Copenhagen’s city centre at the start of his career, but it gradually became impossible for cars to drive through the centre, and car parks started disappearing. “If the cars can’t park, they won’t come,” Gehl remembers one of his former colleagues saying, adding that Copenhagen had come a long way since the ‘70s when the bustling tourist stretch, Nyhavn, was indeed a parking lot.
Planning for people
In his living room plastered with artwork, and with a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf stacked full – quite possibly with books that he wrote – Gehl explained everything diagrammatically. He drew maps on the table with his fingertips, and he moved this reporter’s dictaphone to characterise a building on his imaginary grid.
Labelling the layout of central Copenhagen as a “walking system”, Gehl said the speciality of combining cities and people was originally “a Danish thing”. “We were the ones who started to take this interest in people and then export it around the world,” he said.
And Gehl is still exporting his people-focused philosophy today. “I only do it because I love it and I think what I can bring is valuable,” he said.
There were several reasons Gehl first started exploring the ‘people issue’ in cities. One was marrying his wife Ingrid, a psychologist who engaged him in countless conversations about the human side of architecture. They wondered how what we build influence our lives and what we do.
Another was when a Christian man from the firm Gehl worked for in 1962 demanded a home that was “good for people”. “We went into a panic because we thought: what would that mean?” Gehl said. “And we ended up designing something that was never built because it was too progressive.”
Copenhagen has taken a lot of small steps since then. Steps that mean Gehl’s eight-year-old granddaughter can now follow a footpath all the way to school.
Seeing children in the streets is a telling sign of how liveable the city is today, according to Gehl. He illustrated his point by re-enacting a conversation with a Vietnamese woman who had recently visited Copenhagen. “She asked me, ‘Are you having a baby boom? I saw so many babies when I was there.’”
She had seen toddlers in bicycle buggies, kids learning to ride, clusters of kindergarten children and mums and dads pushing prams around while they, Gehl added, “endure a year of parental leave, and what more can you do than push a pram around?”
Though the woman’s hypothesis was incorrect, it got Gehl thinking. “I suddenly realised that what she saw was different from what she was used to,” he said. “I think it was a beautiful way of explaining what a people-orientated city Copenhagen is.”
In my new book, Architecture & Design versus Consumerism: How design activism confront growth, I explore this gap and present examples of how designers are confronting key problems of consumerism. Here are just four of those many ways:
1. Designers can help slow the pace of consumerism by devising goods and spaces that offer alternative societal narratives about ownership and sharing.
The Neptune Foundation’s floating swimming pool. Design by Jonathan Kirschenfeld. Photo courtesy of Timothy Schenck.
An emerging class of mobile structures suggests how we might share resources at the community level. One example is the Neptune Foundation’s barge-mounted floating swimming pool, aimed at underserved communities in New York City. Another example is the nomadic prayer space, which enables communities to temporarily appropriate parts of the city for religious services or other community gatherings. These examples show that conscious design for shared use can make artifacts considerably different than conventional models.
2. Designers can slow the pace of consumerism by linking sources of novelty and stimulation to slower natural cycles.
An example is the Lunar-resonant street light (by design collective Civil Twilight). Instead of simply making street lights more efficient, the proposal has street lights responding to the brightness of the moon, dimming when the moon is bright, possibly turning off completely. The aim is to save energy and reconnect people with the night sky and with lunar and tidal cycles. This example ties novelty to (slower) natural cycles and to public goods (moonlight). The proposal also challenges current lighting standards, which call for bright light when studies show that even light is more important. The designers ask, “Do you need to be able to read a newspaper outside in the middle of the night?”
What if streetlights could become brighter or dimmer depending on the brightness of the moon? An idea proposed by the Civil Twilight Collective.
3. Designers can explore avenues for producing goods that strengthen the commons and lessen our reliance commercial consumption to gain status or meaning.
Consumerism provides a form of social language based on private consumption. Using this language we gain social status, avoid shame, even shape our identities. This consumerism-based language puts profit-seeking entities in charge of some important aspects of societal meaning. The challenge is to define alternative social languages.
Designers are starting to address this issue particularly through processes such as co-design, hacking, and personal fabrication or self-assembly. In these cases designers, individuals or small groups of design practitioners conduct studio activities that provide communities with the tools and skills to make, change and repair items for themselves. MIT’s fablabs, pioneered by Neil Gershenfeld, are one example. Fablabs bring not only tools, but also non-commercial spaces where communities often choose to make locally relevant objects. The focus on developing and applying “maker” skills potentially offers a social language around making and doing, rather than owning and displaying.
People working in a Fabrication Laboratory or “Fablab”. Image by Fablab Amersfoort, Netherlands, under Creative Commons Attribution.
More broadly, a recent review of digital fabrication suggests that, “a transition from centralized production to a ‘maker culture’ of dispersed manufacturing innovation is underway today.” Collaborative, distributed communities that constitute “maker culture” perhaps offer further opportunities to put products and goods back into a commons, at least partially.
4. Designers can enhance the quality and availability of public, or social spaces to offer alternatives to commercial spaces.
With the contracting out of public space, the public realm has shrunk. But designers are increasingly mining and re-inventing existing public spaces. Here the role of design is to contribute directly to providing novelty and stimulation through public and community mechanisms.
The UNI project Pop-up Reading Room deployed on the street. Design and photo courtesy Howeler + Yoon Architecture.
Designers are exploring underutilized spaces with pop-up projects that add social dimensions to otherwise “vacant” spaces. An example is the UNI project by Streetlab. The UNI is a portable reading room that can “temporarily transform almost any urban space into a public reading room and venue for learning.” Inspired by a call for lighter, cheaper, quicker solutions (from the Project for Public Spaces), the Streetlab project developed UNI in response to the fact that the commercially dominated offerings in many city neighborhoods don’t reflect the broader goal of creating a well-educated society; spaces for learning should be more prominent, accessible and enjoyable.
This post is part of a virtual book tour for the book, Architecture & Design versus Consumerism(Earthscan/Routledge 2012), available from Amazon.com or use the 20% discount code BRK96 at Routledge. Follow the tour on twitter #DvC12 and at these tour stops during October and November: Oct 2 and 4 —Shareable; Oct 9 —Polis; Oct 16 and 18 — Green Conduct; Oct 23 — Transforming Cultures (Worldwatch); Oct 30 — Post Growth Institute; Nov 6 — no tour stop so get out and VOTE; Nov 13 — The Dirt (American Association of Landscape Architects); Nov 20 —Proto City.
About the Author
Ann Thorpe (Ann at designactivism dot net) is a Seattle- and London-based collaborative design strategist known for her generously illustrated talks that audiences describe as “brain-opening,” “intriguing and insightful,” and full of “unusual angles.” She currently serves as strategist with a Seattle-based startup, a social enterprise called luum. She also authored The Designer’s Atlas of Sustainability.
Note: Early urban planning of contemporary Phnom Penh was done by the French while Cambodia was a French Protectorate. Hence, the tangential connection to Beruit.
Source: Not Even Past
This year’s John Ferguson Prize for Best Undergraduate Thesis went to Kate Maddox, a history major at the University of Texas at Austin. Her thesis explored the European political, social, and ideological influence in the making of the Lebanese city of Beirut. Read her abstract and take a look at some old photographs of early twentieth century Beirut below.
The processes that led to the remaking of Beirut reveal European powers’ economic penetration of the city, which resulted in to an ideological penetration of the city. This ideology, informed by the Enlightenment and French conceptions of modernity, manifested itself in several dominant themes, both in the period of informal European influence under the Ottomans and continuing during the period of direct French rule under the Mandate system.
In their production of the city center, and in the Ottoman urban planning projects that preceded the Mandate, French efforts drew directly and indirectly on concepts of the Enlightenment and modernity as well as other trends in imperial city building. The theory behind the making of a space deserving of the nickname “the Paris of the Middle East” can be divided into three motives, each addressed in turn in this thesis. The first, accessibility between the port and the city, owes more to economics than the social paternalism that marks imperial efforts of Westernization. The second principle manifests those efforts, the improvement of permeability of the downtown area and its buildings. Finally, the threat posed by disease and illness for the local population and, more importantly, European agents unaccustomed to the environment, combined with the concept of individual needs resulted in a focus on public health and hygiene. These ideas, however, are not mutually exclusive and developments often addressed all three. But together they drove the planning schemes in the central district that created the urban landscape that still exists, for better or worse.
About Katherine Maddox:
Katherine Maddox was born and raised in Houston, Texas. In 2008 she graduated from the High School for Performing and Visual Arts where she specialized in clarinet and bass clarinet. In the summer of 2011 she traveled to Beirut, Lebanon to study Arabic at the American University in Beirut and conduct research for her thesis. After completing her bachelor’s degree in history at the University of Texas she is travelling to Tanzania to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. Following that she will be returning to Beirut where she will continue her Arabic studies and work for an NGO. Read her travel blog here.