O'eswachaka Bridge via cusco eats

Why Climate Change Planning Will Be Cultural as Well as Physical

There is nothing like a crisis to bring people together. After Hurricane Katrina, more than 9,000 citizens participated in the development of the Unified New Orleans Plan that our firm Concordia coordinated in collaboration with 12 other planning teams. Now we’re working with another stellar group on a project called LA Safe, with the goal of creating a plan for residents of south Louisiana who will be among the first to experience the devastating impacts of sea level rise.

At this point, the state’s coastal master plan projects that about seven coastal communities will be forced to relocate over the next 50 years and, with ever changing data showing that sea levels will likely rise even higher than projected, that number could grow much larger. Globally, there could be tens, or even hundreds of millions of people, facing similar challenges from now until the end of the century.

Here in Louisiana, many of the Biloxi, Chitimacha, Choctaw Indian residents of Isle de Jean Charles, an island community in Terrebonne Parish, will soon relocate to a new town to be built from the ground up some thirty miles northwest of their currently vanishing landscape. All of these moves require not only physical resettlement, but also complex cultural, social, economic, organizational and educational realignments.

What’s the role of planners in this urgently evolving reality? Is it enough to address only the physical domain? Or should we become more sensitive to the whole system of change? The loss of cultural traditions, threats to social services, economic upheavals, changes in government? How can planners and architects approach this responsibility with the kindness, sensitivity and humility that will be required for such a complex undertaking?

All of these questions recently came to mind, as I watched again the remarkable video about Victoriano Arizapana, the master rope-bridge engineer, who lives in a small village near Huinchiri, Peru. Each spring he helps members of four indigenous Quechua communities, living on each side of a canyon along the powerful Apurimac River, with the task of rebuilding a rope bridge, the O’eswachaka Bridge. It’s a community ritual that dates back to the Incas, around 1200 AD.

When he was twelve years old, Victoriano was taught the ancient art of rope bridge building by his father. Every year the process begins with strands of Q’oya grass that are braided into 30 small cords, which are then intertwined into large cables. Community members pull the cables across the river canyon using the old bridge as a guide. The old bridge is then cut loose and vanishes into the currents of the raging river.

Even if you’re among the millions who’ve already seen this, it’s well worth watching again:

As we face the daunting challenge of climate change, here are some lessons that planners can learn from this astonishing community tradition:

The Power of Cultural Traditions 

Communities with long standing cultural traditions are stronger; their rituals promote inspiration and bonding. “If we stop preserving it, it would be like if we died,” Victoriano says. “We cannot allow our bridge to disappear.  My son is already learning a lot about building and keeping our bridge. When I die, he, along with his brothers from our communities, will keep this bridge.”


Embracing Civic Virtue 

Victoriano, and a long line of his ancestors who came before him, embrace a deep sense of obligation to the communities they serve. Without this civic duty, the immeasurable benefits that these traditions bring to the community would have vanished long ago.


Harnessing Community Will 

The will of a community is a powerful force for good. Victoriano’s role in orchestrating the creation of the bridge transcends design. It is a timeless form of collaborative leadership that guides and inspires, rather than directs and dictates.


The Elegance of Indigenous Design

The Q’eswachaka bridge is made possible by the preservation of traditional ecological knowledge (TEK). It’s been preserved not only through Victoriano’s efforts and craft, but through a sacred string of connections to the natural world that extend from the first blade of grass to the final woven bridge.


The Hunger for Meaning 

Carl Jung once said that the Bushmen in the Kalahari Desert of southern Africa talk about the “two hungers.” There’s the Great Hunger and the Little Hunger. The Little Hunger wants food for the belly, but the Great Hunger, the overriding one, is the hunger for meaning.

Perhaps it will be the crisis of climate change that bring us new solutions that are less about “me” and more about “we.” Perhaps we will find that many of the most valuable lessons needed to guide this transition are already out there—like Victoriano Arizapana and the Q’eswachaka bridge—hiding quietly in plain sight.


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