Local Knowledge, Everyday Patterns, and Vulnerability Reduction

Text by James Miller

James works as an Assistant Professor of Environmental Design University of Oregon and holds a PhD in Sustainable Architecture from the same institution.


We reached out to James because we felt his expertise on the ritual of rebuilding would not only expose our students to this sort of research, but also provide us with another perspective to what a ritual can be.


James Miller produces research focused on social justice issues, with a focus on post-disaster recovery, humanitarian design, and public housing. He understands the importance of indigenous knowledge is mitigating disaster relief in nations affected by climate change, but also the need to incorporate inclusive urbanism into the way we design the built world. Much of his research involves island nations, such as the Marshall Islands and Haiti. 

Our rapidly urbanizing world combined with our capitalist mode of production through extraction places more souls in vulnerable situations, leading to the increased occurrence of disasters. 

Furthermore, the rationale that western systems of knowledge are superior to all others has left billions of people vulnerable to risk. We are reliant on technocratic solutions, reliant on experts to solve complex problems.1 Income disparities lead to economic injustices that leave low-income communities more vulnerable to environmental hazards. Those more prone to disasters are also those with the least capacity to mitigate vulnerability or prevent them. The magnitude of destruction following natural hazards, such as sea level rise, receding glaciers, the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, 2017 Hurricane Maria, and this spring’s massive floods in the midwestern United States are all resultant of development’s failure to promote social welfare. Global climate change,  slow onset disasters, like natural disasters, disproportionately impact disenfranchised communities, such as Indigenous communities and communities in the Global South. 


With the onset of colonization and slow shift in the culture-environment relationship due to the infusion of western design and building practices, the deep relationship with nature that maintained resilient communities begins to erode. The transformation of habitation accelerated after World War II came hand in hand with the  rapid implementation of modernization and neoliberal policies, resulting in a restructuring  of the built-environment into a world of alien architecture. Through a lens of critical vernacular architecture, the built-environment perpetuates settler-colonial relations that leaves local communities vulnerable and reliant on western aid / assistance. Modern architecture does not hold the intricate relationship to and respect for the environment and its hazards.2 It does not hold the architectural design ethics inherent in Indigenous and local knowledge systems.3 It is reliant on extractive practices for materials and its design methodology creates asymmetrical power structures.4 Arguably the transformation of traditional settlement patterns to rational, western settlement patterns creates reliance of local communities in the Global South on the Ameri-Eurocentric regimes of the west. 


The modernist approach to both disaster mitigation and post-disaster recovery continues to be practiced today, continuing the neocolonial dominance of western / Eurocentric architectural solutions to contexts across the globe. Design and building practices as ‘social’ or ‘economic’ development, which include many examples of public interest design / social innovation design / humanitarian design / etc., perpetuate colonial ideology and continue to disenfranchise segments of the population. Historically, post-disaster reconstruction policies and practice ignore the embedded knowledge of the affected population. The application of locally represented architecture, infusion of local knowledge within the production of the built-environment, and learning from the local vernacular are surprisingly on the cutting edge of social impact design, rather than the status quo; Indigenous populations of the world have been developing design methodologies that demonstrate an intimate relationship with the local environment and its resources, celestial bodies, and the cosmos for millenia; the methods developed allow for the sustainability of communities to live with the land. The establishment of relationships within the space between human, nature, and spirit form frameworks for design based on everyday life and cultural production, demonstrating the nuances of iterative processes. This is the dialectical relationship of culture and the environment. In Haiti for instance, local knowledge was produced through an intimate relationship with and reliance on the land for life - many lessons of which were taught to early marooners by local indigenous communities. As these knowledge systems formed, they altered the landscape while maintaining livelihoods and respect for natural hazards. They produced built environments that met the socio-cultural-spatial needs while engaging in sustainable resource extraction, thus supporting the resilience of the system as a whole.


Examining the production of social space in self settled post-disaster settlements in Leogane and Port-au-Prince, Haiti and the cultural production of the built environment in the Republic of the Marshall Islands, this article aims to demonstrate the importance of everyday cultural practice in both mitigating vulnerability and building post-disaster resilience. The local knowledge of communities provides the social framework for resilience, containing social and cultural capital. The issue is that local and indigenous knowledge is eroded or discarded by western advancements in ‘modernization’ and technology - globalization has perpetuated the neoliberal regime while delegitimizing locally constructed knowledge systems. As western architectural ideals fail to provide resilience in the Global South, a resurgence of local and indigenous knowledge is necessary. The questions remain, how do we reframe the significance of local and indigenous knowledge, and how do we reinforce its capacity to create more resilient communities? 

Haiti: Local Knowledge in Post-disaster Reconstruction

Research I conducted in Haiti during 2012, two years after the devastating earthquake, provides insight into everyday actions in post-disaster recovery.The everyday actions in self-settled post-disaster camps demonstrates the inclusive nature of traditional settlement patterns born of local knowledge. Social capital is generated through the local production of a socio-culturally supportive built-environment. The research focused on the traditional settlement pattern known as the lakou to identify how everyday social patterns reconstruct the spatial organization of the lakou  within self-settled post-disaster camps. The lakou is simply the organization of familial houses within the constraints of familial land parcels. The spatial organization of dwellings is typically clustered, forming courtyards between multiple generations of the family. In urban settings such as Port-au-Prince, this structure either evolves into the structure of a multi-family residence or a compacted courtyard central to familial rooms; however, it has largely been lost due to the influence of modernization.


Through interviews and documentation of multiple self-settled camps across Port-au-Prince and Leogane, it became clear that the spatial organization of dwelling clusters emulated the lakou. Investigation demonstrates that those surrounding informal courtyards tended to either be family or persons that saw each other as close-knit, regardless of land ownership. It became apparent that families and individuals created the social space of the courtyard along with the clustering of dwellings through social memory - it was reproduced through their habitus (the socio-cultural structure(s) one is born, raised, and educated in that informs our way of knowing and being in this world). Analysis of this reproduction demonstrates that physical proximity correlates with social proximity - families began to rely on each other and build strong bonds with each other regardless of kinship. To give an example, Single mothers were provided assistance in child rearing, food and necessary resources were shared, and neighbors kept an eye on the security of each other’s dwellings. Thus, individuals had more freedom to leave behind their children and belongings to seek employment.


Investigating the structures of everyday habitus in post-disaster reconstruction provides a lens into more impactful and localized processes of reconstruction. It demonstrates that in resistance to the oppressive structures of modernization and the westernization of the built-environment, local knowledge continues to prove a generative force for supporting livelihoods. This notion is further supported by research being conducted with communities facing the impacts of climate change and slow-on-set disasters.

The Marshall Islands: Indigenous Design Knowledge in Climate Change Adaptation

Over the past four years, I conducted research in the Republic of the Marshall Islands to examine the intricate relationship of culture and the built-environment.6 The Republic of the Marshall Islands is a small atoll nation in the middle of the Pacific Ocean halfway between Hawaii and Australia that consists of 32 atolls in a vast area of ocean. As a low lying atoll nation, the RMI is receiving the blunt force of climate change and sea level rise. They are at the center of the debate on the International Status of Climate Refugees along with Tuvalu and Kirbati. Similar to many nations in the Pacific, the Republic of the Marshall islands were colonized by Europe (Germany), Japan, and lastly and most significantly by the United States. Within the built environment, traditional Marshallese architecture and settlement planning was largely replaced. In construction practices, the Marshallese became reliant on imported materials, technology, and methods. Not unlike other regions across the Global South, the Western concrete structure is seen as the only safe structure to storm a typhoon or mitigate sea inundation.


The Marshallese built-environment was further affected by the impacts of the US nuclear program, most notably the Bravo Shot - a 15 megaton atomic bomb that eradicated life on Bikini Atoll, along with the ancestral homes of an entire population (the population was relocated to Rongerik Atoll prior to testing and then Kili Island). More recent typhoons further largely replaced the vernacular architecture of remote atolls with USDA rural housing and disaster relief housing. It might appear as though the Marshallese identity to place and relationship with the land was forever changed through the forces of colonization, but it was not - or at least not at the core of the Marshallese culture. It is easy to forget that the influence of colonization is only 200 years deep, and the Marshallese have survived on Aelon Kein (our atolls) for millennia.


In studying the persistence of Indigenous Knowledge within the Marshallese creation and adaptation of the built-environment, I gained knowledge of six important components of the Marshallese way of life. The six components provide generative mechanisms that shape space, place, and the environment in a manner that maintains the Marshallese way of life - even if expressed within a modern / western aesthetic. These are 1.) Land as wealth and 2.) Land as Identity, both of which are embedded within the weto, which represents the land tenure system through matrilineal inheritance of the Marshallese; 3.) Ippan Doon or “Togetherness,” which manifests in the clustering of housing; 4.) Juon Kijeek or “One Fire One Family,” which represents the interconnection of family through the sharing of resources and stories; 5.) Emlapwoj, which represents the multi-generational family living arrangement; and. 6.) Process-built housing, which represents the iterative process in developing effective design solutions that support everyday life.


The big question for the Marshall Islands, along with thousands of communities across the globe is: How will we ensure the cultural continuity of climate migrants? The numbers are staggering. We know that the current state of our cities and our attitudes will not serve spatial justice to these populations, so what do we do?


As relationships are communicated through patterns of time and space, the production of the built-environment is developed through the communication of pattern languages of design and at the center of this language are these aspects of Marshallese culture. I believe that these can inform our creation of more inclusive cities for displaced Marshallese as well as other coastal populations of Oceania, and I believe these land based knowledge systems provide resonance for other climate migrants across the world. By allowing community-based knowledge to prosper and grow in a new home, we provide resilience for each community.

Back To The Big Picture 

The neoliberal city does not act kindly on the cultural ways of knowing. In cities like Toronto, new arrivals are often alienated.7 Displaced Indigenous Peoples feel the impacts of this even more greatly. In Honolulu, disenfranchising homeless Kanaka Maoli is an act of the state to deracinate the rights and identities of our ancestors.8 Yet there’s an amazing thing about deep cultural patterns - they have a way of fighting back and creating space. How do we address spatial justice and create more inclusive cities? How do we ensure that a pluriverse of world views share the right to the city, the right to the environment, the right to an economy, the right to social equity, and the right to autonomy.


I argue that decolonizing planning and design professions is necessary to increase the capacity of community resilience to disasters. Giving more power to communities and building autonomy. What if the design of our cities could support the identities of resettled communities and lessen culture loss? What if a pluriverse of identities and ways of knowing could find equity and justice within an inclusive built-environment! Design and urban planning help achieve this. There are case studies of transnational Marshallese communities where this is happening and the common reason is the lack of regulation. Regulations hinder the generative capacity of immigrant communities. How do we de-regulate while maintaining health, safety, and wellness? One could argue that codification of building design, means and methods along with urban planning processes is a structure of the state to control the populous, or in the vein of this article - maintain colonial control.


Going back to the findings from my research and connections of indigenous knowledge systems across Oceania. Here are five recommendations that can be enacted by architects, designers, planners, policy makers, and educators. 


First, listen to the words, thoughts, ways, and spirit of Indigenous Peoples, our voice has been silenced for too long and now it provides a way forward. Our ancestors thrived for millenia prior to colonization and our Peoples will thrive again.


Second, consider how to allow for the autonomy of the multiplicity of world views in the city. We need to provide space for communities to identify themselves within the city. Along with identifying one’s way of life in the city and everyday life, Michael Mossman9 suggests the need for a third space - a place of interaction: “a place where differences touch, interact, disrupt, unsettle and de-centre pre-existing narratives to produce a structure for marginalized cultures to symbolize themselves to their counterparts.” Community participation must be at the center. Providing autonomy also might entail programs that provide tax incentives for cooperative land management or first time homebuyer programs with self-built housing via collectives.


Third, the communication of a pattern language helps maintain relationships - based on spatial organization and knowledge systems. In the context of housing programs you have to take into consideration the social composition of cultural groups as well as the spatial patterns of daily life. This includes for instance, allowing for the persistence of the cookhouse or at the minimum its symbolic importance. It also requires the consideration of multi-generational living arrangements. As demonstrated in Emlapwoj, these arrangements are central to generational knowledge sharing with the framework of family centered and community-based knowledge.


Fourth, lobbying for changes in restrictive municipal codes, building codes, and others is needed. To create inclusive urbanism requires the restructuring of existing codes and ordinances in order to be inclusive of alternative community systems. To provide an example, regulations in Springdale, Arkansas are hindering the autonomy of the growing Marshallese community.10 Based on field studies I conducted in Springdale during the summer of 2014, restrictions on the number of individuals residing in a rental hinder the establishment of multi-generational living arrangements and the Emlapwoj. In addition, the school system clashes with the community when it has difficulty tracking the location of students, who may be staying with different family members at different addresses at any given time (Miller correspondence with Carmen Chong Gum, RMI Consulate).


Fifth, building processes that come from a deep relationship to the land, to the environment, and to each other need space to thrive. Considerations of material choices and maintenance are necessary to support cultural norms. Through participatory and engaged processes in planning, development, design, and construction, culturally supportive realities will be born. This means making these mechanisms accessible and inclusive of marginalized populations.


For our future generations, It is time to act. Let us learn from the knowledges of those who have protected the lands we work, play, act, and thrive on for millennia.

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