1.1 PhD call – Research questions
It is important here to differentiate between a design question and a research question. While a design question remains specific to a design project, a research question raises ‘a fundamental issues related to human experience in the world’ (Findeli, 2010, p.296). And since human experience is a complex ‘entanglement of various interrelated dimensions and values … an ideal design research question would thus be one that uncovers and emphasizes the complex interdisciplinary of the specific anthropological experience that is at stake in a design question’ (ibid. p.297).
Martin Prominski, Design research as a non-linear interplay
(Prominski, 2019, p.36).
The research departs from the initial PhD call from the Aarhus School of Architecture (AAA) in 2019. The call asked the following main research question, ‘How can coastal cities of East Jutland utilise sea-level rise as a power of transformation that positively contributes to rethinking and informing existing urban structures?’ The call is to rethink our current business-as-usual (B-A-U) urban development models and coastal protection systems to respond to the increasing impacts of climate change. The call mainly focuses on water issues, such as the rise in sea level and its contribution to the worsening inundation of cities due to more frequent and violent storm surges. More importantly, the research call asks to investigate how the phenomenon of rising sea levels can be included as a driver of a paradigm shift in urban development in coastal cities as an alternative means of living with the boundary between land and water. I interpreted the research call as a quest to explore the role of the sea as an actor in urban transformation, encompassing the agency of the marine animals and plants in the sea. Thus, the initial research call is restructured to include other nonhumans (i.e. marine life forms) actors in aiding urban transformation and depart from the utilitarian phrasing to an inclusive one (i.e. utilise to integrate). Thus, the main research question (RQ) becomes;
How can coastal cities of Denmark (especially the East coast of Jutland) integrate the sea and its lifeforms to contribute towards re‐envisioning urban development in light of a sea level rise and frequent storm surges?
The main research fields are landscape architecture and urban design/planning (LUDP). The practice of LUDP is embedded in drawing from many different types of knowledge fields, which requires transdisciplinary collaboration between relevant stakeholders (Wiberg, 2018). Moreover, including the sea as an actor and the phenomenon of sea-level rise and storm surges in urban coastal landscapes requires drawing from other disciplines, such as marine ecology, hydrological engineering and geology (see section 2.1 for more detail). Traditionally, the realm of coastal protection and restoration projects is primarily in the hands of engineers or marine biologists without including spatial design disciplines (and vice versa) (Pilkey and Young, 2011; Orff, 2016; Organo Quintana, 2020). Therefore, research in the spatial design disciplines can help develop a subfield that addresses the threat of rising sea levels in urban environments that includes marine lifeforms through creative spatial interventions to adapt to the changing climatic conditions that will motivate more restorative relations between cities and the sea. Henceforth, to address the main research question, the next sub-research question calls for transdisciplinary collaboration, specifically investigating the potential of design research and the role of designers in facilitating and synthesising the interconnected networks and dynamic processes that highlight the constant synergy between the urban and marine realm (Orff, 2016). Thus, the first sub-research (SRQ1) question pertains to:
How can design research methods and practice from the spatial design disciplines of LUDP contribute to responding to the changing spatial boundary between city and sea, human and nonhuman, due to climate change?
Lastly, the final sub-research question addresses the increasing complexities involved in designing in a transdisciplinary context with nonhuman forces (i.e. climate change as a phenomenon and the role of marine life in aiding climate mitigation) and the need for better representational and analytical design tools and ways of thinking that help us move past our current B-A-U practices. Moreover, issues surrounding sea-level rise are not isolated phenomena as it is entangled with a myriad of complex issues, such as global warming due to rising greenhouse gases, biodiversity loss, and anthropogenic pollution. These impacts go beyond traditional notions of scale and timeframe, and decisions to respond to these issues require new ways of doing and thinking about how to re-envision coastal cities for the future. Thus, the second sub-research (SRQ) question pertains to:
What ways of thinking and doing (i.e. world views, representational and analytical tools) can help the spatial design disciplines of LUDP address the aforementioned research questions? (RQ1 and SRQ1?)
In sum (see Table 1), the main research question asks about alternative solutions to move past B-A-U urban development and the current wicked problems of climate change. It is then followed by sub-research questions asking who can/should contribute to the solutions and how these potential solutions can be executed in a more complex and interconnected world.
The core purpose of the question
Research Questions (RQ)
Wicked problems it addresses
What are other solutions to move past B-A-U practices and wicked problems?
Who can contribute to the solutions (and in what way)?
How can the solutions (explorations) be executed?
Main RQ: How can coastal cities of Denmark integrate the sea and its lifeforms to contribute towards re-envisioning urban development in light of sea-level rise and frequent storm surges?
SRQ 1: How can design research methods and practice from the spatial design disciplines of LUDP contribute to the changing spatial boundary between city and sea, human and nonhuman, due to climate change?
SRQ 2: What ways of thinking and doing (i.e. world views, representational and analytical tools) can help the spatial design disciplines of LUDP address the aforementioned research questions?
Sea level rise
B-A-U urban development models
Lack of biodiversity
Siloed thinking and practice
Limited depiction and understanding of the sea
Increasing transdisciplinary complexity
Table 1. All the research questions (main RQ and the sub RQs) – the emphasis on the main RQ and the following sub-research questions to help answer the main RQ.
In the proceeding section, I present some of the key events during my PhD to situate my research in the current political, economic, social, cultural, and environmental climate that greatly influences my ethical and critical positions in the research.
 This B-A-U wicked problem will be discussed in detail in section 3.1 The Scale of the Problem.
 Coastal cities can represent all stakeholders (decision-makers), such as relevant municipal members, citizens, researchers, practitioners and developers – i.e., every person involved in constructing and maintaining a coastal city.
 In this research, the spatial design disciplines mainly refer to landscape architecture and urban design with also, at times, references to architecture, urban planning and public art.