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UI Professor Combines Science, Design to Help Globe Adapt to Change

Landscape architecture professor Lilian Alessa is part of global effort to find real-life solutions to changing climate

No matter what the cause, the climate is changing.

But some are not focusing on the debate about the amount of fossil fuel residues released into the atmosphere or rising temperatures — they’re looking at addressing the problem though resilient design and landscape architecture.

As formerly rural areas urbanize and traditional industries struggle, we are faced with difficult choices to balance economies with ecosystem services.

But what if, as humans change the environment with development, we also learn to adapt the development to be better?

It’s with this foresight that the University of Idaho College of Art and Architecture hired its first scientist in the landscape architecture program.

Lilian Alessa is a social-ecological systems practitioner with degrees in biology and perception and cognition. She joined the landscape architecture faculty at UI in 2014, teaching a graduate course called “The Emerging Landscape.” She uses the best available tools to draft the blueprints for resilient landscapes, and she has led the creation of models that are being used nationally and locally to anticipate and respond to global and environmental change.

“We try to balance a knowledge of human actions that make landscapes more vulnerable or more resilient with the practice of managing them,” Alessa said.

Alessa — a native of British Columbia, Canada — created UI’s Center for Resilient Communities, the CRC, which is devoted to working with communities to create the knowledge and tools they need to grow while remaining economically, socially and environmentally healthy. She works with longtime collaborator Andrew Kliskey, a professor in UI’s College of Natural Resources. Both Kliskey and Alessa came from the University of Alaska Anchorage (UAA), where they co-led the Resilience and Adaptive Management Group, which Alessa founded in 2001.

One major area of focus for Alessa is freshwater resources. And in no area is water and landscape change more of an issue than in the Arctic.

“Fresh water is really a testament to overall landscape health,” said Mark Hoversten, dean of UI’s College of Art and Architecture.

In November 2014, Alessa was named the U.S. science lead for the Arctic Council’s Sustainable Development Working Group project, the Arctic Adaptation Exchange Portal (AAEP).

Lilian Alessa
Landscape architecture professor Lilian Alessa.

The AAEP serves as a central information hub for communities, researchers and decision-makers in both the public and private sectors. Alessa helps develop tools that can predict changes in the Arctic, help communities better manage water resources and aid agencies and communities in anticipating, preparing and responding to critical events, such as disasters. In addition, she leads the Community Based Observing Network for Adaptation and Security, an official project of the Arctic Council’s Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna Program.

“We are living in the century of water,” Alessa told a group in 2009 at the Alaska World Affairs Council. “Of all the resources that we manage, we need particularly innovative tools to deal with water.”

Alessa is the first faculty member in CAA offering this kind of approach to landscape design and sustainability and one of the few at UI who offers a portfolio that fully integrates the social and biophysical sciences. And her work is in demand. This summer she was invited to the Transatlantic Platform, a high level meeting to which only a handful of people globally are invited.

“I think we’re doing something really unique,” Hoversten said. “We’re looking at creating purposeful architecture.”

That effort includes integrating indigenous science and design with Western engineering and the scientific models developed by Alessa to more effectively respond to global and environmental changes.

“She brings a very important perspective to our students,” Hoversten said of Alessa’s work. “All landscapes are now heavily impacted by the human hand.”

UI’s program is one of the few taking this combined approach, and it was part of what appealed to Alessa.

“I saw the potential of the university, the setting, the state,” Alessa said about her decision to come to Moscow. “Our trajectory is growth and our position as a university has enormous potential to respond to a rapidly changing set of challenges.”

Most people think of the Arctic as a remote abstract, but few realize that what happens there, doesn’t stay there. It will affect our security, economy and overall patterns of climate.
– Lilian Alessa

Her research in the Arctic is part of that growth. She led the development of the Arctic Water Resources Vulnerability Index (AWRVI), which allows governments to assess water strengths and weaknesses at the watershed scale. AWRVI is unique because it not only includes environmental parameters, but also considers social indicators and their impact on a water system.

It’s that kind of integrated, comprehensive tool development that’s been central to Alessa’s research and the college’s mission. Her ability to work across disciplines is one of the hallmarks of Alessa’s style, according to colleague Helena Wisniewski, executive director and principal investigator of the Arctic Domain Awareness Center (ADAC) and vice provost for Research and dean of the Graduate School at UAA.

“From a personal level, I really admire Lil’s dynamic personality,” Wisniewski said. “She has a good blend of intelligence and vision that she can really encourage collaboration. That’s a really nice blend, and very effective.”

In the Arctic, the University of Idaho is one of 16 partners on the ADAC, a Department of Homeland Security Center of Excellence and where Alessa is the Community Based Observing Networks lead. The center is focused on developing technological solutions and educational programs to improve awareness and crisis response capabilities in the changing Arctic environment.

Alessa’s ability to work across disciplines was key to developing the ADAC’s community-based observing networks, also known as CBONs, a term she introduced, Wisniewski said. The concept partners with indigenous residents in the Arctic to track and report environmental changes and increased maritime traffic to ADAC’s central system, which can use the data to create a more accurate picture of how the Arctic coasts are changing. The CBONs network is a unique factor of the center, Wisniewski said.

“Having indigenous knowledge is really important,” she said. The people living in the community on a day-to-day basis are better able to track the changes occurring in the Arctic.

“The Arctic is one of the few places on earth that’s really experiencing dynamic environmental changes,” Wisniewski said, such as the thinning of sea-ice. “These types of changes result in longer seasons, greater access, greater tourism — all of these are very positive outcomes, but they can generate challenges that need to be responded to.

“Changes in the Arctic have worldwide implications,” she continued. “If you look at the Northwest Passage opening up and increasing shipping, that has an impact globally.”

The models that Alessa has developed to integrate human factors into natural resource management — and develop communities and structures that can adapt and be resilient to those changes — are critical to creating a sustainable world. And the Arctic is part of everyone’s world.

"Most people think of the Arctic as a remote abstract, but few realize that what happens there, doesn’t stay there," Alessa said. "It will affect our security, economy and overall patterns of climate."

For example, changes in the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, an ocean current that extends toward the Aleutians, can affect how much rain falls in Southern Idaho.

“We have to have integrated, interdisciplinary, multicultural approaches to this science,” Alessa said. “There’s no time to approach things otherwise”.

Article by Savannah Tranchell, University Communications and Marketing

Students work together as a group to develop an architectural blueprint and design.
Lilian Alessa teaches a course called The Emerging Landscape in UI’s College of Art and Architecture.


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