Designing for Impact: Resilient Cities Project

SWA has a tradition of pro-bono efforts that give back to the communities in which we live and work. “Resilient Cities Project” is a new, action-oriented initiative that pairs SWA’s professional talent with a selected city to generate insight on opportunities to improve resilience, whether at the scale of a site, corridor or broader open space network. Our objective is to catalyze creative thinking and share ideas that could improve the quality of life and improve ecological and infrastructural performance.

Resilient Cities Project is an outgrowth of the firm’s Social Impact Design Initiative, which has encouraged our professional staff to reveal the transformative power of landscape and play an advocacy role in creating positive change.

“Landscape can act as a kind of soft infrastructure  to enhance a city’s resiliency” says Gerdo Aquino, SWA’s CEO. “We’re interested in how open space can function as a multifunctional platform where community needs and ecological systems can work together in establishing new strategies to address the negative impacts of climate change within an urban context”

Miami is the first subject of the initiative.


“Viewing our projects through the lens of social impact is essential to expanding the relevance of our profession. As a group, we need to find ways to dig deeper into our projects if we are to maintain a leadership role within the profession and become indispensable partners in the shaping of our communities.”

-Scott McCready, Houston


To date, SWA’s social impact design initiative includes more than 57 pro-bono projects involving five services


Engagement with clients and partners brings a variety of perspectives and important energy to these efforts, which have had a meaningful impact on communities.

Case studies in social impact design range from working with Los Angeles prisons to guide the incarcerated in creating on-site gardens to partnering with the National Park Service and Rice University to examine coastal resiliency in Galveston, Texas.


Coastal Resiliency

SSPEED Center at Rice University

Galveston, Texas


On September 13, 2008, Hurricane Ike struck the upper Texas coast, wreaking havoc on infrastructure and washing away entire communities. Ike surpassed all inundation damage predictions for its designation and changed the lives of millions of people. This one event, in a region populated by 6.5 million residents, sparked a reassessment of historic storm preparedness and called for new approaches to effectively and sustainably protect and develop our modern coastlines.

A recent proposal by a multidisciplinary research partnership proposes new land uses, innovative protection systems, and creative ways of thinking about coastal areas that can reconnect people to the natural flows of these iconic landscapes and provide new opportunities for coastal development and habitation.

As part of a multidisciplinary team funded by the Houston Endowment, SWA aims to reduce storm damage along Galveston Bay by establishing a system of land-based structural and non-structural solutions. In consideration of storm surge protection, land-based protection strategies equally value structural and nonstructural components as part of a layered network of coastal protection systems. Structural components utilize constructed levees, walls, barriers, and gates to block floodwaters. Non-structural components rely on existing and restored ecosystems to absorb flooding, regulation to discourage development in high-risk areas, and economic tools for long-term sustainability. This layered approach protects people and preserves ecosystems.

Going forward, the team will educate both policy makers and the general public about the huge and terrible risks brought by hurricanes. SWA and our planning partners at Rice University, the University of Houston College of Architecture, Texas Southern University, and Texas A&M University are creating storm surge hazard maps that identify inundation zones, and have proposed a website that will help people visualize their risk levels. A dialogue with the Galveston District of the Army Corps of Engineers has been established and is intended to change traditional thinking about the design of hurricane storm surge protection at high levels of government.

A blue ribbon committee for the establishment of a national Recreation Area in the upper Texas coast has been formed and discussions with bay communities, NGOs, and other agencies has led toward establishing a new, more sustainable economic basis for life along the littoral fringe. This effort demonstrated that collaborative, research-based planning is a valuable tool for future planning.

Project Information


CLIENT: SSPEED Center (Center for Severe Storm Prediction, Education and Evacuation from Disasters) at Rice University

SCOPE: Master Planning, Research, and Infrastructure Design

FEE: $50,000

PROJECT STATUS: The National Park Service has begun to review a process to establish the Lone Star Coastal national Recreation Area

OFFICE: Houston

TEAM: Kevin Shanley, Matt Baumgarten, Alex Lahti, Fegyi Lu

PARTNER ORGANIZATIONS: Phil Bedient & Jim Blackburn; SSPEED at Rice University: Tom Colbert

AWARDS: 2012 National ASLA Honor Award in Analysis and Planning, 2013; 2013 Texas ASLA Merit Award in Analysis and Planning

COMMUNITY IMPACT: Reduced risk of hurricane inundation and increased access to one of the world’s most bio-diverse habitats

BUSINESS IMPACT: 5,000 new jobs were created, with an increase of $69 million in local sales associated with the first year of the LSCNRA’s operation


To learn more about SWA’s work in social impact design work, see our most recently published report.