“Emergencies are becoming increasingly common”
Architect and urban planner Estefania Mompean Botias is writing her thesis on architecture in the context of emergency situations. As part of her work, she’s developing a global atlas of local emergency management practices.
Estefania Mompean Botias is well-traveled, having spent time hopping from country to country before joining the Design Studio on the Conception of Space (ALICE) at EPFL’s School of Architecture, Civil and Environmental Engineering (ENAC).
Mompean Botias, who hails from a village near Murcia in southern Spain, describes her native region as the orchard of Europe. “Many of the citrus fruits, tomatoes, melons and fruit juices we enjoy in Europe come from my part of Spain,” she says. “When I was young, the area was mostly agricultural. But that’s no longer the case. This personal experience of living in a rapidly changing suburban environment may well have sparked my interest in architecture and urban planning.”
After completing a degree at the University of Alicante, Mompean Botias headed to the Netherlands to study at Delft University of Technology (TU Delft). There, she took part in workshops with other universities and embarked on a trip to China. “I vividly recall that trip,” she says. “It was two years after the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. We visited the affected area and explored the post-emergency response. That’s when I started to develop an interest in the subject – especially the socio-political aspects and the injustices inherent in these processes. For instance, one of the people I spoke to told me they’d still be living in a so-called ‘temporary’ emergency camp for at least three more years. I found that particularly striking.”
Mompean Botias’ next move took her to Paris, where she spent several years working for an urban planning firm. In 2020, she followed her partner to Switzerland and began a PhD at EPFL.
Researching emergency management processes
Mompean Botias opted to write her thesis on emergency management processes, which encompass pre-disaster risk reduction, adaptation, and post-disaster resilience and recovery planning. Having chosen a cross-disciplinary field of study, Mompean Botias has read literature from fields as varied as architecture, urban planning, sociology, politics, ecology and philosophy.
“In the past, emergency management wasn’t particularly respected as a field of study,” she explains. “Some people considered it little more than doom-mongering. But the Covid-19 pandemic and the protracted crisis it caused have brought the importance of emergency management to the fore. What’s more, emergencies are becoming increasingly common. Previously, the term was used only once every decade or so. But in 2022, at least six states of emergency were declared in Europe alone – from the ongoing effects of the pandemic to conflicts, extreme heat, forest fires and floods.”
As part of her research, Mompean Botias is casting a critical eye on current emergency management practices. “Governments are increasingly using emergency management to further a particular agenda,” she explains. “The concept, which has its roots in Western culture, calls for rational planning and large-scale projects. Yet these projects are often motivated by climate change, chosen by global teams of experts, and used to push a particular economic development model. In a way, declaring a state of emergency frees a government from its duty to address other social problems.”
A collaborative atlas of emergencies
As emergency management practices become more globalized, local knowledge and expertise is being pushed aside. Mompean Botias points to the example of flooding in Indonesia – something that happens two or three times a year and, in the past, was managed through a well-established compensation system embedded in the local culture. But the local government has recently begun declaring the floods as states of emergency. A system of canals – known as a “Dutch polder” – has been installed to prevent the affected areas from flooding. “My Indonesian colleagues told me that this system is causing problems: other areas are flooding instead, and the canals are preventing the water from receding, which ultimately means the floods last longer,” she explains.
In response, Mompean Botias has developed an atlas of local emergency management practices. “I set up a web page with a contribution form,” she says. “I’d like it to become a platform where people can share their experiences and build a collaborative map of examples and practices.”
Forthcoming exhibition on Ukraine
For her latest initiative, Mompean Botias has teamed up with Elena Orap, a Ukrainian architect at ALICE. “In October, we began studying emergency architecture in Ukraine,” she explains. “We’re gathering information about protocols that have emerged since the outbreak of the conflict. Our plan is to put on a collaborative exhibition to foster debate on how living in a state of resistance influences spatial practices. We’re currently looking for a host venue.”