Executive Summary

Water-logging in Chennai, December 2016. Photograph: Beth Cullen.


Monsoon Assemblages was a five-year, interdisciplinary research project funded by a European Research Council Starting Grant from 2016 to 2021 based in the School of Architecture + Cities at the University of Westminster in London. It investigated the impacts of changing monsoon climates in four of South Asia’s rapidly growing cities – Chennai, Delhi, Dhaka and Yangon. The project was undertaken at a time when climate change and urban development conspired to produce unlikely futures for urban survival. Extreme weather events, all attributed to the monsoon’s capricious nature, were resulting with increasing frequency in water shortages, power failures, floods, out-breaks of disease, damage to property and loss of life. In responding to these events, the project challenged the dominant view of the monsoon as a meteorological system outside of and distinct from society. Instead it proposed that the monsoon was hybrid of intra-acting of physical and social dynamics entangled within historic lived environments, whose operations could be approached as models for thinking and designing with. To investigate this hypothesis, an interdisciplinary team of spatial designers  and environmental humanities scholars was brought together around the operative concept of Monsoon Assemblages. The aim was to produce knowledge of and design strategies for urban environments as more-than-human, monsoonal ecological systems that operate across multiple scales and through media that are indivisibly natural, social, political and technological.


The monsoon is a planetary wide meteorological system that affects the lives of more than one third of the world’s population (Walker Institute 2007). In South Asia, economics, politics, and culture are finely tuned to its clock and vulnerable to small changes in its progress. Monsoon-related anxieties, uncertainties and rituals define the experience of everyday life. In the past, abrupt changes to monsoon cycles intersecting with societal practices have had devastating effects. For instance, new research suggests that the decline of the metropolitan Indus civilisation 4,100 years ago was tied to a weakening of the summer monsoon (Dixit, Hodell and Petrie 2014), and between 1876-79, monsoon related droughts, framed by imperialist policies produced famines that devastated the entire tropical monsoon belt and proved fatal for 50 million people (Davis 2001). Today, while climate models suggest that South Asia’s summer monsoon will persist and that the average summer rainfall may even increase by around 5%, these models also predict greater variability within seasons and from year to year, with extreme precipitation events or weak monsoons occurring more often and with increased severity (Walker Institute 2007). The IPCC’s 5th Assessment Report predicts that this will have severe, pervasive and irreversible effects on the lives of the 1,6 billion people who live on the Indian subcontinent, slowing economic growth, affecting food security and impacting health and development (IPCC 2014).

South Asian nations, led by India, have had some of the fastest growing economies in the world since the 1990’s. Industry and services have replaced agriculture as the prime economic drivers and urbanisation has swelled India’s urban population from 94 million in 1990 to a projected 217,7 million in 2025 and Bangladesh’s from 10 million to 32 million over the same period. Most of this is concentrated in large cities (UN-Habitat 2013: 128, 135-136). Here development has been led by ubiquitous neoliberal urban planning formulae such as high-tech parks, special enterprise zones and gated residential enclaves competing with agricultural land and villages on urban peripheries. Luxury apartments, shopping malls, office towers and modern airports now cater to middle class consumption habits and cosmopolitan lifestyles while the urban poor live in precarious conditions often along river banks or in flood plains. Urban growth has not been supported by proportional investment in infrastructure (Ansari 2009). These new urban conurbations pay scant regard to the monsoon until they are “uncannily” (Kaika 2005:51), though predictably beset by heat waves, floods, out-break of disease, landslides, water shortages or power failures.

None of these are natural events, though they are cast as such, but rather disasters by design, consequences of the ways in which cities have been imagined and built.


In responding to these conditions, the project took shape within a political ecology framework that challenged the concept of climate change adaption and replaced it with the concept of climate co-production (Taylor 2014). Adaption, understood as “a process of adjustment of social, environmental and economic systems so as to alleviate the actual and anticipated adverse effects of climate change” (IPCC 2001 in Taylor 2014: 50), perpetuates a deeply embedded dichotomy between society and climate as separate bounded domains stacked up against one another. This contradicts the basic premise of anthropogenic understandings of climate change, that human agency is inextricably bound up with it across multiple scales (Head and Gibson 2012). Humans do not simply adapt to climate change, they actively produce it.

From this followed the project’s novel proposition: to take up what it means for the spatial design disciplines and environmental humanities to think about the changing monsoon, not as something to climate-proof against, but as something to co-design buildings, infrastructure, cities and territory with. This went beyond familiar socio-spatial categories of urban form dominated by terra firma and instead introduce the idea of cities as fluid, watery, seasonally variable sites of contestation and negotiation between people, animals, plants, land, sea and air. Interactions between the monsoon, the earth, human and non-human agency became a resource for new agendas for design. How is design transformed if no longer thought of as an exclusive capacity of human agency, but something shared with the material energies of the earth system?

The research was be driven by the following research questions:

  • What is the monsoon? How does it operate? How is it known, by whom and for what purposes
  • What socio-spatial histories have produced the intersections between the monsoon and lived space that characterise a particular city?
  • What actors, agencies and infrastructures currently shape and manage monsoon matter (rain, flood, wind, temperature, food, finance) within the urban system? What are the social cleavages and relations of power embedded in these relations?
  • What controversies (Latour 2004) follow from these arrangements on specific sites of varying scales?
  • How might these controversies be reconceptualised and reassembled using the tools of design – words, images, drawings, simulations, video, maps, models?
  • What new agendas for contemporary urban life, for architecture, planning, policy, theory and representation does the study open up, and what might its long-term impact be?

The project’s methodology was based on the proposition that that humans do not simply adapt to changes in climate, they actively produce it. From this followed a resolutely historical, “lived environment” (Taylor 2014:62) approach to understanding monsoonal change in South Asian cities. The monsoon was approached as an agent in the co-production of bio-physical and social space on multiple scales. The theoretical and spatial insights and research methods of the environmental humanities and the analytical resources, visualisation techniques and design methodologies of the spatial design disciplines were used to analyze these environments, grounding questions of monsoonal change within the dynamic socio-ecological relations through which lived environments are produced.


  • Ansari, J. (2009). “Revisiting Urban planning in South Asia.” Revisiting Urban Planning: Global Report on Human Settlements 2009. http://www.unhabitat.org/grhs/2009.
  • Davis, M. (2001). Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World. London: Verso.
  • Dixit, Y., Hodell, D.A. and Petrie, C. A. (2014). “Abrupt weakening of the summer monsoon in northwest India – 41000 yr ago.” Geology, 24 February. doi: 10.1130/G35236.1
  • Head, L. and Gibson, C. (2012). “Becoming differently modern: Geographic contributions to a generative climate politics.” Progress in Human Geography 36(6): 699-7141.
  • IPCC. (2001). Climate Change 2001: Impacts, Adaption and Vulnerability. Summary for Policy Makers. Geneva: World Meteorological Organisation.
  • (2014).“Chapter 24. Asia.” Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaption and Vulnerability. http://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar5/wg2/.
  • Kaika, M. (2005). City of Flows. Modernity, Nature and the City. London: Routledge.
  • Latour, B. (2004). Politics of Nature. How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy. C. Porter, trans. Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press.
  • Taylor, M. (2014). The Political Ecology of Climate Change Adaption. Abingdon: Routledge.
    UN-Habitat (2013). State of the World’s Cities 2012/2013. New York: Routledge and UN-Habitat.
  • Walker Institute. (2007). “The Monsoon and Climate Change.” http://www.met.rdg.ac.uk/~sws05agt/walker_factsheet_India.pdf