High Water Pants: Making Climate Change Tangible for Everyday Cyclists by Heidi Biggs
The High Water Pants were designed as a tool to speculatively explore the intersections of everyday cyclists and climate change and were the main design object from my master of design thesis. This project stems from my own personal experience as a cyclist making the dubious decision to keep riding during the past few forest-fire-smoke-filled summers in Seattle. The smoke made me wonder if increases in forest fires were due to climate change and if so, how else climate change might affect my cycling practice in the future. As I began discussing climate change with other cyclists, I started to realize a major complication in understanding climate change and its implications is that climate change is hard to feel. Due to its generational scale, climate change is difficult to perceive in everyday life or within the context of bike commuting. Even though cyclists had rich, sensorial and embodied understandings of climate and weather built from a history of bike commuting, they had a difficult time citing specific instances of climate change within their practices (even cyclists who had been commuting for 7, 11, or even 15 years). So, in order to make climate change tangible at the scale of everyday life, I created a ‘time-bending’ garment for cyclists to wear which I called the High Water Pants that enable future projections about sea-level rise to be experienced in the present moment, in situ, as cyclists ride and explore Seattle’s unique geography and topography.
The High Water Pants are named after the colloquial term for pants that end above the ankle, jokingly associated with a coming flood — a play on how the concept is tied to data about sea-level rise in the Puget Sound. The High Water Pants work by having pant legs which dynamically shorten in correspondence with areas in Seattle that will be acutely impacted by sea-level rise in the future to signal to the rider they are in a future impact zone. The High Water Pants use NOAA’s Sea Level Rise Viewer and Seattle Public Utilities Sea Level Rise Map as references to define areas that will be impacted by sea-level rise in the future. These pants respond sea level rise projections for the Puget Sound region. Water levels in the area have already risen about 8 inches in the last century, and are projected to rise 10 inches by 2050 and 28 inches by 2100 by moderate estimates (Mauger et al., 2015). As a cyclist rides into those areas while wearing the High Water Pants, the pants actuate in real-time using live GPS information. The pants use a Adafruit Flora GPS module to detect if the rider is within a preset area, defined through hand-crafted geofences. GPS readings are passed through a polygon detection algorithm run by an Adafruit Flora microcontroller which allows the pants to detect whether the rider is inside or outside of geofences.
The experience of using the High Water Pants offers cyclists an impression of the future overlaying the present by making sea-level rise data into a subtle tactile experience that unfolds geographically as one rides their bike around the city. The pants offer ways for cyclists to reflect on their entanglements within a changing climate (as people who are exposed to the elements on a daily basis) and imagine scenarios for cyclists set in a climate-changed (yet still geographically familiar) future.
For more information, please read my multi-phase process which I have documented over time via Medium articles.
Also, here is a video of the pants to show how they work :)
Photo Credit: Ioan Butiu
Video Credit: Dan Powel
Music Credit: Jack Bauman
Editing Assistance: Aashna Dev
Audrey Desjardins — UW Design (Chair)
Guillaume Mauger — UW Climate Impacts Group
Jason Germany — UW Design
Special thanks to UW DXARTS and Afroditi Psarra for work space and guidance. :)
Mauger, G.S.; J.H. Casola; H.A. Morgan;R.L. Strauch; B. Jones; B. Curry; T.M. Busch Isaksen; L. Whitely Binder; M.B. Krosby; and A.K.!Snover. 2015. Adapting to Change.