High Water Pants: Intersections of Everyday Cycling and Climate Change

By Heidi Biggs

Climate Change is Hard to Feel

I’ve been a cyclist in Seattle for the past 13 years—a practice which started as a pragmatic transportation solution and became a lifestyle, forming parts of my community and identity. It was quite alarming then, when Seattle’s air quality was dramatically impacted by forest fire smoke the past few summers. I noticed more and more cyclists donning particulate masks and I wondered when I would have to embrace this new bike gear or risk damaging my lungs. All of a sudden, it seemed like cycling, this previously carefree pursuit, might become more fraught as climate change began to escalate.

I realized how uniquely vulnerable cyclists are to the impact of climate change as they are exposed to the elements on a daily basis. Some of the promises of climate change like hotter days in summer, heavier rain events and increased forest fires seem to be manifesting[1], but it’s hard to know concretely due to the generational scale of climate change and the natural variability of weather. For this reason, I set out to make a tool to help cyclists (myself included) tangibly understand how they will intersect with climate change. 

To design this tool, I started by attempting to understand cyclists’ existing knowledge of Seattle’s weather and climate, as well as their thoughts about climate change. Speaking with cyclists, I discovered they have a rich sensorial and embodied understanding of the seasons: they commented on smelling lilacs in spring, riding closer to the lake in the summer, the dehumidified and “moldy fresh” air of fall and the complexity of riding in cold, wet and dark Seattle winters. However, when asked if they had noticed symptoms of climate change in their commute over time, they often couldn’t point to concrete examples. When asked how they felt about climate change, they expressed hopelessness and frustration. Cyclists felt that having an impact on climate change seemed, “out of their hands” in the face of systemic disregard.

These conversations helped me realize two things: first, climate change is hard to feel at the scale of everyday life due to the natural variation in Seattle’s weather patterns and the fact that climate change contributes to and exacerbates weather systems over generational time scales. Second, narratives about climate change are often overwhelming andhard to verify through personal experience. This led to my creation of the High Water Pants, a pair of speculative, cycling pants that “bend time,” overlaying future data about climate change over present experiences of cycling through tactile cues, to allow for comparison between what is and what will be at a perceptible scale. This action can help cyclists tangibly experience their intersections with climate change at a local and personal scale as they ride around Seattle wearing the High Water Pants. 

Making Climate Change Tangible for Cyclists: High Water Pants

When sifting through various predictions about climate change and its local impacts on the Pacific Northwest, I discovered that due to Seattle’s proximity to coastal lands, the city (and its cyclists) are going to be directly impacted by chronic flooding and inundation from high tides and heavy rains as sea levels rise. Therefore, the High Water Pants are named after the colloquial term for pants that end above the ankle, jokingly associated with a coming flood. The threat of sea level rise is prescient but slow: major impacts won’t be felt for another 30 to 80 years as sea level is projected to rise 10 inches by 2050 and 28 inches by 2100 by moderate estimates[2]. The longer-term scale of sea level rise made speculative design an ideal tactic for the pants, since speculative design seeks to imagine alternative presents or near futures[3].

The High Water Pants work by mechanically shortening the legs of the pants within areas of Seattle that will be impacted by sea level rise in the future giving cyclists a tactile signal when they enter a future sea-level impact zone. Using NOAA’s Sea Level Rise Viewer and Seattle Public Utilities Sea Level Rise Map as references, I defined areas that represent future sea level rise impact zones. As a cyclist rides into those areas, the pants actuate in real-time using live GPS information. 

Beyond the mechanical and computational functioning of the pants, they also require cyclists’ personal history as a base for speculation. As noted earlier, through cycling, cyclists come to intimately understand place. They have insights about topography, landmarks, microclimates and scenic cycling destinations. The experience of wearing and feeling future-data unfolds geographically. While riding, memories and understandings mesh with this new information, forming a personalized, local, speculative future. Ultimately, the pants bridge the territory between present and future, bending time to mediate the generational scales of climate change. They offer a way to be with possible futures, open avenues for cyclists to reflect on their entanglements within a changing climate and imagine scenarios for cyclists set in a climate-changed future.

Heidi Biggs is a designer and researcher who recently earned a Master of Design from the University of Washington’s School of Art + Art History + Design’s. She is interested in research-through-making practices to explore alternative avenues in human computer interaction design. She would like to acknowledge the UW School of Art +Art History + Design and the UW DXARTS departments, as well as the help of Audrey Desjardins, Aftoditi Psarra, Guillaume Mauger and Jason Germany.

[1] G.S. Mauger; 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. https://doi.org/10.1038/nphoton.2010.302

[2] Ian Miller, Harriet Morgan, Guillaume Mauger, Ray Weldon, David Schmidt, Mark Welch, and Eric Grossman. 2018. Projected Sea Level Rise for Washington State – A 2018 Assessment.

[3] James Auger. 2013. Speculative design: Crafting the speculation. Digital Creativity 24, 1: 11–35. https://doi.org/10.1080/14626268.2013.767276