Speculative Approaches to Chimney Swift Habitats

During the Fall 2022 term, students from Professor Marcel O’Gorman’s Critical Design Methods class engaged in a value-sensitive design workshop with citizen scientists and Waterloo Region Nature members to create speculative designs of chimney swift (Chaetura pelagica) habitats.

Downtown Kitchener, where the Critical Media Lab is located, is home to a small but significant population of Chimney Swifts due to a relative abundance of old masonry chimneys, the preferred habitats of chimney swifts. Yet these habitats are quickly disappearing in Kitchener and throughout the chimney swift’s range. As such, these migratory birds are listed as a threatened species in Ontario where they nest and roost in the spring and summer. Chimney swift populations have declined by nearly 90% in the last 40 years, in part due to the capping and destruction of suitable chimneys for the birds to nest.

Vertical Twister, Bella Goudie and Suzanne Carson

Taking inspiration from the historic smokestack at the old Lang Tanning building, visible from the Critical Media Lab, and drawing on previous Critical Media Lab-sponsored creative interventions into species at risk, such as Hirondelusia, students spent time in co-design sessions with guests thinking through stakeholder analyses, asking questions, and listening to local experiences and stories about chimney swifts. Later, the group reconvened for a presentation of physical and digital speculative design artifacts which worked toward the goal of rethinking the possibilities for the smokestack. The student projects highlighted the intimate connection between chimney swifts and humans, and engaged with critical design methods such as value sensitive design, dark design, and speculative design. Students used their projects to frame the often-conflicting priorities of chimney swifts and humans, while focusing attention on unique ways of demonstrating the importance of conservation actions. Projects imagined the smokestack in a range of ways, using elements of education, play, and community engagement to speculate on possible futures for the chimney site that would increase the visibility of the problem of habitat loss. Vertical Twister, pictured above, is a critical design maquette by Bella Goudie and Suzanne Carson, XDM MA Candidates in the Department of English.