As the impacts of climate change become more noticeable around the world, planners and politicians are taking steps to reinforce their cities against natural disasters. Though climate scientists stress that no single weather event can be attributed to climate change, last year’s Hurricane Sandy and the recent Colorado floods are poignant examples of the extreme weather events that will be more frequent and intense as global temperatures and sea levels continue rising. In the design and planning professions, especially in the eastern U.S., an emerging conversation is debating when to harden infrastructure, how to rebuild after major events, and even whether to abandon vulnerable areas entirely.
Rebuilding the economies of towns devastated by Sandy is another issue being tackled, and it comes with its own challenges; in Seaside Park, New Jersey, for example, a popular boardwalk burned down shortly after being rebuilt. Other problems arise with insurance coverage for damaged homes and businesses, feeding and sheltering displaced people, and ensuring employers can get people back to work as soon as possible. However, the intangibles of disaster recovery heavily rely upon the physical infrastructure that ensure communities run smoothly, and several organizations are working to ensure impacts from future events are lessened.
Operation Resilient Long Island (ORLI), an architecture student group in the New York region, is hosting a design ideas competition on how to rebuild residential communities for future storms while retaining community character. Common themes have floating homes, buildings on stilts, and stronger construction methods; planners should also be attentive to these ideas because of the clear need for revised zoning and building codes. The competition is in the final stage of public voting and the winning entry will be announced next month at an independent TED conference hosted by the New York Institute of Technology. I’ve had the honor of being on the ORLI Advisory Group for the past year and the efforts and media coverage generated has been admirable.
A broader option for mitigating hazards is building infrastructure that cooperates with nature rather than fighting against it. Such ‘soft’ projects include building sand dunes on beaches to absorb wave energy and perform erosion control. After Sandy, opposition to view-blocking dunes on Long Island lessened after seeing how effective they were in protected communities. Cities can also restore or create coastal wetlands that absorb excess water and provide wildlife habitat, and if properly designed can also double as recreational areas and parks. ‘Hard’ techniques include converting ground surfaces like sidewalks and parking lots to pervious asphalt, concrete, or open pavers that allow water to infiltrate the ground rather than flooding and overwhelming storm drains; such technology also facilitates aquifer recharge and filters pollutants out of the ecosystem. In dense urban areas that rely on coastal access seawalls can block rising waters, but will only be temporarily useful if not built tall enough. Indeed, most artificial defenses require ongoing maintenance or need to be repaired after storm events, leading to calls for coastal development to be halted or even reversed.
In New York, where at least 10,000 homes were damaged or destroyed, Governor Andrew Cuomo is promoting a $171 million program to buyout storm-affected properties in flood zones, demolish existing structures, and ensure the land is never built on again. However, a large amount of the federal aid that New York is receiving will go towards rebuilding rather than relocating. New Jersey, which saw over 360,000 damaged homes, has a similar buyout program, and though some residents are concerned the offers won’t meet their homes’ pre-storm values, other owners in Staten Island are happy with the amounts. The goal of the programs is to purchase contiguous parcels, rather than a checkerboard of vacant and occupied lots, to create more effective coastal barriers. For other homeowners, updated FEMA flood zones will force steep flood insurance payments starting in 2015 or an elevation of houses above flood levels; this financial quandary is forcing some residents to leave even if their home was undamaged, leaving a sinking housing market and emotional stress for those left behind in dwindling communities.
Some land is too valuable to give up. After suffering $19 billion in storm damage, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is behind a $20 billion fortification plan for city’s 500 miles of coastline. Some of the 250 actions include seawalls, hardening the power grid, and reinforcing buildings against wind and floodwaters. Parts of the plan would also also reinforce the city’s subway network, which was flooded and is still undergoing repairs, and raise buildings’ electrical and mechanical equipment to upper floors. Even so, an estimated 800,000 people will live in the city’s flood zones by 2050.
Coastal erosion and ice-melt in Newtok, Alaska will soon make 350 Eskimos the country’s first climate refugees, not to mention the millions of people who will be displaced from low-lying countries like Bangladesh and the Maldives by mid-century. In other areas lack of water is more of a concern, with warm cities like Atlanta and Las Vegas seeking new sources as aquifers and rivers reduce output or dry up. Droughts and low rainfall are likely to intensify the impact of heat waves and wildfires in the western states, like the ongoing California blaze that has burned over a quarter-million acres. Again, climate is a system of long-term trends that is difficult to precisely predict, but these types of extreme weather events can generally be expected to increase.
Recent studies have revealed that the world is already locked in to a 2-degree Celsius increase over pre-industrial levels by 2020, and with atmospheric carbon dioxide volume breaking 400 parts per million, by century’s end the the temperature change may be in the double digits. It is obvious that for the sake of mitigating harm to future generations’ way of life and minimizing ecological damage of the planet, immediate action is needed to reduce fossil fuel emissions. But with political and economic realities as they are, the best that designers and planners can do now is prepare their communities for the serious changes to come.