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Top 7 ways to design with resilient communities in mind

Some ideas from our experts on helping communities prepare for the future

When disaster strikes it’s often with little warning. But with the right tools and information, communities can not only overcome challenging circumstances, but become better prepared for the future. At Stantec, our promise is to design with community in mind, and this got us thinking, “What can we do to make our communities more resilient?”

Resiliency is a very broad topic. One way to define a resilient community is that it’s designed to help its people prepare for, respond to, and recover from the damaging effects of natural disasters, major economic downturns, terrorist attacks, and other devastating impacts, whether environmental, social, or economic in nature.

We design for the future every day at Stantec, so in celebration of Engineers Week in the United States and Engineers Month in Canada we asked some of our experts what we can do to make our communities more resilient. While we got a range of insightful ideas, seven main themes emerged as essential ways to design with resilient communities in mind.

1. Plan. It’s all in the plan. Designing with resilient communities in mind starts with designers and planners. They must consider the needs of the community and identify a broad range of hazards, risks, and weaknesses. To help speed the recovery and response process, designers must plan for the maintenance of critical facilities such as lifeline systems—those structures necessary to provide electric power, oil and natural gas, water and wastewater, and communications.

2. Reduce Risk. After designers and planners identify what assets or facilities are considered critical, they can zero in on ways to reduce any risks or threats to them.

Creating smaller, more affordable housing communities is one way to reduce risks associated with both an economic downturn and climate change—think the recent “tiny home” trend. Jeff Logan, in our Spokane, Washington, office explains how reducing the size and cost of housing can help make a community more resilient. “A simpler house and housing community means less power consumption and debt. In many cases, these houses are transportable (and not to be confused with mobile home parks), allowing residents to relocate if a disaster were impending or if a job opportunity were in a different location. Many are also built to be ‘off grid’ with composting or incinerating toilets, rainwater collection, and solar power to run them.”

3. Research. Investing in research will help designers better understand what we can do to help speed the recovery process, prevent disasters due to factors such as climate change, create hazard resistant structures, and discover tools that will help us design more resilient communities.

Each event brings new levels of awareness about how to prepare and protect our communities. But we can’t simply design for the last disaster because the next one could be entirely different. “Extrapolating from historical trends does not always serve as a good predictor anymore,” says Marsha. “We need to ask a lot of ‘what if’ questions and determine how much risk a community can afford to address.”

4. Use and Create Technology. Research will also help designers identify technologies that can help during an emergency or act as early warning systems. These technologies can be predictive, used during an event, or aid in recovery and restoration.

Chris Pekar from our Cottage Grove, Wisconsin, office explains how Geographic Information Systems (GIS) can be used in designing for resiliency. “Once a GIS is established for a community, a wide variety of models can be constructed that allow planners and designers to understand how alternate urban designs and environmental, demographic, or climatic scenarios relate to resiliency.”

5. Support Strong Social Networks. According to Donna Walcavage, from our New York, New York, office, our designs should support strong social networks. “The social fabric that can impact how well we survive can’t be built in the last second before the wave hits, or while the power is out, but must become a part of the community, full time.”

One way to encourage a strong social network is by making communities walkable. Walkable communities encourage neighbors to meet in open public spaces, reduce their carbon footprint, and get more exercise, and will also result in more eyes on the street.

Creating strong social networks also includes designers and planners building strong relationships with their local emergency management teams. As pointed out by Brent Bauman, from our Edmonton, Alberta office, “The worst time to try to build a relationship with an emergency manager is in the midst of a response or recovery effort.”

6. Create Multiuse Spaces. To create a truly resilient community, our focus should be broader than the development of a single structure or building. This means integrating resiliency into the community culture.

Caroline Cunningham in our Raleigh, North Carolina, office explains that engineers should “design projects to mitigate hazards and provide broad co-benefits. For example, water collection areas that reduce flooding and also function as recreation space, green infrastructure projects that slow water absorption and enhance the aesthetic appeal of an area, or levees that protect communities from flooding while also serving as a catalyst for economic development.”

7. Design Dependable Transit Systems. Resilient communities have transportation networks that allow for all modes of travel so when disaster strikes, alternative travel methods are available. Effective transit services are economical, help reduce carbon footprints, and provide an alternative mode of transportation when a personal vehicle is not available.

According to Cordelia Crockett in our Walnut Creek, California, office, “A resilient community has resilient infrastructure, transportation networks, families, and communications systems—high-quality transit services can contribute to all of these.”

Resilient communities plan, organize, and coordinate so they can understand and reduce risks. They invest in research and technology to identify hazards and vulnerabilities and to develop early warning systems. Most importantly, resilient communities work together to build strong and lasting relationships so that if disaster strikes, the strong social fabric bands the community together in their efforts to recover.

The social fabric that can impact how well we survive can’t be built in the last second but must become a part of the community, full time.

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