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From the Design Quarterly: 7 ways to shift our thinking about urban resilience

November 07, 2019

By Laura Flannery Sachtleben

Houston architect Laura Sachtleben says that Hurricane Harvey provided an opportunity to think differently about preparation and resilience

Urban resilience is a hot topic in Houston, Texas. At the peak of the flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey, one-third of Houston was underwater. When all was said and done, Hurricane Harvey caused $165 billion in damage to the area.

In the aftermath, much has been written about design or planning that could make Houston more resilient to future stressors and storms.

Houston is actively looking for solutions with the launch of its Houston 2020 Visions Competition and upcoming plan for resilience. A recent Stantec-hosted Houston Resiliency Innovation Workshop was designed to foster the development of new ideas and strategies that could make Houston a model for future urban resilience. The idea of the workshop was to gather architects, urban planners, engineers, city and county officials, the Army Corps of Engineers, educators, research and advocacy organizations, private industry partners, and others to frame the challenges and initiatives facing Houston and to generate ideas for a future vision of Houston as a model resilient city.

Considering our workshop and various discussions I’ve engaged in on the topic, there are some broad lessons about resilience that are emerging. Rather than list specific solutions and technologies, however, I've found that achieving resiliency requires us to profoundly shift the ways we think.

Here are seven ways our thinking about resiliency must change for it to succeed.

St. Bernard Kayak Launch in New Orleans, Louisiana.

1. Shift scope: Build social infrastructure

Resilience isn’t only about infrastructure. And it isn’t just about critical facilities. When our communities face shocks and stresses, the first line of infrastructure might not hold, critical facilities might fail, and even if they do not fail, there may not be a way to get much needed help to every citizen. Average community members will likely become first responders. So, we must think about what elements of the city become the infrastructure and critical facilities if that happens.

Of course, we must look at the infrastructure, but we also need to look at educating the population about resilience and enhancing communication within the community. We must build and implement social infrastructure, putting networks in place that can respond in times of crisis. A community that has strong social infrastructure is inherently more resilient.

2. Shift in economic hazards: Develop economic resilience

The world is changing rapidly. A city might thrive today, but one-dimensional economies may be obsolete by 2050. We need to ask ourselves: Do we have the required diversity of economy to navigate and thrive through economic changes?

For example, Houston's economy has always had a strong oil and gas foundation, and in the past was heavily dependent upon this industry. When the oil bust hit in the 1980s, Houston was hit hard and the impact on the local economy was staggering. Since then, we’ve significantly diversified our economy. When the most recent oil and gas downturn took place, we still felt the shockwaves, but they were more manageable.

Read and download the Design Quarterly Issue 07 | Adapting to Change

3. Shift in opportunity: Consider social equity

Social and economic resilience ties to equity. Social equity, broadly speaking, means access to infrastructure, transportation, opportunity, and communication across the population. Social equity makes cities more resilient. Achieving it means making sure every community within the city has equitable access to resources and the opportunity to thrive. This notion fits in alongside investments in infrastructure, education, and community as essential elements of resiliency.

The more social diversity cities can achieve, the more potential they must provide equity through access to diverse job opportunities.

4. Shift in hazard identification: Water as an asset

In Houston, the Hurricane Harvey experience has informed many discussions about resiliency. The emphasis is often on flooding and the city’s ability to weather extreme storms. It seems natural to look at water as a threat in a region where past flooding has caused vast damage.

But we need to consider both ends of the spectrum. In a city like Houston, it’s a very real possibility that water deficits and droughts will be as much a part of the future as hurricanes. Droughts have already done severe damage to our city in my lifetime, and we should anticipate future impacts.

Water is fundamentally a precious natural resource. In many cities around the world, it’s water scarcity that is the primary issue. In these regions, communities see water’s value. We’re misguided if we don’t see water that way. It’s hard to look through the lens of water scarcity when our experience has been too much water all at once, but to be ready for what’s next, we must broaden our thinking.

The Blue and Green Corridors (in the Gentilly area of New Orleans, Louisiana) seen in day-to-day conditions (left) and storm conditions. In the past, rainwater was collected and pumped into canals, but this system was frequently overwhelmed during storms. A new Stantec-designed strategy uses multiple solutions to create beautifully planted canal and associated public spaces (bike and pedestrian trails and parks) that reduce flooding and filter runoff while creating new connections for residents to work, play, and live.

5. Shift in communication: Resilience is networked, global     

Not long ago, we were teaching children and training them for jobs that existed right in the towns where they lived, but now we’re educating them for jobs all over the world, even jobs that don’t exist yet. There’s been a shift in the way we educate. That shift applies to our thinking about resilience.

When we think of resiliency, we most often focus on a city, but it’s clear that resiliency issues are bigger than any city, or region. Today, humans live globally. Our economy is global, our families are global, our connections are global. If one city is failing, that impacts life far beyond its borders.

And the climate obviously doesn’t care much for dividing lines on maps. Hurricane Harvey was eye opening in many respects. It spared no communities. Resiliency and extreme weather affect us all. The water doesn’t care what your socio-economic status is, your ethnic background, or the value of your real estate, it crosses political boundaries.

If we can make a shift to toward thinking globally, then we see a hurricane, fire, or tsunami not just as an event happening to other people far away but as a threat to humanity. At that point, resiliency quickly takes on a new global dimension.

A more global perspective will help us to realize a more resilient world. Every place on the planet has a threat or stressor that’s going to come its way. We need to understand the ripple effects from those events. We need to see each event as a threat to us all. By doing so, we raise the urgency level. We must think of our communities as part of a much larger network, working together to build global resilience.

Resilient thinking means asking how we rebuild better and stronger and in a way that is going to better weather a similar extreme event, or worse, in the future.

6. Shift in recovery: Think about resilience

As extreme weather events have shown us, our systems for everything from emergency response to insurance and government funding is oriented toward recovery. Our funding mechanisms are set up around an obsolete definition of recovery. If your personal residence or business is destroyed by a hurricane, the funding mechanism targets bringing it back to what it was before. Recovery means replace as it was before.

That’s not always wise. In fact, it’s a huge missed opportunity if we want to achieve true resilience. Resilience goes a step beyond recovery. It asks: Should go back and build it the way it was before? Resilient thinking means asking how we rebuild better and stronger and in a way that is going to better weather a similar extreme event, or worse, in the future. That’s a big shift—but we need to make it. Not just at the personal level, but in governance, policy, and the funding for disasters that supports recovery and resilience.

7. Shift in scale: Thinking small is important, too

When we hear the word resilience, we naturally think about massive, heavily engineered undertakings—building giant levees and pump systems, big infrastructure projects. Obviously, those are important, but another big shift in thinking has to do with scale.

There’s a lot of value in thinking small and realizing that small interventions at the personal or neighborhood scale can add up to make a big difference. With a series of smaller public/private partnerships in communities replicated across the city, for example, we can systematically make larger scale change, thus making the city more resilient.

Massive infrastructure projects, as necessary as they are, can take years of effort to get off the ground, get funded and built. Taking small steps today is often better than waiting.

How do we design a resilient future?

We need to turn empathy into action. Today, we are challenged with how to communicate the urgency and importance around an issue that often seems like a technical and distant matter for authorities to resolve. When we witness a catastrophic climate event or disaster, our empathic response comes quite naturally. We want to help fellow humans in need. But creating a broad effort on resiliency will require us to turn the large, empathetic responses to disasters into something more sustained. How can we turn empathy into action to make change? That’s going to remain a big question for all of us.

As a resident of Houston, I have seen how important resilience can be—it’s real to me. In my chosen field, the design industry, I am privileged to help the industry play its role in solving these resilience issues. As a design community, we can be the change-makers, the ones to initiate the conversation and to highlight the challenges—and the opportunities—inherent in resilience.

My challenge to clients and designers everywhere is to consider resilience—large or small—in every project we undertake. Think about these seven aspects of resilience and how they might impact your project, city, or community. It’s only by thinking broadly, that we will design a resilient future.

  • Laura Flannery Sachtleben

    Laura has been dedicated to educational design for the past 13 years and is committed to innovation in education through continual research and discovery.

    Contact Laura Flannery
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