Friday, November 9, 2012

Rebuilding after Hurricane Sandy

Hurricane Sandy, and the damage it left behind, was a milestone event for urbanism.  Not only did it provide an opportunity, albeit an unwanted opportunity, to increase the urbanism in broad swaths of densely developed land, it was also a chance for urbanists everywhere to weigh in with their thoughts on how rebuilding should proceed.  If we had a way to convert tweets and blog posts into fill dirt, we could have already raised the Jersey shore by three feet.

If that sounds crotchety, that wasn’t the intent.  Great urbanist minds are offering some meaningful insights about what Sandy taught us and where we should go from here.  There is so much good information floating around (pun intended) that there will likely be a part two to this post.
We’ll start with some tweets from Richard Florida.  A few months ago, I provided a link to a talk by Florida in which he commented on the trends in higher density development.  His name will appear more frequently in this blog in the near future.
An urbanist teaching at the University of Toronto while also working for Atlantic Cities, Florida brings enthusiasm and broad knowledge to the field.  He coined the phrase “creative class” to describe the demographic that he found crucial to urbanism.  The tenth anniversary update to his book on the creative class was recently published and will be reviewed in this space in the new year.
Amidst his other writings on Sandy, Florida offered three tweets last week that succinctly summed up the challenges and opportunities of Sandy.  (Freed from the 140-character Twitter limit, I edited his words slightly.)
“People talk about the role of Olympics in enabling cities to undertake infrastructure improvements.  Sandy provides a much bigger opportunity.”
“Forget industrial policy, it’s time for the U.S. to embark on massive city building and rebuilding policy.”
“Any discussion about future of capitalism must include at its core not financial regulation, but the resilience of cities and physical-natural systems.”
In a longer format, Florida writes in the New York Daily News  that “Cities along the coasts account for a greater and greater share of the economic assets of our spiky world, where wealth is increasingly concentrated in a relatively small number of places.”  He notes that, In terms of projected risk from coastal flooding by the year 2070, New York is third in world, behind only Miami and Guangzhou, China.
In looking at the impacts of Sandy on New York City, Florida notes that “the most densely populated parts of the city were able to bounce back quickest.”  However, he argues that density isn’t enough.  Additionally, New York must “bolster its resiliency by creating a less centralized power grid with more built-in redundancy”, “encourage the restoration of barrier islands and wetlands that can buffer surges” and “develop technology that facilitates crowdsourcing of critical information.”
Florida notes it would be foolish and short-sighted to building new infrastructure that simply replicates the damaged infrastructure.  “Great cities don’t restore themselves according to their original blueprints; they adapt to new circumstances and change.”
Quoting from “The Evolution of Great World Cities” by Christopher Kennedy of the University of Toronto, Florida notes that “London revised its building codes and widened its streets in response to the Great Fire of 1666. This increased its population density, which in turn sped up its commercial and creative metabolism.  A cholera epidemic provided the impetus for Haussmann’s epochal transformation of Paris.”

Writing in the New Jersey Spotlight, Tom Johnson makes similar points.  Major damage occurred along much of the New Jersey shoreline, perhaps exacerbated by years of declining infrastructure maintenance.  The state is still formulating a plan for reconstruction.  Quoting Chris Sturm, a senior policy analyst for New Jersey Future which advocates urbanism, Johnson notes “It gives the state an opportunity to rebuild its infrastructure.  There is more urgency to rebuilding it better to deal with rising sea levels, extreme storms, and increased flooding.’’
Kelly McCartney, writing for Shareable Cities, offers the idea that public banks might provide a necessary component for the financing of rebuilding.   In her words "Public banks are owned by the citizens through their government."

McCartney’s example is the Bank of North Dakota, which is a public bank.  She notes the role played by the bank in the aftermath of the 1997 Grand Banks, North Dakota flood.  She reports that Grand Banks rebounded more quickly than its sister city across the river, East Grand Fork, which is in Minnesota and didn’t have a public bank to participate in rebuilding.
McCartney reports that the Bank of North Dakota is the only public bank in the country, although several other states have laws that authorize the formation of public banks.
I can see the possible role for public banks through which the collective will of a community can be more easily brought to bear on a disaster situation for which private banks are slow to respond.  I can also see the potential for altruistic impulses overcoming financial common sense, resulting in bailouts from the general fund.  I like the concept, but with caution.
Andrea Bernstein of Transportation Nation writes about Klaus Jacob, a seismologist who was conscripted into modeling potential subway damage from a storm like Hurricane Sandy.  His prediction, in which he used the best scientific expectations about climate change, predicted almost exactly the flooding that did occur.  His model should be considered a triumph for the science of climate change.
But the even more interesting part of the story is Jacob’s personal experience with Sandy.  A New Jersey resident, he raised his home in 2003 in expectation of heightened storm surges from climate change.  But he wasn’t allowed to raise it as much as he wished because of zoning restrictions.  As a result, his home still sustained damage.  Also, at the request of municipal authorities he moved his two family cars to a parking lot supposed above the anticipated flood elevation.  Nonetheless, both cars were flooded.  Clearly, it’s a city that needs to revisit its disaster planning.
Edward J. Blakely, writing in Plantizen, takes a more punitive, although tongue-in-cheek, approach to the rebuilding.  He notes that Italian seismologists were recently found guilty of manslaughter for failing to interpret small earthquakes as foreshocks to a larger quake that resulting in fatalities.

Blakely then proposes jailing the planners who allowed development in the area of the storm surge.  He notes that engineers in the U.S. can be held legally responsible for malpractice and sees no reason why planners shouldn’t be held to the same standard.
Even though Blakely is less than fully serious in his proposal, his argument points to a key concern in the way planning is done in the U.S.  In most states, planners make relatively few major decisions.  Instead, they provide alternatives to public bodies during the adoption of general plans and during the review of individual project proposals.  But they aren’t responsible for the ultimate decisions.  It’s a model that will usually result in reactive planning, not proactive, which should be a concern in a time of changing conditions. 
Blakely also argues that redevelopment needs to accommodate “settled science” of climate change.
Finally, in a story that is more about recovery than rebuilding, Sarah Goodyear of Atlantic Cities writes about her involvement with a team that delivered emergency supplies by bicycle.
Although she agrees that motor vehicles are often the better choice, she argues that the humble bicycle is sometimes well suited to a task and can also serve as a metaphor for a rebounding city.  “It is a machine that is uniquely able to leverage and amplify human effort.  And this is precisely what we have seen all over the city in the days since the storm hit: The humble work of individual people, harnessed to simple mechanisms, can gain strength exponentially.  And move a city forward.”
As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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