Sustainable Recovery Planning

A few days after the threat of Hurricane Irma passed, I was asked for my top three priorities in a situation where a city needed to “rebuild nearly from scratch” for a sustainable place capable of absorbing population growth.

As tropical weather events become both more severe and more frequent due to climate change, this question seems timely to me.

Focus on permanent humans needs and the human scale

In the wake of a disaster is easy to get distracted by fleeting demands for specific situations. There can be dozens of groups with special needs demanding attention. But in order to prepare for sustainability in the long run, I think leaders should focus on the things that are essential and unchanging human needs. These include: clean water, sanitation, access to food, and shelter. It is critical to organize these essential city building blocks in a scale appropriate for humans – all of the basics for an individual should be within a convenient walking distance (approximately within a half mile radius).

A mix of housing types should be provided to accommodate families and individuals. City leaders should consider suspending ordinances which are counterproductive to recovery efforts (such as zoning that artificially limits residential density or prohibits essential services or street design standards that prioritize automotive travel).

Where possible, neighborhoods should be arranged to accommodate incremental growth following a disaster.

Re-organize systems to the smallest feasible scale

Regional power, water, and food systems are inherently fragile and difficult to sustain without massive resource inputs. When possible, these systems should be re-organized down to the smallest feasible scale – this will improve the area’s ability to endure future threats. If your neighborhood can collect all the water it needs, then you don’t need to rely on a vast, hidden network of pipes and faraway water treatment plants. If your block can produce all the energy required using sunlight or other renewable sources, then why should you rely on a monopolistic private utility? City leaders should seize opportunities for local self sufficiency.

Depending on the scale of the disaster, a city may also need to rebuild its local economy. This too should be attempted at the smallest possible scale. When beneficial transactions between residents are possible, they should be allowed by right to help the economy recover. A sustainable city fosters commerce both at the neighborhood scale and the metropolitan scale. City leaders should relax restrictions on temporary markets and proactively locate commercial nodes & corridors.

Finally, the transportation system should be re-configured reflect these changes. The city may need to re-organize its public transit systems and prioritize investments in footpaths and bicycling infrastructure.

Tell a coherent & compelling story

Too often urban planners neglect the cultural power of storytelling as an organizing feature of our cities. I believe people use stories to process pain and trauma. Following a disaster, there are at least two types of stories that should be expressed clearly in the public realm:

  1. Respecting what remains. While it may seem like everything has changed following a catastrophe, the memory of what came before will persist. Public memorials can help current and future generations comprehend what was lost and what remains.
  2. Inspiring a positive vision for the future. People returning to an area devastated by a natural disaster will need motivation. Optimistic and positive visions of the future can help them avoid despair and feel hope for the future.

These stories will help explain why things are different and how the community has changed to become more sustainable. Artists of all disciplines can assist in the recovery of a place this way.