Critical infrastructure planning: How can we keep natural hazards from becoming disasters?

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Last year I came across a City Lab article on Federal infrastructure funding for dams was a good food for thought.

I reflected on a piece I wrote in the aftermath of Haiti’s earthquake for no longer published Race-Talk blog of the Kirwan Institute at Ohio State University (I’ll re-publish that piece on this blog). In that article, I pointed out the link between land use decisionmaking and the disporportionate impacts of natural disasters on the poor both between and within countries, citing earlier work on poverty and vulnerability by scholars Martine and Guzman in the aftermath of the devasation of Hurriance Mitch in central America.

And history repeats itself…(This is frustratingly and tragically too true for Houston and past research and warnings on flood risk there).

Going back to the dam failure that prompted the City Lab article: Aside from the terrible potential consequences for the 200,000 evacuees at the time if the Oroville Dam just outside of Sacramento didn’ hold, the quote that jumped out to me from the article at the time, among many:

“Of the nation’s 87,359 dams (as of 2013), about 17 percent (14,726 dams) are classified as high hazard potential—meaning that failure would result in loss of human life.”

They’re not all failing, but those are the 17% that absolutely cannot fail.

President Obama signed a Water Infrastructure Improvement Act bill into law before he left office, so thankfully there will be some grant money available for those high hazard dams, but the two main points of the article are that 1) the need to fix up Oroville damn has been known since at least 2005 and the state of California didn’t want to invest and convinced the Federal government to table the matter, and 2) Trump’s whole “one billion dollar” infrastructure plan (not sure if there really is a plan at this point) is based on tax credits for private investment. Not likely to drive the kind of investment our aging and critical infrastructure needs.

We’ve seen this in the limitations of the private market approach to rebuilding in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which disproportionately have negative impacts on the ability of income poor individuals and households to recover. A good overview of how market solutions end up huring the poor can be found in the case studies of post-disaster recovery in New Orleans and New York, by Gotham and Greenberg in their 2008 article, “From 9/11 to 8/29: Post-disaster recovery and rebuilding in New York and New Orleans” published in the journal Social Forces.

The state is a bulwark against the vagaries of the market, and also plays a critical role in ensuring that rebuilding, maintenance, and operations of infrastructure and related services are equitable in terms of who is serviced, impacts, and costs.

The recent hurricanes to strike Houston, the Gulf, Puerto Rico, and the Caribbean also illustrate the challenges of infrastructure, and how we are neglecting one form of invisible infrastructure, something my colleagues at Berkeley (Harrison Fraker and former DCRP faculty Vicki Elmer) have labeled “Fifth Infrastructure,” harnessing the natural features of the landscape itself (floodplains, wetlands, open spaces and more). In this article, they show how fifth infrastructure can be used to create decentralized micro-utilities that use less water, generate energy from waste, and eliminate emissions at the scale of the neighborhood.

I’ve worked on projects utilizing anaerobic bio-digestion at the household level in African cities, in Nigeria, I set up a demonstration project with the wonderful boundary-pushing planner, TH Culhane and a team of colleagues from Nigeria and Germany.

The demo was an innovation of the balcony biodigester model developed by the Appropriate Rural Technology Institute (ARTI) out of India. It has great potential to meet waste management and energy needs for households, and so it was wonderful to see described by Fraker and Elmer a fully integrated concept operating at the mesoscale of the neighborhood.

In many parts of the world, flood management in the face of climate change is about destroying the homes and neighborhoods of the poor who live in non-durable housing, while building walls around the city, and paradoxically making the problem worse by allowing developers to build in natural flood plains. Better regulations, affordable and sustainable housing integrated in the urban core are part of the solution, as are new approaches and technologies that harness fifth infrastructure. Another colleague at Berkeley in Landscape Architecture, Kristina Hill, has mapped out typologies of coastal infrastructure that range from static to dynamic, walls to landforms. She wrote a good recent op-ed on Houston and Hurricane Harvey, too.

As long as we keep ignoring the promise and perils of the landscape in our planning, design, and construction, we’ll continue to court tragedy and face challenges in meeting the infrastructural needs of ever-growing urbanized regions.

As planners, if we combine an ethic that respects life and the primacy of the biosphere in its life-sustaining properties (a la Manfred Max-Neef), principles of equity and true engagement and co-learning with the communities we serve, along with the approaches of our colleagues in landscape architecture and urban design, and the possibilities of technologies and land we will find we have many more options at our disposal for shaping cities than we think.

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