It was the specter of disaster that brought Charles Redman to Baltimore last week, where he met with city officials, representatives of the National Forest Service, and professors from the University of Maryland. The city, vulnerable to heat waves and storm surge flooding, simulates hypotheticals like a Sandy-size storm moving up the Chesapeake.
At Arizona State University, where Redman founded the School of Sustainability, he has for decades been involved in projects that cross urban planning with natural sciences. Lately, his purview has expanded. He’s one of a handful of ASU professors leading a new, wordy initiative: the Urban Resilience to Extreme Weather-Related Events Sustainability Research Network (UREx SRN).
So Redman was in Baltimore, one of nine cities (six in the U.S. and three in Latin America) participating in the ASU project to reimagine disaster planning for the 21st century. “Our argument,” Redman says, “is that the challenges of infrastructure are being answered not even in 20th-century ways, but a lot of these are 19th-century ways: Build high, build strong. The threats aren’t staying the same.”
The UREx SRN project, one of three proposed networks selected this year for funding by the National Science Foundation, has two goals. The first is to help cities reconsider the social and environmental aspects of disaster response, in addition to the technical preparation. The second is to shift infrastructure from a design that’s fail-safe to one that’s safe to fail.
To illustrate what that means, Mikhail Chester (a civil engineer at the helm of UREx SRN) compared two efforts to control urban rivers, in Los Angeles and Phoenix. The L.A. River, a short outflow that responded dramatically to heavy rainfall, was encased in a broad concrete channel after the devastating floods of 1938. The largely dry concrete culvert that runs south past downtown to Long Beach is ideal for racing hot rods (à la Grease). Like most U.S. infrastructure, it is designed to withstand a 100-year flood, and the surrounding neighborhoods are ill prepared for the risk of something greater.
East of Phoenix, Scottsdale’s Indian Bend Wash operates in the same dry climate, and bears the same seasonal flooding risk. But after Scottsdale voters rejected a concrete culvert in a 1965 referendum, the Army Corps of Engineers drew up an 11-mile-long, quarter-mile-wide greenbelt, dotted with golf courses, dog parks and barbecue areas. It was approved in 1973, and completed in 1984. “It’s literally 10 degrees cooler,” Chester tells me. “And it gets all sorts of social activity.”
This little stream becomes a raging, 100-foot-wide river during big winter rainstorms. But the costs of an unusually large storm, Chester emphasizes, are small. “Me not being able to bike to work,” he quips. If L.A. was an attempt at “flood control,” Scottsdale represents the current, more flexible ethos of “flood risk management.”
With UREx SRN, Redman, Chester and Nancy Grimm, an environmental studies professor at ASU, have brought nine cities (from New York City to Santiago, Chile) and 15 institutions into collaboration. In each participating city, they hope to have engineers, sociologists, and environmental scientists working with city officials, planning authorities, or NGOs to advance more resilient infrastructure.
“There’s probably 50 people from a variety of different backgrounds,” Chester says. “The idea with a network is that that value is greater than the sum of its parts.” Eight working groups within the network will trade ideas on particular topics, and cities will exchange progress reports at an annual powwow.
Given the particular nature of each city’s environmental concerns, how useful could such an exchange be? “Even though we start from different places on heat [waves], a lot of the responses we’ll be developing can be shared,” Redman insists. “Frankly, city practitioners are hugely interested in looking for that. They don’t want theoretical ideas.”
Additionally, Chester reminds me, technical solutions shaped around unique geographic features aren’t the only ones cities will share. Social initiatives may prove just as durable, even across national borders.
At the present, he says, the spirit of “safe-to-fail” hasn’t yet permeated the field. “In fairness to those who build highways or anything else, we’ve aligned all of our institutions, policies and norms to build highways the way we’ve been doing it,” he explains. “And to do something different requires you to break down all those forces.”
The Science of Cities column is made possible with the support of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
Henry Grabar is a senior editor at Urban Omnibus, the magazine of The Architectural League of New York. His work has also appeared in Cultural Geographies, the Atlantic, The Wall Street Journal and elsewhere. You can read more of his writing here.