Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Planning for disaster

Lessons from New York

An article by William Solecki in the latest edition of Environment and Urbanization outlines measures New York City has taken to lift its capacity to deal with the challenges of climate change, especially the risk of storm surges. Here’s some of the abstract:

Climate change presents cities with significant challenges such as adaptation to dynamic climate risks and protection of critical infrastructure systems and residents’ livelihoods. City governments and inhabitants must continually respond to a variety of urban environmental risks. Understanding how cities have begun to extend these experiences to the context of climate change adaptation as well as mitigation is crucial for the development and identification of climate action practices. The focus of this paper will be to document and explore how the city of New York has begun to define and implement a set of climate actions over the past half decade.

The paper noted that the city's infrastructure systems are "tightly coupled, leading to the possibility of a cascade of failures and secondary and tertiary climate impacts." The responses to the risk of a storm surge included an evacuation plan (response) and inter-agency co-operation to prepare adaptation initiatives that might reduce impacts on critical infrastructure (mitigation).

Counting the costs

Maybe nothing could have prepared NYC for super-storm Sandy, although given the scale of evacuation and the extent of damage done, the city probably performed better than others might have. The most recent estimates put the monetary loss at between US$30bn and $50bn in New York Region alone, based on loss of property and business. It does not count the cost in human lives (at least 43 in New York) and suffering.

Economic and community costs are driven in large part by failures in critical infrastructure, particularly the supply of water, sanitation services, electricity, gas, roads and public transport. The Governor’s office has already totted up $3.5bn in repairs to bridges, tunnels, subway and commuter rail lines; $1.65bn to rebuild homes and apartments; $1bn overtime for emergency workers; and "several billion dollars" in loans and grants to affected businesses. The Governor's advisers also estimated $13bn lost to business from damage to property or because employees could not get to their jobs.

Building Resilience

Hurricane Sandy demonstrates that physical barriers cold do little to reduce the impact of truly severe events. A quick survey of the damage suggests that many of the physical measures adopted to protect the coastal zone were as nothing in the face of this storm

This brings us back to our theme of building resilience into cities. There is a direct link between resilience and urban planning. New York’s sustainability plan focuses, for example, on the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and energy consumption initiatives as ways of mitigating risks around climate warming.

Among planning responses is the push for more rigorous building codes, although given the built-up nature of the city these will only have a marginal effect and will reduce the impact of extreme events only over the long term.

The New Zealand response following the Canterbury quake has been for councils to identify buildings of insufficient structural integrity to withstand a significant earthquake and require them to be strengthened or abandoned. The economic and logistical challenge this presents will be met only over a prolonged period. Unfortunately, natural disasters don’t necessarily share our planning timeframes.

But what about the here and now?

This of course underlines the dilemma facing emergency management: how much resource to put into resilience, how much into mitigation, and how much into recovery planning?

Wellington Lifelines

Look at the Wellington example. A recent report outlined the impact of a 7.5 Richter scale quake on the Wellington fault on the city's life-lines. Wellington would be devastated with road and rail routes out of action for months, the port would most likely be unworkable, loss of gas and electricity would last for weeks, and telecommunications for days. And this does not address widespread property damage by way of shaking, fires, and slips, let alone loss of lives and income. The impact of such an event – even one of lesser magnitude or reach – would be profound in the long-term.

The costs of recovery would be enormous and the impact by way of loss of population, business, and investment profound. The chairwoman of the lifelines group putting this report together suggested that the probability of such an event was low, but people should not be complacent. Wellington Electricity is seeking consumer feedback next year about what level of strengthening consumers might be prepared to support.

These are hardly reassuring responses to an event that would potentially destroy the national as well as the regional economy. Perhaps they just confirm how powerless we feel in the face of extreme events. It's easier to downplay their probability than to dwell on their impacts. But even if a 7.5 quake occurs only once every 800 years in Wellington, that is no guarantee that an event like that is not just around the corner. Or that a shallow, 5, 6, or , 7 quake on the Richter scale would not have devastating impacts on the city.

The Wellington analysis leaves little doubt that response and recovery planning should be of the highest priority.

What can we do?

A multi-faceted response to the threat of extreme events is called for. But let’s not pretend that long-term feel-good solutions that might reduce the rate of global warming will do the trick, even if they are desirable. Beyond response and recovery initiatives it might be an idea for planning to look instead to things that might make a difference over the next twenty to thirty years - incidentally the sort of time horizon that most urban strategies seem to favour.

The irony is that we seem hell-bent on planning cities in ways that will exacerbate short-term risk in the name of long-term sustainability. Compacting our cities will almost certainly increase the impact of extreme events and prolong recovery. A penchant among planners and politicians for centralised, high density, water-edge development focuses expansion (and public and private capital) in places where critical infrastructure converges and where, because of its age, infrastructure is usually most vulnerable, where network capacities are already strained, were open space is scarce, and outages or congestion are not uncommon. It almost inevitably concentrates risk in waterside areas that are naturally hazardous, often on or beneath ground that is unstable and prone to liquefaction.

The missing link

It is time for land use planning to treat hazard mitigation seriously, to develop plans that limit the capacity for extreme events to turn into disasters, and to consider a future built around decentralised urbanism, distributed infrastructure, and resilient communities.

Entire cities cannot decamp, despite the heroic evacuation of large parts of coastal New York prior to the Sandy onslaught, but their growth can be managed in a way which will reduce the impacts of extreme events rather than compound them, and facilitate recovery rather than impede it.