Community Sustainability + Resilience = Economic Opportunity

Photo of Donald

Written by: Donald

on Monday, September 26, 2016

This blog was written in collaboration with Paul Dowsett (S.TO), and Alec Hay from Southern Harbour.

Be it hurricane, ice storm, flood, or wildfire, there are few greater threats to a community than natural disaster. The design and planning of our cities and economies must be able to respond to disaster, bounce back, resume operation, and be a catalyst for redevelopment — all in addition to being safe havens for their residents.

A number of natural disasters have recently debilitated large geographic areas: affecting major cities and in some cases shutting down neighbourhoods entirely: the ice storm in Eastern Ontario and Quebec (1998), Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans (2005), Superstorm Sandy in New York (2012), flooding in Calgary (2013), ice storm in Toronto (2013), flooding in Toronto (2013 and 2014), both the Fort McMurray Wildfire and Flood (2016), and flooding in Louisiana (2016).

The City of Miami is currently being proactive: implementing resiliency measures to counteract the rise in sea level and mitigate persistent flooding, but many other cities, including those mentioned above, still struggle to respond to, and rebuild after these natural disasters occur.

Standing Ground - Disaster Recovery Proposal for Far Rockaway, New York. SUSTAINABLE.TO
Standing Ground - Disaster Recovery Proposal for Far Rockaway, New York. SUSTAINABLE.TO

This begs the question: had these cities been designed with resiliency, sustainability, and long-term economic prosperity in mind, would they now be continuing to thrive as vibrant, robust, and durable communities instead of struggling to recover?

Much of Louisiana is recently battled floods caused by heavy rainfall. Within 3 days they were inundated with 31 inches — more than four times the total monthly amount from one year prior in August of 2015. The flooding has caused widespread property and infrastructure damage, and is harming businesses and the local economy. With 60,000 homes damaged or washed away, residents of Louisiana are struggling just to survive.

In the wake of many such disasters, litigation and claims burden communities, governments, and insurers for years. Sadly, few residents have flood insurance, and regular homeowners insurance does not cover flooding. For those who do have flood insurance, there is no easy process to receive payout. This forces affected residents to rely on non-profits and rebuilding groups exclusively, with costs being borne by governments, NGOs, businesses and local communities. This consumes scarce public and private resources which could otherwise be used to develop social, economic and natural capital. Often times these rebuilding efforts lack any resiliency planning, and perpetuate the
cycle of ‘rebuild-as-before’. Eleven years later, the rebuild from Hurricane Katrina is far from a success story.

Many of these setbacks can be mitigated and prevented from reoccurring by building disaster-resilient communities and economies in the first place. Reducing disaster risk before a severe event occurs has a direct impact on how quickly and effectively a community can recover. There is a great funding imbalance between investments in pre-disaster planning for resilience, and paying the costs of post-disaster relief and recovery. There is no question that intelligently built communities can have vast economic impacts before, during, and after natural disasters. An upfront investment in building resiliently provides a positive return and reduces the need for recovery afterwards. This in turn helps promote the growth of robust and vibrant coastal communities.

While human dynamics empower a community to recover from catastrophe, it is the built, natural, and social infrastructure that truly enables that recovery. Understanding how a community reacts, responds, recovers, and ultimately emerges in a better state after a catastrophe is to understand the implications of where, how, and when its infrastructure will fail. Knowing what measures a community must take at each stage of a catastrophe enables us to define the requirements of our infrastructure. As the value of businesses and assets exposed to risk becomes more and more dependent on technology, the aftermath of catastrophic losses are greater today than ever before.

We can no longer buy our way out of their consequences, nor can we stop these catastrophic events from happening. It takes a fundamental shift in our approach to community design and planning, rather than a continuation of familiar practices whose underlying assumptions are no longer valid. No protection is absolute, and at some point every measure will fail. Our actions at these critical moments determine our survival as a community.

Failure is predictable, and considerations for failure during the design and planning stages can often reduce a project’s entire lifecycle cost. Infrastructure (built, natural, and social) has a purpose, and when designed to protect that purpose, a community is equipped to weather the storm.

One such neighbourhood considered by SUSTAINABLE.TO Architecture + Building (S.TO) is Far Rockaway on the south shore of Long Island, New York. S.TO’s proposal enables the Rockaway community to sustain functionality during and after devastating weather events like Superstorm Sandy from the Atlantic Ocean (a 0.01% event) while creating new social and economic infrastructure for the community to thrive in non-emergency conditions (99.99% of the time). In line with the new federal, state, and municipal guidelines and protocols, Response, Recovery, Robustness, and Redundancy define the execution of this proposal. Hit hard by Superstorm Sandy in 2012, the area (which averages four feet above sea level) was inundated with a storm surge over fifteen feet tall, submerging the entire neighbourhood, washing over the island, and destroying homes, businesses, and services. There were insufficient breakwater structures in place to prevent this water from rushing inland. In fact, such breakwaters that had been constructed were quickly washed out by the power of the storm surge. They failed. This shows that even when measures are put in place, Mother Nature has a way of breaking down our defences. Thus, our defences must be designed to fail… safely. They should not be imagined to be ‘fail-safe’, but should be designed to be ‘safe-to-fail’.

The S.TO proposal for Far Rockaway establishes many sequential, ‘safe-to-fail’ measures to minimize damage, maximize resiliency, protect vital infrastructure, and ensure that the neighbourhood remains safe and secure. These measures are designed to sustainably perform more than one function: one set of functions for 99.99% of the time, and another set of functions for extreme events 0.01% of the time. As ‘safe-to-fail’ structures, when overpowered by Mother Nature, they can react to, direct the impact of, and work together to prevent further damage — thereby enabling the community to self-recover.

The first two combined strategies are to enlarge the beach (1) and to reintroduce and protect the natural dune system (2). When the next storm surge hits, it will first hit further out from the built-up area, ensuring it slows down and dissipates, causing less damage inland. For 99.99% of the time, the enlarged beach and natural dune system is an attractive feature for tourists and residents alike. Attracting people to the area to swim, surf, and explore the beach will contribute to positive economic growth for the neighbourhood, increased urban density, improved tourist attraction, thriving local businesses, and demand for food, lodging, and services. Designed as ‘safe-to-fail’, the systems reduce the cost to rehabilitate after a severe weather event.

Standing Ground - Disaster Recovery Proposal for Far Rockaway, New York. SUSTAINABLE.TO
Standing Ground - Disaster Recovery Proposal for Far Rockaway, New York. SUSTAINABLE.TO

The third strategy is a water baffle structure (3), acting as a substantial breakwater behind the dunes to capture waves and water, and to direct it away from the built-up area during a severe weather event, or 0.01% of the time. For the other 99.99% of the time, it is a parking structure which provides ample space for tourists and weekend surfers to visit the beach and enjoy the neighbourhood throughout the year.

The retail promenade created along the new esplanade atop the parking structure increases access of local businesses; in turn will supporting increased office and residential density above, further supporting business and the local economy in a perpetual feedback loop. Such a retail promenade is typical of many seaside communities around the world.

This design is considered safe during and after a severe weather event, such that businesses can rebound more quickly with less downtime and less damage to property and goods. This is attractive to lenders, property and business owners, and renters in that business can be up and running soon after an event (if they shut down at all), with little impact on the local economy.

Standing Ground - Disaster Recovery Proposal for Far Rockaway, New York. SUSTAINABLE.TO
Standing Ground - Disaster Recovery Proposal for Far Rockaway, New York. SUSTAINABLE.TO

These parking/baffle structures are part of an optimized area with a built-up grade, our fourth strategy (4). Many learnings from the New Urbanism community planning are employed here, especially allowing for sensitively combined pedestrian and vehicular traffic. Beyond the parking/water baffle structure, the residential and commercial neighbourhoods sit on stilts, adjacent to an artificially raised grade, with services protected below this elevated grade. We propose that only 20% of the land area needs to be raised to provide the required protections. This is much more economically and environmentally viable than raising all of Far Rockaway. This approach makes it more cost-effective for developers to build subsequent infrastructure and buildings. The cost savings of which can in turn be passed on to homebuyers, in the form of less expensive housing; and to renters, in the form of lower rent.

Maintenance costs can be reduced for both homeowners and renters by selecting durable construction materials. Improved efficiency by means of increased air-tightness and above-code insulation means lower utility costs — an attractive feature for both residents returning to Far Rockaway, and those moving in for the first time. Power, internet, water, and sewage are protected by this built-up grade. The principal mixed-use roadways and walkways between buildings are less susceptible to flood and water damage. In this way, we allow any water that passes the beach, dunes, and baffle/parking structure to be diverted into the lower service laneways and parking areas at the natural grade. These open areas below essential services are spaces dedicated to the diversion of water away from important infrastructure. Robust materials allow these channel spaces to bounce back after a severe weather event.

By raising the grade the neighbourhood will not only be more enduring, but also more beautiful and well-connected. Access to critical infrastructure is attractive to developers who can then build more efficiently without expensive mechanical back-up systems. Home and business owners will also find these features attractive — knowing they will be safer and more secure before, during, and after a severe weather event.

Standing Ground - Disaster Recovery Proposal for Far Rockaway, New York. SUSTAINABLE.TO
Standing Ground - Disaster Recovery Proposal for Far Rockaway, New York. SUSTAINABLE.TO

Acting as a daily showpiece of the ‘safe-to-fail’ community design for the residents, the main central open park space functions as a large basin to accept storm surges. Strategic channels and a surge-slowing bridge serve to direct incoming water from the beach away from adjacent neighbourhoods and into the large open space provided (5). The lower park area at natural grade is free of buildings and infrastructure, and creates a focal point for community engagement. Retail, service, and residential buildings are raised up and surround the park basin, creating an interactive, mixed-use, public realm. Remaining functional during times of flooding, the public realm will attract residents and tourists alike. This again represents economic opportunity, and mitigates losses during downtime caused by severe weather events and neighbourhood recovery.

Beyond the design of the overall neighbourhood, its interface with the ocean, and the robust and redundant nature of the proposed infrastructure, is the design of the buildings themselves (6). Built with Passive House
principles originating from Canada (and codified in Germany), the homes and businesses are designed with superior building envelopes. Foundations, walls, and roofs are designed to improve insulation values, increase air-tightness,
and lower overall energy demand. Should the electricity grid go down, well-insulated, airtight, and sun-shielded buildings have been proven to hold in heat better during the winter, and stay cool longer during the summer. Large south-facing windows with overhanging shades prevent hot summer sun from entering, while allowing warm winter sun to penetrate deep into the interior spaces for passive winter warming. Operable windows allow for natural ventilation, accepting cooling breezes from the ocean without the need for power. Homes and businesses designed passively remain more comfortable year-round, and remain liveable throughout extended power outages. Should the electricity grid fail, rooftops covered in solar panels can provide the necessary power to each individual building while relief efforts are coordinated and repairs are made after the 0.01% event. For the remaining 99.9% of the time the panels provide electricity to the larger grid, reducing dependency on fossil fuels and providing green energy. Passive buildings benefit the local economy, ensuring the neighbourhood can continue to operate before, during, and after a severe weather event. Lower energy and operating costs, paired with low maintenance costs, are attractive to homebuyers and renters at all times.

Building all of these multiple ‘safe-to-fail’ structures may seem a bit unnecessary when one or two might do the trick, but as was found out in the first place with Superstorm Sandy even best laid plans can be dashed in an instant. Safety of course has a cost but compared to lost wages, lost homes, and lost lives building for prevention is a no-brainer. There is an economic advantage to building these structures in that the economic investment is directed right back into the community and becomes part of a larger local social investment. Local materials can be used to build the structures, constructed with local labour, which leads to the promotion of skilled trades and jobs in the community. Maintenance of structures creates long-term jobs in the neighbourhood. Active technologies such as solar panels create high-tech careers. This type of social investment leads to a sense of neighbourhood pride and a greater impetus to stay in the neighbourhood during and after a severe weather event. Residents built and maintain their own community, and become reluctant to leave their community, instead choosing to remain and rebuild.

By including several ‘safe-to-fail’ structures within the design of the neighbourhood, the SUSTAINABLE.TO proposal allows the area to accept any surge waters that force their way into the district with minimal
long-term damage. If the first strategy should fail, the next strategy can accommodate, and so on, acting as a multi-stage disaster sequence to lessen the overall impact. These ‘safe-to-fail’ strategies accommodate everyday functions 99.99% of the time without being intrusive or out of place. Rather than interfere, they contribute substantially to the social and economic vitality of the neighbourhood, and the overall health of the community.

While these built-in redundancies may seem like an extravagant and unnecessary investment, when a storm hits and residents are able to remain safe, buildings are not destroyed, and power and services continue operation, not only do the residents benefit but the local economy is allowed to thrive as well.

In the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, even the economy of downtown Manhattan suffered. 90% of all shops were forced to close temporarily, which led to widespread looting and loss of business. When people fear for the safety of their homes and their families, they do not show up for work, and do not go out shopping.

Shops and services in this re-planned community are located along raised streets, eliminating the risk of flood damage allowing for continuous operation, with no loss to business. The creation of safe, sustainable, and robust neighbourhoods will directly and positively improve the economic health of the neighbourhood itself, as well as surrounding areas and boroughs.

Rather than spending many years (and many dollars) in planning, research, and design after the fact, smart planning, sustainable design, and resiliency should be built into all neighbourhoods before the natural disaster even occurs.

As the old saying goes “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”.