Friday, January 24, 2014

Designing resilience into the fabric of our cities

In a similar vein to yesterday's post on the potential impacts the rapid increase in urban populations will have on our ability to prepare for, respond to, and recover from disasters, this article from the folks at Fast Company is about one vision that integrates resilience into our cities working with the space that's already available.

If the world did as Mr. De Chant's 'Per Mile Squareinfographic suggests and underwent a hyperdensification, stacking on top of itself to achieve NYC levels of population density, then there would need to be modifications made to that environment that promotes / reinforces the resilience we are currently striving to create. The real world application of what these resilience strategies would look like are explored in this article and are lumped together and classified as 'green infrastructure.'
Image © Gensler
Remember that if the world is going to live like New Yorkers do, then roughly the same wasted space would need to be accounted for...in the case of NYC, that's roughly 5.3 million square feet of space, or roughly 92 football fields. This manifests itself in concrete traffic medians, vacant lots, and barren space that is waiting to be transformed. When you think of New York City, wasted space is not a concept that comes to mind, which is why this idea of transforming the "dead space" that is there into something that can work to promote resilience in the face of increased severe weather events is so cool.

When we think about cities, the prevailing mindset is that there is no room to do anything, overcrowding, poor sanitation, noise pollution, visual blight, and we've been programmed to believe that it stems from the model of our urban infrastructure. What it is though is a reluctance to invest in ideas that would transform that blight into opportunity. What Eric Tan of Gensler has done is to take existing "dead space" and repurpose it, so that it can help an overwhelmed municipal sewer system during strong deluges by creating absorbent surfaces that "eat" water. Or capturing solar energy in current "dead space" by building solar panels and charging stations to mitigate the need for power to charge mobile devices post-event.

These ideas are just that...ideas, but they open the door to what can be done to make our urban environments nicer places as well as places that work harder for us, helping us cope with a future of stronger and more frequent severe weather events.

Mr. Tan goes beyond the repurposing of existing dead space and explores what entire systems could look like from Storm Water Management, to Organic Waste Recyclers in a re-imagined urban setting. For more on his work check out: http://www.gensleron.com/cities/2013/6/10/town-square-initiative-new-york.html.
Image © Gensler
While hyperdensification brings with it lots of added benefits of space utilization, mass transit, opportunity for resource growth, etc...it also would compound the challenges faced when responding to disasters large and small. More people means more resources needed to evacuate, more shelters, better messaging on what to do, and a host of access issues ranging from infrastructure to accommodating individuals with disabilities. As our total population grows, this idea of re-imagining how we use our space will go from abstract to RFP rather quickly.

And for those who don't believe the density issue will quickly be pushed to the forefront of preparedness and recovery planning need look no further than the Post-Disaster Housing Prototype Program launching in New York City. The density issue is already being felt in the world of disasters and as more bodies migrate to urban centers, the ability to retrofit the space we currently use or have available while aligning it with the needs of the population will be crucial as we adjust to our new urban reality.

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