Thursday, January 23, 2014

The Future of Cities and Disaster Response

The global population is exploding. More people means more space needed for food production, housing, economic development, etc...generally, more is needed to support more people. This growth however is putting people in harms way; vulnerable populations are living in places known to be at risk for increased impacts to natural hazards because there's no place for them to go (usually). While this rapid human sprawl takes place, industry is continually playing catchup, bending the rules or delaying the implementation of new rules to build faster and bigger in an effort to capitalize on the opportunity that the growth represents while ignoring some of the glaring signs that point to dangers in building economic centers or relocating population centers based on economic incentives without understanding or caring about the risks involved.

The graphic above illustrates the move taking place from rural communities to cities, this continued migration to existing population centers is something that requires a re-examination of how we consider planning our future urban developments and what we can do moving forward to make better use of the space we have.

In this great talk given by Vishaan Chakrabarti, he talks about the need for hyperdensification and how it will revolutionize our cities, accommodating for the increase in population sizes work to create more efficient and better organized systems that govern the people living within them.

One of the points made during Chakrabarti's talk is that much of the resource strain/insecurity we face stems from the inefficient way we've designed our surroundings, and that by re-designing  / re-thinking the way we live, embodied by the concept of hyperdensification, we would be addressing the problem of people living in vulnerable areas while expanding available space for additional resource growth and development. While the wholesale buyin to Chakrabarti's ideology isn't what I'm selling, I must admit I find merit and a lot of common sense in his hyperdensification argument.

Hyperdensity as a standalone solution may not seem compelling given the comfort of our lifestyle and the fact the suburbs are a way of life for many, so the below infographic, taken from Tim De Chant's 'Per Mile Square,' puts the challenges of our population growth into perspective. The graphic only pertains to the land use that 7 billion people would require, it doesn't talk about resource consumption. The way we design our cities is only part of the equation, the rate at which resources are consumed would be another major hurdle that would need to be cleared in order for this type of thinking to work. As it stands, if the entire world used as much resource as the US does annually...we would need 4.1 times the resources of earth to sustain the American lifestyle...
Just as the conversation around disasters has migrated from the abstract of "if" to the reality of "when," the challenges associated with accommodating our constantly expanding population will necessitate that changing the conversation around how we live and the way in which we consume resources. And if a move to a more dense way of life is achieved, what will that mean for disaster preparedness, response, and recovery? While Haiti is an extreme example of the impacts of a disaster on a high density urban area, the ongoing response and recovery operations have underscored an urgent need in redefining urban response to disasters. Areas of Christchurch are still closed off due to the continuing dangers the damage of the 2011 earthquakes.

Dense urban environments present their own set of challenges that compound the already difficult and chaotic response landscape, and if we are intentional in our move towards more densely packed urban environments, being structured in our approach to providing services pre/post disaster need to be taken into account as well.

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