Why Regionalism is Important for Disaster Relief

4.26.13 | As much of the Chicago area, and large swaths of the Midwest dry out from last week’s deluges and continue struggling with flooding rivers, it seems only apt to consider resilience in the face of natural disasters.

Two papers of particular note at this site (as we noted earlier this week, courtesy of Routledge Planning & Urban Design) examine urban planning in Hungary following severe flooding in June 2010 the Miskolc metropolitan area, and resilience planning after the 1906 and 2010 earthquakes in San Francisco and Concepción, Chile, respectively.

Veronika Czakó’s article, Drowning the Suburb: Settlement Planning and Climate Change Adaptation in a Hungarian Metropolitan Area, appeared in January’s edition of Urban Research & Practice. Its conclusion is that a better horizontal integration of planning and government between regional and national authorities would be the best option to prevent such disasters in the future: “More intensive coordination and cooperation between specialized authorities and the municipalities within the metropolitan area would also have contributed to avoiding the disaster.”

In the U.S. context, I think this is probably seen in regional governments like Miami-Dade County, Fla., and Indianapolis-Marion County, Ind. — where city and county governments are either mostly one and the same, or very closely coordinated between strictly municipal services and broader, regional concerns — or Metro in the Portland, Ore., region, which has regional land use planning authority across municipal boundaries.

In Resilience as a Framework for Urbanism and Recovery, published in the February 2011 edition of the Journal of Landscape Architecture, Penny Allen and Martin Bryant examined how San Francisco and Concepción recovered from their earthquakes, with particular emphasis on the lessons to be learned for the authors’ native New Zealand, where the South Island city of Christchurch was struck by a series of earthquakes and strong aftershocks between September 2010 and December 2011. “These case studies show a link between a city’s urban structure and its capacity to recover after an earthquake,” they stated, while noting in the very next sentence:

One would expect to see urban designers and recovery planners working closely together in practice. But the idea that the urban environment – not just the buildings but the spaces between buildings – might be designed to influence recovery is still new, and a productive working relationship between the disciplines is rare.

Drawing on the notion of “ecological resilience,” they note that

Systems operate as a series of nested and interconnected scales which influence each other, for example households to villages to nations, or trees to patches to landscapes. And because it was established to assist in the adaptive management of ecosystems, the model describes how humans can intervene through management or design to influence resilience; either through the manipulation of structure and function to introduce redundancies or “room to move,” or enhancing feedback mechanisms and the adaptive response.

San Francisco’s modular grid “made it safe to fail. Despite the extensive amount of rubble and fallen wires that blocked streets, the grid provided alternative options, creating a redundancy of links that allowed the city to remain connected and ensuring people could easily escape to the outlying suburbs across the Bay.” By contrast, Concepción’s regional structure “is polycentric or modular in form but not in function.” Hence when two of its three bridges across the Bío-Bío River collapsed, recovery suffered.

The city appears modular but is not modular enough. Both the sub-centre and the metropolitan city as a whole rely for their viability on the connections between them and because of their interdependencies, it is not safe for either the sub-centres, or the connections between them, to fail.

The lessons they draw mirror those being discussed by Michael Mehaffy and Nikos Salingaros, which we noted here. Allen and Bryant’s conclusions may be more relevant to U.S. place governance. And even though the disasters here are earthquakes, plenty of U.S. cities are vulnerable to temblors. The links between resilience and urban planning can help cities recover from hurricanes or tornadoes, too.

One last item of note: Cook County, Ill., recently announced new funding for sustainable development — if it’s transit-oriented and within a half-mile of passenger rail, mixed-use hospitality or service-sector projects near transit, cargo-oriented projects near freight rail lines or terminals, or for business development loans. The new BUILT in Cook Fund is a $30 million loan guarantee program (approved by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development) that’s a Section 108 Loan (large PDF). Per the county’s press release, participation guidelines include:

  • Development and/or business growth loans must benefit low- and moderate-income residents by making at least 51 percent of jobs created with BUILT in Cook financing available to low- and moderate-income workers;
  • Financing is limited to 15 percent of the total development cost or $2 million, whichever is less;
  • Potential borrowers include: developers, businesses and/or individuals;
  • Project underwriting will be done in collaboration with private lenders.

This initiative may bear watching, as it touches on several resilience themes we’ve discussed or noted here and here.

Photo/ Víctor Peinado 

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