A well-developed infrastructure can be the difference between citywide resilience and longstanding disorder. Notably, this infrastructure consists of both the coordination of first responders and the physical structures they need to support emergency work. Both of these components impact the way a city reacts to natural disasters or other severe weather disturbances.
Understanding environmental and climatic patterns proves critical in preparing for weather disturbances and natural disasters. Often, severe weather accompanies shifts in climate but affects each region differently. Armed with this knowledge, city officials across the country are examining ways they can alter infrastructure to mitigate disaster and rapidly repair the damage it might cause.
Bridges will not stand forever
Last fall, the University of Colorado released a report that examined the state’s ability to withstand increased flooding over the next several decades. The report suggests that, had the state made several much-needed upgrades to its bridges, roads and facilities earlier, severe flooding would not have had such a considerable impact on the region in 2013. Investing in infrastructure improvements now will help guard against future disaster.
“People need to understand the importance and seriousness of infrastructure,” explained Jimmy Kim, Ph.D., lead author of the study and associate professor of structural engineering at the university. “There is an assumption that a bridge will stand forever, and that’s simply not true.”
Recognizing this, regional leaders in New York City, San Francisco and cities throughout the Midwest are developing innovative plans to safeguard their regions by building new physical structures.
When Hurricane Sandy hit the northeastern U.S. in October 2012, it caused billions of dollars worth of damage to the city. For days, or weeks in some places, people endured without municipal resources such as electrical power, transportation, water or sewage treatment. To prepare for future storms, authorities are looking to inspire architects to help.
Last summer, Rebuild by Design—created in the aftermath of the superstorm by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force—announced winners in its competition to improve pre-existing infrastructures for some of the biggest cities in the U.S. The winning project, developed by Bjarke Ingels Group, suggested that NYC build 16-foot walls along the city’s edge to prevent storm surges from wrecking the city. Bjarke Ingels was awarded $535 million to build 8 miles worth of barriers along the shore.
Known as “The Big U,” these barriers will include sturdy walls, dikes, and berms to protect coastal residents and shield the city from the violent waters accompanying powerful storms like Sandy. A large part of the success of the project hinges on the multiple uses planned for this protective structure. Some proposals for other regions—a physicist recently recommend building tornado-proof walls across several midwestern states, for example—can suffer from large expense for a singular purpose. The Big U, however, intentionally encompasses a variety of other uses by the community, such as sunbathing, gardening or farming. Kai-Uwe Bergmann, a partner at Bjarke Ingels Group, explained to The New York Times that the new barrier will become a part of daily neighborhood life.
“The idea was to create a public amenity that also had a protective element,” Bergmann told the source. “We could have built walls, but walls are only used .01 percent of the time, during crises. We wanted something that was aesthetically pleasing, well designed and was useful all the time.”
The New York Times noted that 90,000 buildings were at risk should another catastrophe occur similar to Sandy. Since the initial leg of The Big U won’t be completed until 2020, other precautions are being undertaken to improve the resiliency of existing buildings in the path of the storms.
There is time to plan for slow-moving emergencies
On the other coast, San Francisco has also taken measures to prepare its citizens for an increase in the number and strength of weather-related disturbances. The California State Assembly released a report detailing suggestions for the city’s officials to safeguard the community against rising sea levels that can lead to large-scale floods across the area. Water supplies, fishing industries, transportation, and coastal agriculture may be affected and therefore need protection.
“Sea-level rise has been called a slow-moving emergency,” the State Assembly report said. “As a result, the future is not all doom and gloom since we have time on our side to prepare and plan for sea-level rise.”
The guidance set forth by state officials includes multiple suggestions about how to alter the city’s infrastructure. The plan outlines a strategy for educating the community about flooding and boosting the level of preparation through research, assessment and adaptation. The report also calls for new and existing critical facilities to be located outside the inundation area to protect these services as ocean levels rise and extreme events reach further inland.
Among the policy recommendations set forth by the State Assembly is a greater emphasis on proactivity. The report explains that taking action now is imperative for ensuring the safety of the community, as it presents leaders with the time they need to undertake other important recommendations—like collaborating with surrounding regions and creating comprehensive planning endeavors. The State Assembly’s report is more concerned with developing policies that pave the way for the creation of larger projects, similar to The Big U. It stresses education of community leaders and other citizens to inspire more people to contribute their ideas for change.
By casting this vision, city officials hope to not only protect their communities from more immediate threats but also begin developing a response strategy for the less urgent but still looming effects of volatile weather. The continued emphasis on infrastructure is crucial for communities looking to foster community resilience and survival.
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