21st century cities: D is for Disasters

This month, I’m writing a series: the ABC’s of 21st Century Cities. In previous entries, I explored Artificial Intelligence, Backward Futures  and Co-creation. Today is disasters.

and Brazil are suffering deadly disasters; I hope you recover rapidly and fully.


One year ago, Haiti was devastated by a 7.0 earthquake. Over 300,000 people were killed. The core of Port-Au-Prince was virtually leveled. One year later, less than 5% of the rubble has been removed. One million people remain homeless, living in tent cities.

The first disaster happened on January 12, 2010. The second one is ongoing. It’s a double crime – unsafe construction and terrible response.

For 21st century cities, disasters are a way of life

Do you have a nagging sense that there’s an uptick in disasters? It’s true. There are four times as many natural disasters as twenty years ago. The trend is still climbing.

No one is immune. Fifty poorer countries led by India will suffer the most deaths. A recent report estimates we will see one million deaths a year by 2030 . Industrialized countries will pay more in economic and infrastructure loss, estimated at $157 billion annually.

Disasters are reshaping our human geography.

  •     Over one billion people  in over 100 countries are at risk of becoming climate refugees; 98% live in developing countries in Asia, Africa, and Middle East (pictured Lilypad2 Refugee Floating Island).
  •     The current number of climate refugees is 50 million people, mostly displaced by flooding. By 2050, the UN estimates as many as 200 million climate refugees.
  •     People will migrate to places with food, water, security, education, health, and jobs, away from floods, disease, famine, drought, and conflict.
  •     In the US , the predicted hurricane damage on the gulf coast by 2030 is $350 billion , equal to a Hurricane Katrina every 7 years. New York and Miami  hold the highest risk for massive infrastructure damage.
  •     NBC news reporter Ann Curry’s tweet helped doctors and medicine land at a Haitian airstrip.  Is twitter a robust grassroots communication network ready to serve in disasters?

Have you been caught a disaster?

If so, were you ready? It’s more than just individual procrastination; we even vote to avoid fixing infrastructure.

  •     Elected officials get cheered and then re-elected when they respond to a disaster, as they should. But amazingly, when they beef up infrastructure, they lose elections. For every $1 spent in preparation, we save $15 in recovery.

“The benefits of prevention are not tangible; they are the disasters that did not happen.” Kofi Annan

  •     Nature or humans? Imagine if Haiti’s construction had been quake-resistant? In New Orleans, Katrina wasn’t the killer, a failed levee was. The two are so deeply intertwined, it’s always both.
  •     Mississippi and Alabama, each devastated by Katrina, refuse to enact building codes. Florida suffered 40-50% less damage and fewer deaths.
  •     Some recoveries take half a century, like Berlin. Others leap forward, like London. Still others take centuries and even millennia, like Rome.
  •     Flooding may steal the great coastal cities from future generations; there may not be future “Romes” to serve as historic markers of today.

Can we rebuild better than before?

Some cities revitalize and thrive after a catastrophic event. Others collapse, becoming a shadow of their most robust past. Jared Diamond believes collapse occurs when a society fails to adapt to new ecological or economic environments.

In other words, to recover, a city has to clearly imagine a revitalized future in a dramatically altered landscape and have the capacity and resources to act.

  •     The best time (if there is such a thing) to experience a major disaster is when your country or region is on a growth cycle. The worst is when your city’s in decline already.
  •     Will disasters become the reality tv of tomorrow?
Rotterdam is a miracle of resilience
After a catastrophic flood in 1953, Rotterdam leaders decided to rebuild beyond anyone’s imagination. Forty four years later, the Maeslant Barrier opened. It is an engineering marvel, designed to withstand a 10,000 year flood event.
  • Gumption. Building on Boyd’s OODA decision-making loop (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act),Vinay Gupta identifies Drive as the missing link between orientation and deciding to act, in other words, leadership and vision.
  • Wrong-mindedness. The most difficult problem is not inaction but wrong-minded action. Is New York rebuilding a 2050 future or a 1950 rehash?
  • Mindfulness. In contrast, after the 1989 earthquake destroyed the massive Embarcadero highway, San Francisco tore it down and re-established access to the bay from the adjacent neighborhoods. They chose a new, unique future.
  • A future of parity. For New Orleans to build a levee system for a 500 year flood event the estimate is $70 billion. The current repair to the levees is costing $15 billion for a 100 year flood. The entire city’s future remains unstable.

Images of the future

A number of organizations are fully mobilized such as the UN’s Resilient Cities program and Architecture for Humanity. Here’s a few still in the future.

  •     Communication networks include our mobile phones. Flying disaster relief robots support a local network.
  •     Video games can aid in preparation and emergency response training.
  •     Sensor networks provide real time data on locations of people and resources.
  •     Mobile hospitals will be flown into remote locations, such as solar airships.
  •    Temporary housing is being designed as prefab or created locally with salvaged materials.
  •     Future housing will be created on-site via 3d printers.
  •     Modular solar power enables off the grid energy.
  •     Geoengineering attempts to turn back atmospheric change to avoid the most extreme consequences of global warming.
  •     Sensors for emergency alert systems continue to improve

 Disaster-ready future cities

Several trends help: localism for food, distributed power especially the use of solar energy, walkable and biking neighborhoods w/ shops and services, DIY initiatives for making things, bartering/trading/sharing networks, communication networks such as twitter and other mobile devices, and so on.  A global push for city response plans, strengthening infrastructure, implementing building codes, and building higher and away from oceans is critical.

  • The 9/11 Report described New York as a failure of imagination. Can imagination help us?
  • The strongest efforts come from within a community. Someone steps up; some vision captures hearts and minds. People begin a million small actions towards recovery.
  • If a catastrophic event hits your city, are you ready? Is your neighborhood? Your family? How will you be safe? How resilient is your city?

Disasters destroy normal. Many cities and communities find their true mission, and rebuild even better. It can be a moment of deep reflection and learning, committing, and inspiring.

The next post, E is for Education. I am failing at my goal to post daily so I will try some new strategies. Thank you for reading, tweeting, commenting!

Images: Disaster historic statistics, Haiti tent city, Rotterdam Maeslantkering, Pakistani flood refugees, Lilypad2 floating city, flying disaster relief robots, video games.


What Is Geo-Engineering? Cool, Clear Images

These images complement my last article: How Technology Will Shape 21st Century Cities: Geo-Engineering, which was a bit skimpy on pics, heavy on narrative.http://bit.ly/43oNLs  Here are four more illustrations. One diagrams options, two rank them in cost-benefit analyses, and one does both.

The one that both diagrams and analyzes: New Scientist gave the most comprehensive version with a 3D image of options with rankings. http://bit.ly/13zjI7 Space mirrors (or reflectors, shields) rank highest overall and most expensive. Aerosols, cloud seeding and afforesting are shown as good options for less cost.




A diagram only: The University of East Anglia (on Next Big Future) created a simple illustration of solutions.http://bit.ly/1l0IEA


A cost-benefit analysis comes from the impressive report by The Royal Society. Aerosols come out best and surface albedo (light, reflective surfaces) either in cities or on the desert rank worst. Space reflectors or shields also rank high in efficacy but are not affordable. http://bit.ly/4jAytC (I featured this one in a September posthttp://bit.ly/35GuU9.) Heres the full report:http://bit.ly/37pFFp 




Another ranking of the solutions: As presented at an October symposium at MIT (on CNET), Phillip Boyd of University of Otago rated five categories of climate engineering based on four factors. The researcher considered all options a minefield of social and political factors. The symposium participants voiced a great deal of skepticism and caution, with far more testing and life cycle costs analysis recommended before any action is taken. To which I say, amen!http://bit.ly/1Wc6nC




Geo-engineering is no panacea for climate change; sustainable development and practices plus mitigation efforts are essential, necessary steps now. The conversation and testing on geo-engineered remediation picked up pace this year. We need to be informed and proceed cautiously b/c errors could be devastating. Public debates and global negotiations are beginning, and should be openly transparent. See my original analysis for more detail.http://bit.ly/43oNLs

Check out my delicious bookmarks on geo-engineering too.http://delicious.com/CindyFW/geoengineering

How Technology Will Shape 21st Century Cities: Geoengineering


In October, I covered a list of 20 items from The Futurist magazine’s Outlook 2010 (Nov-Dec 09 issue http://bit.ly/xFR5C) that will shape 21st c cities. http://bit.ly/154×84 Now I am adding other trends, ideas, and forecasts beyond their list. I addressed megacities, water, robotics, and whole cities in the first four. http://bit.ly/2CZkcS http://bit.ly/4Cmu32 http://bit.ly/1TGe4T http://bit.ly/47hhNH This article considers a significant new technology: geoengineering.

Science Fiction or Global Mandate?
While climate change and global warming remain controversial, arguments about solutions elevate tensions exponentially. One option under consideration, geoengineering or intentional climate manipulation, makes scientists and engineers sound like science fiction fanatics. http://bit.ly/1Sok5B Simulated volcanoes? Ocean algae? Flying mirrors? Consequently, people arrive at the negotiating table in polar-opposite camps, lines in the sand, as either evangelists or naysayers. http://bit.ly/K0uz7

Yet undeniably, we have been practicing geoengineering unintentionally at least since the birth of industrialization. http://bit.ly/2Hpq1S http://bit.ly/1pfZ4A Now we are faced with engineering the planet’s climate intentionally and cooperatively. As Stewart Brand, environmental pioneer, says: We are as gods; we might as well get good at it. Moreover, we have to get good at it. http://bit.ly/7ZcQ3

We, Not Us Versus Them
Among the most vexing issues is coordination among nations. On geoengineering, we act for the whole planet and everyone is a participant. Already people and nations commonly practice local weather experiments. Last year, China openly seeded clouds to reduce the chance that the Olympics would be interrupted by rain. http://bit.ly/3dphXY

None have attempted to implement climate change on a global scale, yet the commotion surrounding options grows daily, which makes action increasingly likely. This week, the US Congress held hearings and undoubtedly similar talks are taking place in every country. In just a few months, geoengineering has moved from a sci-fi fantasy to a necessary global conversation.

Where Does Geoengineering Fit?
Geoengineering necessarily begins with a slate of options surrounding climate change to figure out if we can avoid it all together. Possible solutions focus on three types of intervention, according to Jamais Cascio. http://bit.ly/1jFCvi We can prevent, mitigate damage, and remediate or reverse global warming.

  1. Prevention in terms of cities and buildings is part of the goal of sustainable, or green, solutions. Reduce use of fossil fuels that emit carbon by switching to alternative energies and by conservation. Conservation involves energy efficient buildings defined by USGBC’s LEED program and the UK’s BREEAM assessment. http://bit.ly/D6G5T  Changing the built environment occurs one building and one district at a time and will take decades. More immediately, changing behavior could happen immediately, yet in fact, social change also takes years, if not generations. Consequently, prevention is just a portion of the wedge solutions and other options are needed. http://bit.ly/3XqERa
  2. Mitigation refers to reducing catastrophic threats, such as protecting coastlines, (see 21st Century Cities: Water http://bit.ly/4Cmu32), modifying agricultural practices, and conserving water to decrease resource conflicts. These solutions do nothing to prevent progressively worse problems of an increasingly warm atmosphere.
  3. Remediation attacks climate change head-on by slowing or reversing global warming. Geoengineering is at the heart of remediation and also considered in the menu of wedge options. http://bit.ly/3XqERa The effects to temperatures can occur within a year although transforming the planet’s ecology may take decades or longer. Therein lies one of the risks; we won’t know the results in real time.

Prevention is the rallying cry for most environmentalists, me included. Building owners, government agencies, the public and AEC professionals increasingly mandate sustainable development. Regardless of remediation, prevention is an entry point for long-term stability, good design, and healthy lifestyles.

Are We Ready?
Hurricane Katrina and the 2008 Indonesian tsunami indicate that most if not all countries have enormous mitigation problems. The massive costs of preemptive change are dwarfed by the images of these destructive events and the loss of life. Yet investing in huge infrastructure projects for future possibilities falls far behind the needs of today’s crises. The question is: how many people and cities are we willing to sacrifice? Close to home most would say, none at all.

Consequently, while geoengineered remediation initially strikes many people as “you have got to be kidding me” and then as, “no way we can control the side-effects,” the fact is that we – or someone – will attempt massive geo-engineering climate change. We need to be experts for protection and most likely for proaction. That essentially is the debate. And it’s a debate that is past due.

Geoengineering Options
The types of geoengineering approaches fall into two categories, according to The Royal Society. http://bit.ly/37pFFp

  1. Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) or long-wave approaches pull CO2 out of atmosphere to slow global warming by capturing and burying or by allowing it to escape the atmosphere. Includes reforestation, bio-char production and storage, air capture or carbon capture at source and carbon disposal, and ocean fertilization e.g. plankton or algae blooms.
  2. Solar Radiation Management (SRM) or short-wave increases surface reflectivity (albedo) or blocks sunlight. Options include space shields e.g. giant orbiting mirrors, stratospheric sulfate aerosols, cloud seeding, and cloud brightening with seawater.

Stratospheric aerosols (such as simulated volcanoes or aerosols released from airplanes) are the best investment although it requires continual implementation while urban surface albedo (light colored cities, deserts) is the least effective. In general, CDR/long wave is considerably less effective at quickly altering temperatures than SRM, although has better efficacy over time. (Lenton & Vaughn 2009) http://bit.ly/14wsNZ

What Will It Mean to Us?
In terms of the built environment, lighter, more reflective surfaces are part of sustainable design, both LEED and BREEAM. Over time, cities should become lighter and greener with less solid, dark surfaces. Some geoengineering solutions may be built into the fabric of the city and highly visible, such as one proposal to create reflective artificial trees along roadways. If that option became as prolific as say power lines, our urban landscapes would be substantially altered.

Environmental changes would also affect us. Dimming sunlight could have massive implications for our experience of place and the effect on plant life. Aerosols will lighten the sky, change sunrises and sunsets, and could damage the ozone layer. Changing deserts or fertilizing oceans could be a difficult if not disastrous ecological option. Reforestation reduces farm land, which affects food production and livelihoods. Yet these options warrant full consideration including open debates about possible consequences.

In addition, unintended consequences could include increased humidity, drought, and possible health implications of various aerosols. All of these risks are potential, not pre-determined.

I considered the ethics of geoengineering and outlined ideas in these posts: http://bit.ly/35GuU9 http://bit.ly/1HIIiw  We need to continue with prevention and mitigation full-speed while we fully weigh geo-engineering.

How Do We Choose?
The difficulties of agreeing on the best options, determining risks, and measuring the impact, especially given the 20-30 year time lag for climate change, makes geoengineering thorny. Moreover, the mandate of “do no harm” and allowing reversibility increases our struggle 1000-fold. Implications must be considered in systematic terms, the potential consequences are enormous, and frankly, we still won’t be completely certain.

According to Lenton and Vaughn, our choices depend on how quickly and drastically we act.

By 2050, only stratospheric aerosol injections or sunshades in space have the potential to cool the climate back toward its pre-industrial state, but some land carbon cycle geoengineering options are of comparable magnitude to mitigation “wedges”. Strong mitigation, i.e. large reductions in CO2 emissions, combined with global-scale air capture and storage, deforestation, and bio-char production, i.e. enhanced CO2 sinks, might be able to bring CO2 back to its pre-industrial level by 2100, thus removing the need for other geo-engineering. http://bit.ly/14wsNZ

A future of a healthy atmosphere will only occur through a combination of changes to behavior, building and city choices, mitigating possible damage, recovery after catastrophes, and, yes, large-scale global engineering solutions – intentional, beneficial, accidental, and sadly, even malicious.

Looking Ahead
In fact, it is possible that only a few of these geo-engineering options will be necessary. Furthermore, the entire budget may be less than $10 billion, a relatively small global investment. The questions are: which options, who pays, who is liable for failures, and the extraordinarily sticky issue of who controls the projects. Furthermore, the risk of geoengineered terrorism is quite likely.

In other words, geoengineering will be part of everyday life and responsibility will fall on every country and individual, just as other security and environmental issues do today. New fields will emerge in geo-engineering, science, business, military, geo-ethics, and if there is to be solutions at all, in global diplomatic security and negotiations.

In the next article, I’ll look at more technological influences on 21st century cities. The goal here is 10 additional city-shaping ideas, and this is the fifth in the series. Thanks for reading and retweeting. Questions, comments, and ideas welcome!

image: http://pesd.stanford.edu/news/science_progress_geoengineering/#


Geoengineering options cost-benefits


The Royal Society created an amazing cost/benefit map of possible geo-engineering solutions to reverse climate change that summarizes an impressive new report. It’s one of the clearest, most succinct diagrams on this topic. Stratospheric aerosols (such as simulated volcanoes) are their winners; in general, isolated, directed solutions are favored over choices that are integrated into existing behaviors or technologies.

For instance regarding surface albedo (reflective surfaces), the Royal Society assumes entirely new costs for recoating every 10 years, rather than recognizing ongoing expenditures for building materials and maintenance. Consequently, lightening urban surfaces is shown to be the most unaffordable option, when in fact, it could be one of the cheapest options. Furthermore, they say it’s rapidly effective once implemented. Well that’s a winner! We can begin on that work today (it’s already part of LEED).

While clearly the Royal Society’s report work is important, it no doubt contains various assumptions. We need to review the options broadly and in terms of ethics, risks, consequences, effectiveness, and our potential to implement solutions.

  1. Get input by both publics and experts from multiple fields, an interdisciplinary approach.
  2. Look inside the assumptions to see what preferences are built in – every field has blind spots – and broaden and build on these solutions.
  3. Consider what we can improve in the built environment now.
  4. Take a systems approach to considering change beyond a narrow set of parameters.
  5. Acknowledge the potential of many people working together - particularly thru mechanisms like green building codes - as well as large-scale top-down solutions.
  6. Openly debate and analyze the ethical and long-term implications of each option.
  7. Ask broad environmental and ethical questions: What sort of earth are we making? How can we let the planet do some of the heavy lifting? What are the minimal interventions that achieve the most favorable results? Who or what is being favored?

To clean up the mess we made unintentionally, I think it’s going to take both/and, not either/or solutions. Geo-engineering is happening now; it’s time to ramp up the debate.


What are the Ethics of Geoengineering Planet Earth?

To reverse climate change, scientist say that we havegone too far to simply change ourbehavior,beyondthe ability to simplyprevent ormitigate further damage. We have torepairproblems that have already occurred and which will emerge in the coming decadesvia a climate lag of 20-30 years.Proposed solutions mimic naturalphenomena such as algae, clouds, and volcanoes. 


Climate change sets us up for some nasty ethical decisions because we must literally operate on ourselves, there are no precedents, and we only have one body – Earth.


Jamais Cascio,Hacking the Earth, defines geoethics as:


The set of guidelines pertaining to humanbehaviors that can affect larger planetary geophysical systems, including atmospheric, oceanic, geological, and plant/animal ecosystems. . . .[and] require a consideration of repercussions and so-called“second-oder effects(that is, the usually-unintended consequences arising from the interaction of the changed system and other connected systems.



The BBC News reported today that the UK Royal Societybelieves such remedies are technically feasible and could be effective.