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.


Summer Reading: A Box of #Architecture, #Cities, and #Sustainability

Watch on Posterous

Are you always looking for good books? I sure am. Today I got a whole box of new titles, to which I usually do a celebratory dance –new books days bring a flood of ideas and inspiration right to my doorstep. Whoowee! What’s inside??  the best gift to myself. We are in a golden age of books, a time when a brilliant meme can burn through the global brain in days if not hours.


In this video, I share the half that deals with architecture, cities, and sustainability – 9 titles in all. The other half of the box is filled with books on big ideas, media, and social change – it’s an even dozen. Look for those in another video. Plus I have a few stragglers (I ordered 30)… so if this works, you’ll be seeing more of these book box vids – it’s a quick way to share a small mountain of useful information, I hope. And I might not share these books otherwise; they go straight into my research or get shelved for future reference.


Don’t look for fiction here. I rarely buy novels or short stories in print form because I love to read on the kindle. But I hate to research on it. You can only look at one book at a time and you can’t view as quickly, accessing multiple tabs simultaneously. My desk is covered in books while I write. So you won’t see any big boxes of novels arriving at my door. And I savor them more slowly too, not urgently - maybe one/week or 10 days, I’d say 30-40/year, versus devouring say 150 to 200 non-fiction books.


You will also find me on Goodreads – drop me a note b/c I only follow a few people there. I add more fiction on goodreads b/c fiction friends got me started; 25 bks posted, 3-4,000 to go. but you can convince me otherwise, esp if you’ll post your reads too. I’d love to have more architecture, urban, sustainable design, futurist friends there.


Do any of the books intrigue you? if so, I’ll share my impressions, post-reading. Or have you read them? What did you think?


And…what are you reading? The next box is filling up – I love good book tips.

New York WTC Rebuilding



Ground Zero construction photo.


Rebuilding New York and New Orleans after Disasters

Why do some cities rebuild from disasters, better than before, while others decline? We are at the 8th anniversary of World Trade Center towers destruction and 4 years since Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. In fact, all cities experience disasters – floods, earthquakes, storms, terrorism. Some bounce back with renewed vigor while others leave gaping chasms as tragic reminders.

Post 9/11, New York fell into one trap after another, squandering financial resources and good will. At every step, the magnitude and significance of the work was critically underestimated. From the beginning, the scope was simply thoughtlessly conceived, the developer was blind to public exigencies and the government agencies treated it as a massive, complex project, not the heart and soul of the community.

Attempts at elevating the quality of design through a competition failed to ask a core question: What will New York be? Instead they used a developer’s and insurance bargain to establish the foundation for this legendary project. Sadly, the best outcome for New York so far is that none of these grand-scaled monuments have been built – yet.

Other cities have been re-invigorated by disasters. Chicago burned and rebuilt stronger than before. After an earthquake, San Francisco’s leaders
grabbed at the chance to remove the obstructive Embarcadero and reconnect downtown to the bay. With each rebuilding effort, cities learn how to renew themselves, redefine who they are and where they are going. They dig deep into who they are as a community and as a unique place, and find in themselves a more perfect expression of that self. They become experienced re-builders.

Both people and ideas make the difference. Engaged communities pair with compelling images of the future. New York and New Orleans each have a singularly strong sense of sense of place. They rebuilt time and again; I believe that these communities will find a way to make these cities greater than before.

Fred Polak (1961) said: “The rise and fall of images of the future precedes or accompanies the rise and fall of cultures.” These images are not merely extensions of the present; they transform the place and allow a rebirth. The city is built new for the future.

New York and New Orleans can each still find that miraculous rebirth.