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.


How Water Will Shape 21st Century Cities: Floating Cities, Wave Power, Coastal Protection


Last week, 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/w1po5Now I am adding other trends, ideas, and forecasts beyond their list. The first segment included The Great Urban Divide, Megacities, and Poly-Centric Regions. http://bit.ly/2CZkcS This article covers three ideas involving water and cities.

Dry Mouths, Wet Feet
Water makes a claim on people and cities that is both undeniable and paradoxical. Both people and the planet are largely composed of water, and while we need it to survive, we tend to either be dehydrated or flooded, sometimes simultaneously. In fact, 900 million people are without clean drinking water today with estimates that 1.8 billion will suffer by 2025 and 2/3rds of us will be under severe water stress. http://bit.ly/46PnLY Water scarcity threatens not only the developing world but also parts of the United States in California and in the Colorado and Rio Grande river basins. http://bit.ly/4dEjPa Last year, Atlanta was on the brink of disaster. http://bit.ly/2QJOXW Furthermore, in the US, residential water costs have doubled in the past ten years, even as streets are flooding. It defies common sense.

A brilliant civil engineer told me that if you took the peak waterfall in an area, say 6-12 inches in a day which is an extraordinary amount of rain, and managed to hold it in place for a 24 hour period, you could solve the problems of urban flooding. Imagine a holding place on your property that could handle that run-off, use it for landscape or gray water, and you’ll save your city tremendous problems and lower your water bills as well. http://bit.ly/1bs00F

For buildings, we are concerned with conservation and net zero water buildings (from the excellent Living Building Challenge). http://bit.ly/1axHS9 For cities the problem is more complex. Water is part of the infrastructure for both water in (to drink, irrigate, etc), and water out in the form of sanitary sewers and storm water systems, including many cities which unfortunately combine the two. Where ground water is depleted, subsidence affects many cities dramatically with sink holes increasingly common. http://bit.ly/3Fpqoq Flooding and drought represent two other forms of disaster, witness the devastation of New Orleans and last month found Sydney in a red dust storm. http://bit.ly/htF7h

In short, we have over-engineered and misunderstood the magnitude and significance of water. With dryer, hotter climates and more people, sustainable water management needs to be built into our lives. To nourish 9 billion people, we will be modifying cities and learning new habits. Three exciting ideas may come into play: floating buildings, wave energy, and barriers to rising oceans.

1. Floating Structures
While floating houses have been common for decades if not longer, the thought of floating cities has intrigued designers with few successful installations. The Citadel floats on a polder which is part of the natural tidal plain of the Netherlands. http://bit.ly/w2YSv New Orleans Arcology Habitat (NOAH), a mega-structure city, houses a population of 30,000 people on a pyramid-like form. http://bit.ly/mofah The Lilypad by Vincent Callebaut is specifically planned for climate change disasters and would shelter 50,000 refugees. http://bit.ly/2DR7xZ Smaller scale temporary architecture offers immediate inspiration with this elegant wooden hotel in Helsinki. http://bit.ly/3oCzAJ Far-thinking visions of mid-century architects such as Bucky Fuller and Paolo Soleri are revived in these floating designs.

2. Wave Power
Wave farms could hug the coasts of major cities and supply energy for the massive populations. Numerous proposals consider how to harness tidal waves into electrical power; some are visually elegant. Last year, Portugal opened the first wave farm but it has already been closed. The Sea Snake is an invention of Scottish company Pelamis Wave Power. http://bit.ly/4grUz5 Biowave power is under consideration for the bay of San Francisco. http://bit.ly/2vd1Vi

3. Protecting Coastal Cities
In coming decades, cities will grapple with rising oceans, threats of flooding, and increased storm events. http://bit.ly/17dHjw Beyond emergency planning for storm events, cities must prepare for chronic high water. Change should occur gradually (not like those crazy disaster films) unless the city sits truly below sea level as is the case of New Orleans, which places a city at risk of levee failure. Options include raising the ground elevation, allowing submergence by waterproofing such as a pool or submarine, abandoning facilities, floating as in item 1, or barricading between sea and city. Most would prefer the last option because it represents maintaining normal life except at the perimeter. Consequently, an era of expensive, elaborate sea walls, dykes, levees, seagates, and so on is coming. The Rising Tide competition to save San Francisco from higher oceans illustrates the need for adaptation, invention, and resiliency. http://bit.ly/3um1Ta For Chicago, UrbanLab invented the eco-boulevard to grow water resources in a closed loop system. http://bit.ly/2yZIKi

Looking Ahead
Water represents so many possibilities and problems as we aim to use it, but not drowned in it, and leave it for next generations. We have seen water problems emerging since the Great Depression and they continue to spread and multiply. Amazing inventions have accomplished huge steps forward yet we have not solved anything entirely. Sustainable water management and net zero water exist today; therefore I placed them in my descriptions of the present conditions, not in the future. Yet most places have not adopted these practices and we remain at the mercy of poor, aging infrastructure.

As it’s said: the future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed. (William Gibson)

Next I focus on two high tech areas that will shape 21st century cities: robotics and geo-engineering.