Good public spaces make resilient communities

I happened upon two separate videos last week that changed my perspective on urban planning.

Ew, urban planning sounds boring…

I used to think that too. I thought that urban planning was about deciding where to put housing and how to add an overpass. But it turns out that it’s much more than that. It’s the philosophy of how people use space. And–as it turns out– how we use space has many implications for our lives such as:

  • Subjective happiness
  • Freedom of choice
  • Ability to withstand disasters
  • Global warming
  • Health and safety
  • Economies

Most of us live in places we don’t care about.

James Howard Kunstler’s TED talk is a highly amusing look at what’s gone wrong in America’s urban design–especially suburbia. He takes Boston’s City Hall Plaza as a good example.


And on the other side of the building…

TED talk: 9:02
TED talk: 9:02

And that’s just in urban centers. Suburbia is so much worse. Kunstler calls it a “cartoon” of the country. My brother calls it the “worst of both worlds” because you can’t be self-sufficient as in the country, but you can’t walk to everything you need as in the city. But what can be done about it? Kunstler has some ideas:

Bad design = bad life

Besides being ugly, our badly designed cities are making us sick. Dr. Karen Lee (below)–a public health specialist–says “We’ve inadvertently designed physical activity out of our lives” which costs us money both as individuals and as a society.

Courtesy of Upworthy
Courtesy of Upworthy

She goes on to say,

“In the 19th century and early 20th century, our leading causes of death were infections diseases–diseases like cholera, like tuberculosis. And the way that we that we actually defeated those diseases was through city design. We created sanitation infrastructure, clean water systems. Today, we’ve got a different set of diseases. The way we need to…think about defeating those diseases is actually analogous to our past” (4:59+)

Because our cities are designed for cars. Not people. 

Cars are environmentally unfriendly, take up a TON of space, and force us to use space in an isolated, sedentary fashion.

Courtesy of Planetizen
Courtesy of Planetizen

Think about how hard it is to get into your favorite city: the traffic, the parking, planning around errand locations and rush hours. Now, think about how hard it is to get around in your favorite city: the noise, more traffic, one-way streets, overpasses…

Courtesy Upworthy
Courtesy Upworthy

Now… notice how this city is in this video is set up. [Side note: a quick summary of this video can be found at Upworthy where the two gifs above were taken. Also, Brent Toderian, our tour guide in the video, writes the Planetizen blog from which I took the vintage metro pic above. Lots of really good stuff on his blog and Twitter.)

So what?

What does good public spaces have to do with emergency management?

  • Living locally is easier on our psychology (says Kunstler)
  • Exchanging acres of asphalted parking spaces for useable land (maybe an urban forest which boosts self-sufficiency?)
    • decreases ambient heat build up (which cools a city, reduces energy spent on cooling people, and returns the ecosystem to a normal temperature),
    • and helps with flood management (all that rain water can get into the ground now instead of rushing over the top of miles of asphalt).
  • When your community has a “sense of place” you slow down (as Toderian points out) and get to know your neighbors. Your neighbors are the people who will help you rebuild after a disaster. Communities who are socially interconnected are more resilient.

Resilient communities might start with a space that is worth caring about.


Venn Diagram of Awesome: What Environmentalists, Activists, and I Have in Common

A while ago, I posted this blog about how the life-hacking community has a lot in common with Emergency Managers (we both have an attitude of self-sufficiency.) Then I posted my perspective on social activism (I’m for it.). Now I want to talk about what Emergency Managers (and preppers) have in common with environmentalists. (Hint: It’s a lot).

Emergency Management operates at the junctions between the environment, the community, and the individual
Emergency Management operates at the junctions between the environment, the community, and the individual

Short Term

Social justice. Often it seems like people who care about the environment also care about equality issues. People are uniquely linked to the health of the environment and disasters expose the strength of this link. When, for instance, coffee farmers cut down the Rainforest to plant coffee plants, they expose the topsoil to heavy rains which wash away the nutrient-rich top soil. This leads to successively poorer crops which causes hungry farmers to cut down more Rainforest. Furthermore the rains–unchecked by strong trees–causes extreme flooding, much more than would’ve happened before the trees were cut , causing farmers to lose their homes and crops. Which, in turn, causes the country to become vulnerable to famine. Worsening cycles like this one are why we try to buy fair-trade crops and crafts. These situations are a good example of the synergistic mix between social and environmental issues. Disasters just bring these issues to salience.

Bangladesh slum dwellers find helping the poor makes everyone more resilient.

Medium Term

How well a community withstands a disaster is directly related to how well it has treated the local environment. A common example: if you fill watershed areas with dirt and pour concrete over it and the surrounding hills, you will get flooding. If you develop along coastlines, not only do you put more people in harm’s way, but you also erode the beach and damage the protective corals causing storm surges and tidal waves to travel farther inland than they would have before (we’re looking at you, Florida, Texas, and Louisiana). If you cut down forests and plow up grass, wind storms or flooding can carry away the top soil and damage both the recuperation power of the area and cause algea blooms in the ocean where all the nutrient-rich top soil dropped (Ahem, Dust Bowl). This might lead to a bad harvest and starvation (back to social justice again).

Bali fisherman switch from fishing with cyanide (which bleaches coral) to other methods.

Long Term

Global warming is making disasters both more frequent and stronger. First world countries’ infrastructures are also getting (a little) better, but this is not true for third world countries. The worsening storms and unchecked development is causing more and more people to be vulnerable. Island nations are eroding away. African farmers can’t find enough water to give their plants. War is damaging the land and local economy. Refugees stress host nations. No one has enough money to migrate. There’s no where to put them if they could. All of this long-term suffering makes it harder for people to withstand disasters when they do strike. And since they’re striking more frequently, they can hardly recover before the next one comes. I’ve already discussed this here, so I won’t go on.

Climate change has made flooding much worse in Vietnam. A better dam helps.

Take Care of the Environment and it Will Take Care of You

’nuff said.

Letter to the Editor RE Climate Change

I was asked to write an open letter to the Editor of a newspaper describing why we should care about climate change. This is it:

Dear Editor,
Climate change makes our job harder.

As a nation, we can at least agree on peace. We want peace in the world because peace brings prosperity to both them and us. Peace lets governments provide for their people. It lets people return to work, return to building, return to innovation. Peace allows markets to be established, drugs to quell outbreaks, girls to receive education, and urbanization to become sustainable. Peace sets off a set of synergistic processes which total to more stabilization and less vulnerability. As citizens of the world, our job should be peace.

But notice just one of the effects of climate change: volatile weather patterns. FEMA, NOAA, and scientists from around the world all agree that climate change is making disastrous storms more frequent and more intense. Coastal cities and islands used to hurricanes, for instance, have developed building codes and other measures to cope with yearly hurricanes, but hurricanes that are getting worse more frequently are taking a toll on the infrastructure. Fictitious Island barely has time to repair its hospital and governmental buildings before another disastrous hurricane hits. The expense and continual disruption keeps the government from tackling other important developmental issues–like food security, controlled urbanization, or a faltering economy. It’s people gradually sink into a poverty hole. The unexpected flooding washes away their crops so they turn to their forests. Disappearing forests let flood waters and storm surges run farther inland ruining even more farm land.Their fishing stock disappears, the coral bleaches, peasants migrate to urban centers to seek out better health care or job opportunities. Uncontrolled urbanization means that building codes go unenforced. When the next hurricane hits, you have a Haiti-style disaster on your hands.

And I do mean your hands, Reader, because it is up to you and me to supply the volunteer doctors, the water, the search and rescue teams, the engineering expertise, etc. It’s up to us logically because a destabilized government is bad for peace and bad for our bottom line. It’s up to us emotionally because we can’t stand to see children cry.

Climate change makes everything harder. We, as an affluent country are not immune, though we are less vulnerable–for now. It is the responsibility of those who are strong to protect those who are weak. And climate change is making everyone much weaker.