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Using Disasters for Systemic Change
Matthew Waxman, 16 May 08
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After reading Justus Stewart’s recent article about a BIM collaboration I immediately thought of the Earthquake in China, the Cyclone in Myanmar, Hurricane Katrina and the SE Asian Tsunami, and last year’s mini-disaster in the San Francisco Bay Area where I live, the collapse of the “MacArthur Maze” Interstate 580 connector ramp. All of these disasters could benefit from a process to redesign the destroyed urban environment and its infrastructural systems and to not just re-create what was there before.

What if we could accompany a collaborative design process with some sort of policy framework tying together disaster-response to designing for systemic change? What if we could plan to use the future's inevitable disasters as opportunities for change and innovation?

The planning policy would focus on finding sustainable solutions to broken or destroyed systems. Disaster in this way is used to jump-start changes in infrastructure and thus alter daily habits, patterns, and preferences on everything from energy consumption to transportation, housing and health, economic development, community and civic facilities, open space, food, and lifestyle.

Changes would be contingent on disasters occurring, so this type of planning policy wouldn’t necessitate immediate results without the destructive context – as would planning codes, LEED guidelines or simply better design practices – but it would produce readily-available plans and design-response focused on long-term, large-scale changes to infrastructural systems beyond the scope of a single, smaller-scale project. In the long-view I believe this would speed up the eventual implementation of large-scale change.

We can already see a conscious relationship between disaster and design in the post-Katrina work of Global Green, Architecture for Humanity and others. Architect Shigeru Ban’s paper log houses for emergency shelter are also an exciting example. And after World War II, architects saw the ravaged urban landscapes of Europe as an opportunity to implement large-scale visions for a better city. Disaster and designing a better future go hand-in-hand. It is also worth noting that the disaster of war has been used as an excuse for revamping systems; but I don’t think this is the kind of shock treatment we’d like to see more of in the future.

The disaster example most intimate to me was the Bay Area’s mini-disaster in automobile access. The day after the MacArthur Maze collapsed, Worldchanging’s Sarah Rich wrote an intelligent piece commenting on the situation. She hoped riders of BART (our regional light-rail) would sustain their change in habit and continue taking public transportation. But there was a likelihood some converts would return to their cars post-disaster, thus diluting the environmental benefit:

“What does this say about our ability to make immediate, drastic change? When given no other option, it appears we're superbly capable. So much money and effort goes into wrangling public cooperation towards baby steps, when the truth is, we can do a lot better, a lot faster, for a lot less money (repairing melted overpasses aside)…

“Apparently, sustainable measures taken for reasons not directly pertaining to sustainability just don't register as being a smart, viable, immediate solutions to ongoing problems... happy accidents are treated as accidents nonetheless and we shuffle back to baby steps... But maybe there's a way to sustain the modified behavior of Bay Area residents such that a healed highway doesn't send novice transit users running back to their cars.”

The freeway was fixed 26 days later. And even though the temporary transportation patterns caused new records for BART public transport (fiscal year 2006-2007 reported a record 100 million rides), many people indeed went back to their cars when the freeway was rebuilt. If we want to transform habits we have to alter the environments that shape them. If repairs to faulty systems result in sustained faulty systems, the overall organization and functioning of the systems haven’t been improved.

A comment on Sarah’s article by Tom Radulovich pointed out examples of how past disaster has led to urban renewal. The use of a broken link as an impetus to make a better chain. He cited precedents in San Francisco (the fall of the Embarcadero freeway in the 1989 earthquake) and in New York (a accident on Westside Highway led to its removal in the 1970s) to demonstrate the opportunity in disaster. Added Radulovich:

“Cities too often run on inertia, and the decision to tear out a destructive and unsustainable hunk of auto infrastructure can be nearly impossible politically. But as they wear out or are destroyed, livable city advocates and environmentalists should to be ready to suggest something different and better.”

If disasters are in fact ripe opportunities, and if one can suspect more of them to occur with, say, the impact of climate change or with terrorism, what if proposals for new built development planned for their own potential future destruction, and what if the policy requiring this also required the infrastructural systems in which the development is enmeshed to be drastically improved if a disaster destroyed or affected the development in the future?

What if planning policy required the pre-disaster design of a post-disaster world?

Looking at the Californian context I’m most familiar with, disaster is currently handled through existing disaster-planning processes.

The most far-reaching plan for disasters in California is the State Hazard Mitigation Plan (SHMP) designed to unite disaster-planning efforts across the state, from private businesses to local governments to state agencies. By outlining “statewide hazard mitigation goals, strategies, and priorities” the SHMP seeks to produce an integrated way of planning for disaster. “Integrated” means connecting different disaster-response and reconstruction efforts that have been handled in a “piecemeal” fashion over the past fifty years.

The 2007 SMHP is part of California’s State Emergency Plan and developed by the California Office of Emergency Services. The plan takes an extensive look at traditionally considered natural and human-caused disasters (earthquakes, wildfires, and floods), as well as disasters associated with more recently accepted hazards such as climate change, tsunamis, and the failure of levees in the San Francisco Bay Delta (this itself is notable). The SHMP sees disaster mitigation as tools to reduce the potential long-term impacts of disasters, such as injuries and death, property damage, and environmental destruction. The scope of post-disaster reconstruction is defined as the “reshaping and strengthening [of] the built environment to significantly reduce disaster losses created by natural and human-caused hazards and risks.”

Safety measures and the making of resilient urban systems are very important, yet the scope of disaster-planning could be expanded to include a focus on implementing new solutions that provoke a change in the game entirely. This is where planning policy about systemic, infrastructural change could be developed to complement the existing SHMP.

In other words, if a freeway ramp breaks, a hurricane or cyclone hits, or an earthquake strikes, institute necessary recovery operations, and then begin implementing a multi-stage process of redesign, incorporating various ideas that have been already proposed and designed to improve the overall system. And here, within the state-mandated, government-sponsored disaster-planning process, an open call for ideas or collaboration from architects, planners and artists could be instituted.

In the example of the MacArthur Maze, it would be about the redesign of the entire regional transportation network and sustaining the habitual patterns developed during the Maze’s downfall. There are already many solutions for sustainable living just waiting for large-scale implementation. It would be about moving forward with a plan to make the system better: how about funding better public transportation, less focus on the car, and more focus on walking and cycling?

Planning with an eye to future systemic change could be required by plans with wide-influence like the SHMP and become standard statewide disaster-response policy. It could also be integrated into more specific planning processes where disaster and hazards are currently analyzed and where land-use decisions are discussed, such as environmental impact review sessions and local city and county General Plans. The current California SHMP also highlights each of these as important areas for implementing disaster-planning.

In the case of environmental review, the California Environmental Quality Act law requires all planning and development projects in the state to complete an Environmental Impact Report (EIR), a review of how a project impacts various environmental factors. There are two types of EIRs, “Program” and “Project.” A Program EIR is an environmental review completed for a large-scale or multi-part plan or project. A Project EIR is a review for a single project. Program EIRs have a special feature given their large-scale: in the preparation of a Program EIR the agency filing the EIR is able to choose to include within the environmental review process projects that are proposed to be carried out under the plan but have yet to undergo their own planning processes. Including proposed projects within a plan’s Program EIR can be beneficial to the overall planning process because it expedites overall environmental review. Once a plan's Program EIR is approved, the projects attached to the Program EIR can begin to be implemented immediately.

A disaster plan designed to take advantage of a shift in public habits and create future systemic changes could be treated as a proposed project attached to a plan’s Program EIR. Studies and scenarios for these projects would be developed in parallel to a plan’s own environmental review. This would help necessitate planners and policy-makers to study the greater infrastructural and experiential systems in which development plans are enmeshed, as well as the many interconnections among those systems. (Curitiba is probably the most widely cited example of a planned, integrated urban system. And Adrian Muller reported on Mexico City’s integrated Green Plan last year on Worldchanging.)

When the Program EIR becomes approved, the disaster-planning projects would be available for implementation without further delay. (This kind of planning process would be similar to the existing process of developing “alternatives” in EIRs. Plan alternatives are included as a way to study different planning scenarios that factor in environmental impacts.)

On a city-wide scale, there is the General Plan, a comprehensive long-range planning blueprint outlining a city’s vision for future development, growth goals, and public policy for managing land-use, housing, transportation, economic development, natural resources, community assets and safety. California is one of 10 states requiring natural hazards to be addressed in General Plans. If General Plans also included policy requiring a city to explore large-scale, systemic changes and its relationship to a potential disaster’s impact, I think it would help bring an even more intimate look at the implications of change. With the involvement of local community it might make a smoother transition to a new, post-disaster future.

General Plans are updated at different intervals. A housing element of a General Plan is usually updated every five years but the policy of a transportation or infrastructure element can be expected to last 30 to 50 years (although an associated capital improvements plan can have a 5 to 7 year cycle). Given the frequency of General Plan updates, the lifetime of the policy, and their significance in shaping the future urban environment, they make excellent places to insert policy seeking to change the overall, long-term configuration of an urban system.

I could see the incorporation of this kind of disaster planning into high-level state policy and environmental review. The mainstreaming of LEED standards and the signing of the US Mayors Climate Protection Agreement by many cities around the world are indicators of acceptance. And my suspicion is that once something is required (and desired) there will be a greater likelihood of available money to help make it happen. In fact, FEMA is already promoting the inclusion of hazard and disaster planning in General Plans and in regional transportation and infrastructure plans (for details see this pdf).

Creating planning policy that explicitly seeks to connect disaster response to large-scale changes in the urban environment is not a substitution for building and designing cities well from the start. But in most situations, especially in the USA, where large-scale public infrastructure systems are currently poorly funded and embedded into aging cities, the ability to start entirely from scratch won’t always be possible without disaster; and in that case, it's better to be prepared.

We need to factor into the future the world’s existing cities, their histories and their current built environment, and even current unsustainable systems. How do we take an understanding of California’s context and apply it elsewhere? How would disaster-response planning like I have described be implemented and designed for particular cities and other states and nations?

Whether it be climate change, infrastructural decay, an accident, terrorism, or something else, reconstruction is an opportunity to reshape the urban sphere into a healthier, more sustainable landscape. Before a disaster hits, we should harness planning policy as a mechanism to exploit unexpected future opportunities for positive, massive urban change.

MacArthur Maze photo credit: Luke Thomas, Fog City Journal

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Pre-planning for improvement-upon-disaster would have the interesting side effect of creating an incentive to those who want the improvement to arrange for the disaster. As Iraq is still making abundantly clear, infrastructure is one of the easiest things to sabotage. In favor of distributed rooftop PV? Just take out some fraction of the power lines leading into LA, and see how popular solar panels become. Wish there were more home graywater systems? Take out the California Aqueduct and watch how fast the building code gets changed. As you point out, we forget how spectacularly adaptable human beings are when they need to be. We've insulated ourselves perhaps too effectively from having actual needs.

Posted by: Zane Selvans on 16 May 08

Kinda sounds like the flip side of Naomi Klein's "Disaster Capitalism," doesn't it?

Posted by: Skip Mendler on 16 May 08

This is exactly why Greensburg, Kansas is such an exciting project! A whole town is scraped to 10% of its original building stock, and a bunch of conservative Kansans see the opportunity to revitalize their dying town. Amazing!

Posted by: Eric on 17 May 08

Skip, this idea is precisely the flip side of Naomi Klein's Shock Doctrine. This quote from Milton Friedman is actually the inspiration for that entire book:

“There is enormous inertia—a tyranny of the status quo—in private and especially governmental arrangements. Only a crisis—actual or perceived— produces real change.”

Now, Ms. Klein filters this quote through her gut feeling that all three foot and four inches of Milton Friedman was evil, evil man, but all that he, and Mr. Waxman here are saying, is that such calamitous events may be a prerequisite for fresh ideas to finally bear fruit.

Another excellent example of this idea is the evolving food crisis. Agricultural policy has been a slow motion train wreck in the USA since Nixon, and now more people than ever are looking critically at it due to current events.

Posted by: Jonathon Severdia on 17 May 08

This is why some colleagues at the Centre for Alternative Technology set up RESET-development

Posted by: shane on 19 May 08

This is great! The flip side of Klein's "Shock Doctrine," is exactly what we need right now. Many sectors (energy and food supply, housing, transport, taxation, etc.) could benefit from rapid positive change enabled "if we could plan to use the future's inevitable disasters as opportunities for change and innovation" as Waxman suggests. We need to be planting the seeds for systemic-level sustainability innovations all over the place - positioning these new patterns for adoption when the pivotal time presents itself. At the same time, if we're just using times of crises to push another imposed ideology, is that really worldchanging enough? There's a creative tension between top-down and bottom-up planning and implementation (at its best: speed and elegance aka Curitiba's brilliant and rapidly implemented system changes vs. deeply wise collective engagement aka I'd love to see the kind of aikido thinking evidenced in this post practiced in a way that uncovers the sweet spot where civic engagement and rapid and well-designed system change meet to make us more engaged, responsive, and positively adaptive in the long run.

Posted by: Jennifer Atlee on 21 May 08

John Robb of Global Guerrilas is writing a book about the resilient community.
Alex Wilson of Environmental Building News has been designing for passive survivability for years now.
I say Solar IS Civil Defense.

Design for disaster, emergency, refugee camp, baseline survival from a green perspective, a renewable perspective, a zero emissions perspective will generate a lot of changes. It already has.

Posted by: gmoke on 21 May 08

Thanks everyone for the feedback, ideas and resources on this topic! This is all very interesting.

I'm particularly entranced by Jennifer's comment: "I'd love to see the kind of aikido thinking evidenced in this post practiced in a way that uncovers the sweet spot where civic engagement and rapid and well-designed system change meet to make us more engaged, responsive, and positively adaptive in the long run."

...I'm pondering, how do we do this? From my experience and from what I hear from others, it is generally very hard to get the general citizenry engaged in the civic decision making process. What tends to bring people to city meetings and public discourse are disaster-like events (or things that some see as needing immediate address). But the problem remains that involvement in civics isn't sustained and that the majority of citizens only participate as long as needed to change whatever needs changing in the short-term. How do we make long-term systemic change influenced by long-term involvement, thus allowing the systemic change to continually adjust/respond to continual citizen participation beyond the scope of disaster-response?

How do we design this "sweet spot" between civic engagement and systemic change? Is this nexus a place where people's desires, passions, and livelihood are driven by changes external to the individual and community (i.e. our environment, infrastructure, collective/common experiences)? And then these desires, passions, livelihood in response are the human-driven motivation for constructing a future, improved environment, infrastructure, and our collective/common experiences? This kind of participation seems it's already part of our long-term human nature... but to manifest it, there will probably need to be a creative re-formatting of the contemporary civic experience. As I mention in my article, I'm curious about how planning policy could be implemented to enable systemic change in light of disasters. We need to be very aware of the link between systemic change to the world and systemic change to ourselves... So an added question is: How do we design and implement policy that drives systemic environmental changes, as well as systemic changes to our long-term selves, to the nature of humanity, to our culture?

Posted by: Matthew Waxman on 22 May 08

I think long-term civic involvement might require a long-term disaster. When things seem okay, most people just don't care enough to set aside the time and energy required to be proactive. This is a potential silver lining to the prospect of natural resource production peaks.

With energy resources though, the negative side effects of just switching to coal/bitumen/tar sands/oil shale may have such a long timescale that I worry we'll see whatever happens as the "new normal", instead of a long slow disaster. We've certainly done that with the world's fisheries.

This kind of behavior really makes us seem no more intelligent than the foxes and rabbits of a boom-and-bust ecosystem model. When forced to eat less fish (by the absence of fish) we of course adapt without any problem. But we appear to be incapable of limiting our appetite proactively, so that we might have more fish indefinitely.

And then I always end up wondering if universal suffrage is really such a great thing.

Posted by: Zane Selvans on 25 May 08

I believe that long-term civil engagement has to be top-down driven and bottom-up sustained. As an example, current federally funded recovery practices (with the exception of Hazard Mitigation Grants) place an emphasis on "returning things to the way they were" before the incident rather than "how they should be". This needs to change at teh upper-most levels of our system.

It would appear to be critical to have the people in power support this agenda not as an idea of "preservation sustainability", but as the idea of positive growth, development, and "investment in the future". From an sales pitch perspective they should use the past history of the location (readily available from those same Hazard Mitigation Plans) combined with the curent and planned levels of development and that impact. For eaxmple, increased levels of impervious surface can create significant increases in flooding as water runs more readily into rivers rather than being absorbed into the watershed.

The other issue to overcome is the funding problem for all of this. Local governments are often poitically limited in what funds they can acquire for this use. Many of the highest at risk locations are dealing with significant growth/age factors already. Quite simply, if there is no money, there is no project. This is where the "top down federal" officials and programs need to be co-opted to support local efforts.

The bottom-up support of the citizenry, through the provision of services for the community and voting, as well as the local official support can be unified through the development of public-private partnerships to provide the continued focus and to sepcify the local project application of the federal funding. This is critical as there is no way that the folks in DC truly know what the people in Kalamazoo really need (not picking on anyone, just creating an example).

Lastly, in order to validate the changes, there needs to be some measures that shows "bang for the buck" for the funding received and expended. This is important not only from an Inter-Governmental Transfer perspective, but also to sustain interest in making progess with the changes. It is the "proof" presented to the populace by the officials that they are interested and care.

The social and urban development changes that can result from actions like this can positive for people, the environment, and the economy.

Posted by: Matthew Wall on 29 May 08



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