Thursday, November 7, 2013

It's Elemental

The classical elements of earth, air, water and fire have formed the basis of our societal bonds from the first days of human habitation.  From the earth came plants and trees, food and shelter.  We breathed air and the wind brought rain to nourish our crops.  Water was both a requirement of sustenance, a means for mobility and a source of power.  And fire, when harnessed for our use, brought life-saving warmth and opened an entire new world of technological innovation.

We lived among these elements, but we could never truly contain or control them.  They comprised the whole of our physical environment and they often controlled our destiny.  Since the beginning, our ancestors suffered the devastation of floods and storms, the austerity of drought, the ravages of fire and the catastrophe of earthquake and volcanic eruption.  Entire civilizations flourished and then vanished because of them.  Even today, with our seemingly advanced understanding of natural phenomenon and our improved technologies, families, communities and nations still suffer the impact of natural phenomena—from isolated storms to massive regional disasters.

What is my motivation?

I’ve lived in a number of places that have seen significant damage to shelter and infrastructure, as well as loss of life during natural disasters in recent years: 

  • 1983:  After what was deemed by Federal agencies as the costliest landslide in the Nation’s history, the side of a mountain in rural Utah covers roads and railroad tracks with up to 50 feet of soil and forms a natural dam that left the small town of Thistle completely submerged.
  • 1986: A dream mountain home constructed in a historic avalanche runout zone near the Sundance Ski Resort (Utah) was rendered uninhabitable by an avalanche.  Then again, in 1993, a second avalanche destroyed the remnants of the house and scattered debris down the hillside.
  • 1995:  The city where I lived in Japan suffers a major earthquake.  Property damage and the firestorm that followed kill nearly 6,500 of my former neighbors.
  • 2008: A massive tornado cuts a swath of damage through the town where I grew up in Colorado with a price tag of nearly $200 million. The twister attacks a day care center where the children are spared due to the heroic quick thinking of the staff.
  • 2011: An earthquake off the coast of northern Japan creates an unstoppable tsunami wave that inundates the land in the region and wipes entire cities from the map.  Nearly 18,000 people are killed or are still missing.
  • 2012-2013: Some of the largest wildfires ever recorded in Colorado history destroy hundreds of thousands of acres of forest, incinerate hundreds of homes and causes a number of deaths.
  • 2013: Rain storms in Colorado cause floods that destroy over $1 billion in homes and infrastructure.  Fourteen people are either dead or missing.

I was lucky.  None of these events impacted me or my family directly.  In fact most occurred after I had moved on to other locations.  Even so, when hearing about them or watching them unfold, I have often felt a strong, visceral and emotional sense of personal loss.  My response is always the same.  I ask myself: “Couldn’t someone have done more to prevent such widespread damage to life and property? Is there something I can do to keep this from happening?”

Why this site?

There are significant efforts underway by governments, NGOs and others worldwide to plan for effective responses to disasters.  The United Nations, for example, sponsors a Making Cities Resilient program to “advocate widespread commitment by local governments to build resilience to disasters and increased support by national governments to cities for the purpose of strengthening local capacities.”  (From their Website)  

Besides disaster response, these organizations also help keep provide information on the best means to create resilient cities and town in terms of sustainability, adapting to the effects of climate change, reducing energy consumption, mitigating the impact of economic decline, etc.  All are worth consideration and all require our attention. 

My professional experience has brought me to a somewhat more specific area of interest, an area where I might be able to help make a difference.  My career has been centered on implementing physical and geographical solutions to development issues—deciding what facilities and improvements are needed by a population, where the new structures should go, and how they should be configured and constructed to make them the most successful and, in the context of this discussion, the least vulnerable.  
This vulnerability question is the primary focus of this site, and I see the effort evolving in two phases:

Phase I

Initially, I would like this site to become a repository of the best thoughts, ideas and practices on the subject in three different areas:  Science (or what we know about the events and the natural phenomena that cause them); Technology (or the way we as human beings attempt to position and protect our communities and our homes from the effects of these natural phenomena); and Policy (ways we can implement these technologies in all areas of the world, both in terms of better codes and enforcement, as well as creative thinking about helping fund improvements).  

Phase II

Obviously, a repository only provides information for someone who seeks it.  It doesn’t actively solve problems—and that is the real purpose of this effort.  So ultimately, I’d like to build on the “Policy” side of this triangle and really push myself and others who think like I do to help suggest solutions to plan, fund and build better (safer) communities, improve and reinforce existing housing stock, and create the best physical and geographical solutions to the problem.  The answers may be financial, legal or political.  And the best responses won’t always come without controversy.  But if the result is a single life saved in the process, it will all be worth it.
The Forgotten Stepchild
Green, green, green. Everywhere is green. Green buildings, green appliances, green procurement, green policies, and green investments. Buzzwords like “Carbon Neutral” and “Sustainable” fill the fresh, more breathable air. Green is good, right? Absolutely. What’s not to like about establishing a world that uses less energy, consumes fewer resources, and generates less waste? Even skeptics of the “Global Warming” motive for the current wave of environmental sensibility agree that that the result of many of these activities is a better world for all.

Climate Change Mitigation—actively reducing the impact we (as humans) make on the physical environment to hopefully affect a positive change on the what science is telling us will be a negative result of the build-up of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere—is an admirable endeavor. There are those that argue with the particulars, the timing and the cost of implementing mitigation measures. But the bottom line is that these actions, for the most part, are creating a more environmentally sustainable and (fingers crossed) comfortable world for the future.
And sometimes, in all this discussion of high profile mitigation efforts, there’s a parallel initiative (a sibling, if you will) that sits quietly in the shadow of Mitigation, waiting for recognition.  

There’s an old adage about ducks. They seem calm and unruffled on the surface, but underneath the water, they’re paddling like crazy. It’s like that with climate-change initiatives. Celebrities and former US vice presidents ask you to change light bulbs and purchase energy from renewable sources. Climate scientists probe glaciers for clues to what has been and what may be. But at the same time, these same people understand that even if we are able to reverse the current trends, it will take time. We should be preparing for the inevitable. We need to adapt. We need to modify our buildings, our lifestyles and our expectations to better meet the physical demands of living on a changing Earth.

Adaptation, to be effective, must address all forms of possible impact on human life. Still, it isn’t always what humans do that causes concern. War, the spread of chemical or nuclear contamination, crime and terrorism are the obvious result of humanity’s loss of humanity. Some of the “blame” for severe storms, floods, heat events, fires and the pandemic spread of disease can directly or indirectly be placed at our feet. Other life-altering events, like recent earthquakes and devastating tsunami, should be considered inevitable and unpreventable. 

All of these possibilities must be planned for, though activities we undertake will vary depending on where we live, how we live, and what we hope to save in the event of a disaster.

Green… and Safe

I’m a member of the Maryland Green Building Council. “Green” buildings are those that are placed, built and operated to one of a number of sets of standards that help ensure the facility’s impact on the environment is minimized while the health and satisfaction of its users is maximized. It’s a great idea that is growing everywhere. And the good news is that most everything we do to construct environmentally sustainable buildings also help those facilities adapt, for instance, to shortages of energy and water—two common impacts of some of the aforementioned events that may affect the building and its surrounding community.
I’d suggest we all consider a parallel building initiative to be considered with the same level, priority and funding as the Green Building program—and I’ll call it (for lack of a better term), a “Safe” Building Program. Given the disparity among various locations, circumstances and potential hazards, it’s likely that a standardized program like “LEED” (a measure of Building “greenness”) for would be difficult to develop and apply for Safe buildings. But guidelines could be developed and localities should be encouraged to develop and enforce standards. For instance:

1. Identify hazards (all types, then those that apply—in priority order)
2. Develop standards for macro-planning issues (land use, risk assessment, zoning, no-build zones, regional, community and multi-facility protective measures like dikes, floodwalls, radioactive containment barriers, etc.). This is a tough sell and an uphill policy battle to be sure.
3. Optimize location of facilities (placement, alignment to site, access, egress, etc.) based on identified hazards. This could also be a really tough sell in some places, since people like to be able to build where they wish.
4. Plan site improvements to best accommodate facility (drainage, orientation, barriers, etc.)
5. Design structure according to hazards (including design components and appropriate materials; issues like strength vs. flexibility)
6. Protect occupants (Safe zones, egress, fire suppression/protective systems, materials, survival equipment/supplies, etc.)
7. Identify an alternative mode of operation (energy use, solar, water/sewer access, etc.) This is an example of where an efficient (“Green”) building would fare better than a typical facility.
Note: Renovation (items 4-7) work should be included. In fact, if a facility cannot be retrofitted in place (e.g., even renovated, the location puts it at risk), the facility’s function could be relocated.

Just a thought in conclusion... Robert Moses achieved a great deal of development in NYC over the objections of many. He was a visionary that is still controversial. And yet nobody can deny that he revolutionized the transportation systems and parks and helped NYC adapt to the developments of the 20th and 21st Centuries. Without his foresight and willingness to be vilified in the process, one could argue that NYC would never have achieved its World City status.

A Request

I am only one individual with my own set of skills and experience.  So I’ll collect the best resources I can find from a variety of sources and look to readers of the blog with expertise in other fields to offer their ideas as well.  I welcome your editorials, technical thoughts, literature references, and feedback. 

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