Seven Surprising Ways U.S. Cities are Adapting to Monster Storms
Extreme weather events like Hurricane Sandy are forcing urban planners and building architects to start asking themselves a new and important question as they design cities and structures. Namely: how can we make sure they keep standing as sea levels rise and storms grow stronger and more frequent?
No one blueprint will work everywhere, but a few general city-saving tactics are starting to be implemented. The good news: making cities more sustainable can also make them more resilient. Here are some simple and perhaps unexpected solutions from the front lines.
Bottoms up: This one’s pretty simple: clear out the basement. Many buildings’ mechanical systems -- such as heating and cooling and electricity -- are underground. Moving them out of the “boiler room” would mean a building could keep providing heat and power even when it’s flooded. Use basements for parking garages instead. Cars can move to higher ground; furnaces and the like can’t.
Where it’s happening: Post-Sandy, New York City plans to release updated building codes this summer. They’ll require new buildings to put mechanical systems on higher floors and have backup systems to provide potable water and run elevators in the event of a power outage. Retrofitting existing buildings to be flood-proof, though, will be a bigger challenge.
Small is smart: If your building or block has its own power supply, you won’t necessarily be crippled when substations and transformers blow out. Known as microgrids, these smaller electrical supplies are especially critical for fire and police stations, emergency shelters, hospitals, and water treatment facilities
Where it’s happening: Connecticut created a grant program to encourage the development of microgrids after a string of severe 2011 storms caused widespread power outages. Celtic Energy in Glastonbury has proposed running municipal buildings and other downtown buildings -- gas stations, ATMs -- on either natural gas or diesel for up to four weeks.
Welcome to the jungle: Sometimes flood control is as simple as planting more trees. Vegetation and porous pavement, which allows runoff to drip through sidewalks and parking lots to the ground underneath, absorb water during heavy storms. That takes the load off of municipal sewage treatment plants, which often overflow during heavy rains, polluting local waterways and backing up into basements.
Where it’s happening: Philadelphia has several “green infrastructure” projects, which include planters and more than 50 storm water “bump-outs,” or plant-filled islands along city roads. In Buffalo, a proposed ordinance would prod developers to first consider green infrastructure in order to reduce storm water run-off.
Like your mom said: layers: A well-insulated building doesn’t just reduce energy bills; it can also survive a disaster better. Super energy-efficient buildings maintain heat far better than conventional homes, which makes life more tolerable during long winter nights with no power. Alex Wilson, the president of the Resilient Design Institute, calls this an example of “passive survivability.” Another is adding roof vents that block embers from entering homes, a simple measure to help prevent damage from wildfires.
Where it’s happening: An emergency shelter in Mississippi was built so it could provide cooling and light even if the power is out. A tall tower at one end of the building allows natural light to enter and creates a flow of ventilation from one end of the building to the other, which will help make the people inside more comfortable in the humid heat following a hurricane.
Map it: After older FEMA flood maps underestimated the extent of expected flooding during Sandy, up-to-date charts have taken on new urgency. Coastal cities are well aware they are vulnerable to flooding, but residents might not realize what higher sea levels or more frequent heavy storms might mean for their particular street.
Where it’s happening: Earlier this year, the Boston Harbor Association published neighborhood maps in a report called Preparing for the Rising Tide, which shows how heavy storms could affect different areas of Boston (many of which lie atop landfills). Rutgers University has created the interactive NJ Flood Mapper, which lets communities see how different sea levels would impact first responders and other critical infrastructure.
Rise up: Houses on barrier islands have long been elevated high above beach level. Now that same practice is coming to cities.
Where it’s happening: Developers built the recently opened Spaulding Rehab Hospital in Boston much higher than it needed to be for today’s flood zones, making it more robust and prepared for the future. A beachfront development called Averne by the Sea in Rockaway, New York, was built several feet above grade and had a flood drainage system installed. Even though the neighborhood is on a stretch of land hit hard by Sandy, residents didn't suffer flooding or significant damage.
Wall it off: Sea walls have long been used to protect cities from ocean surges. And despite hefty prices tags, they are getting serious consideration in coastal cities.
Where it’s happening: Norfolk, Virginia is considering a plan to extend its sea walls and add floodgates and pumping stations to protect specific neighborhoods and infrastructure.
Many of these ideas have been bandied out for years but they’ve picked up steam post-Sandy. Still, it’s still slow going. A 2011 survey found that only half of the cities around the world are at even the earliest stages of planning to be more resilient.