March 26, 2020 - From the March, 2020 issue

Urban Resiliency: Development in a World of Disaster

In the context of resilience, what does a responsive city look like? At VerdeXchange VX2020, global industry leaders and local experts gathered to assess “Risk”, and to share their insights on resilience, infrastructure, and emergency preparedness in a world prone to disaster.  In a critically important VX  panel, Arup's Heather Rosenberg articulately addresses the challenges to implementing resilience in the face of disaster especially when the crisis demands that we "Keep calm and do something different.

Heather Rosenberg

"Every intervention we take in the built environment should be an opportunity to build community and support equity at every level."—Heather Rosenberg

Heather Rosenberg:  As the resilience lead at Arup, which is a global engineering-consulting planning firm that has been in the space of resilience for a long time, I spend and have spent a lot of time thinking about resilience in Los Angeles.

 But working in such a big company has really been this interesting journey in getting to know all of these different disciplines. And my role in resilience is really a cross-cutting role.

I end up working with every group and having a lot of strategic discussions on what resilience means. At the first level, the planning department thinks about resilience in a very different way than the structural engineers.

Structural engineers are thinking about how much can a building sway before it collapses, versus the planning department that’s thinking about who goes where—the land uses and creating policy.

The economic advisors are thinking about how to get things built and form public private partnerships. Our extensive fire consulting and design practice are thinking about—at the code level—how to you get out alive, and the other dimensions of that.These conversations seem very different, but what we all are trying to do—in different silos with different approaches—is work with people, communities, and organizations to make better decisions.

Here we are, in this time of climate impacts, and we can't take our eye off greenhouse gas reductions; we need to be full speed ahead on every dimension of that. Now, we have to figure out how to walk and chew gum, because the thing we're trying to prevent is also happening at an increasing rate. We're looking at fires, floods, and heat—some chronic and some more acute. And in California, we have to keep thinking about earthquakes. Whether they're directly related to climate change doesn't matter, because the preparedness, response, and recovery have a lot of similar dimensions.

We're all—in a time of increasing stress and uncertainty—trying to think about how to start collaborating and create decision making frameworks, to make the best use of our limited resources in the most sustainable and just way; to move towards a just transition away from a carbon-based economy and towards a situation where we can mitigate, respond, recover, and ultimately rebound from disasters.

At the core of that, there are a lot of different dimensions. We're starting with the place, where I think a lot of people are focusing now, risk. You're thinking about physical risk and the mitigations we need in our buildings and infrastructure (i.e. how do we harden or soften those physical pieces?) Then, you have to look at the operations around that; how we maintain and operate our systems in ways that perpetuate business continuity.

The next level is economic systems, and making sure that—whether we're a business, city department, corporation, or nonprofit—we can keep performing whatever critical functions necessary to continue operating. All of that needs to be in the service of community resilience.

I've been doing a lot of work over the past number of months in the town of Paradise, the town that was burnt to the ground in the Camp Fire.  There are a lot of lessons to be learned in these fir- stricken areas. I’ve also been doing a lot of work with communities who are impacted by the Woolsey fire.  We've also been working in Chico, which was not directly impacted  by the Camp Fire, but it received 25,000 people into the community, many of whom are still living there informally on couches or in their cars.

The first piece that you learn is the direct impacts: How do you rebuild a town like Paradise? Where do you rebuild? What changes can you make to mitigate the risk in the future? How do you prepare surrounding communities to deal with the impacts there, whether that's the air quality and real impacts to health, or to receive a big fraction of your population, and respond? All of those things require decision making.

The thing that's been most striking working in these various fire-stricken communities, is that the thing that's hardest to do after disaster is make decisions. It’s like losing a parent or a loved one, then having to do all business decisions that go into that.

Post-disaster is an extremely difficult time to be making decisions, and it tends to be the time when you're making the biggest decisions for meaningful and impactful situations, which happens on a community scale, too.

When we think about decision-making processes, whether we have the right people in the right place with the right information and authority to make the kinds of decisions over time to get the community—dealing with deep uncertainty—into a place where it can thrive.

That's a really big challenge, and it's not something that is a one-time thing, like a vulnerability assessment. Resilience is about trying to exercise our minds so that we don't become paralyzed with fear of the magnitude, and get so overwhelmed. It's about practicing good decision-making. I was thinking of the phrase, ‘keep calm and carry on’. I really like that, but that's not what we need to do right now. We need to keep calm and do something different and doing something different makes you, often, not calm.


How do we get to have the right information and better processes of decision-making informed by these disciplines of structural engineering, fire engineering, planning, economics, and business continuity all working together?

It’s not about deciding what the most earthquake-resistant building, but about when we need to invest in the most earthquake-resistant building, and how we to do it differently. How do we prioritize one thing versus another?

My focus in working with organizations is creating that clear decision-making framework so that you can take all of this information, integrate it, and use it.

 The other thing that's been really an interesting lesson for me is that we have—at the city and state level—lots of high-level plans that give clear guidance of what we should be doing around climate change at a conceptual level.

 But, we have not yet done the hard work of translating high-level concepts into a decision-making framework that is useful to project managers on the ground—so that they have an understanding of how we value risk, who the most vulnerable populations are, who could be impacted, what could go wrong, what must go right, what can't be disturbed or disrupted, and what must be protected.

Then you have to understand how to value that, pay for it—how much it’s worth—and how to create more dynamic designs—whether that's architecture, planning, or any of the other disciplines or scales.

That's really the opportunity of the frame of resilience. If something comes along and shakes your building, that's one piece. The other piece is how much does it matter that it shakes?  how much do we value protecting what's in it?

How do we make clear decisions over time and in a more organized way, and empower people with the information and authority they need to make those decisions? 

Arup has worked with cities all over the world and is actually the firm that developed the framework that became the 100 Resilient Cities program.

The first thing that I am always struck by when I look across the world and across cities, is that people rise to the occasion and give that credit to their local culture.

People helping each other in Houston after Hurricane Harvey said that’s the spirit of Texas. Or, after the earthquake in Mexico, people said that's the spirit of Mexico. It's the spirit of people, and the one piece of this that keeps me—who spends a lot of time working on disasters—is that people rise to the occasion. When we empower people to be connected and participate in making decisions that impact their lives and focus on equity, we can design for that all the time.

The other thing that I learned is, this is all about equity. I was having meetings with structural engineers who were talking about housing and structural design. There's a direct link between structural engineering and social equity that's not necessarily immediate to the engineers, but we need to think about equity as a design parameter on every single project because the people who are to be hardest hit by all of these impacts are the people who are already struggling and least able to recover.

If you're already having a housing crisis, we need to not just think about building as much new housing as we can, but also how to preserve existing affordable housing—a lot of which are soft-story buildings. Every intervention we take in the built environment should be an opportunity to build community and support equity at every level.

As much as we say that, given the challenges, the right strategy is getting our resources and guns to protect what we have, but our best hope is completely the opposite. It is to engage and bring people together. This is not just wishful thinking on my part, but what I see in an evidence-based way over and over.


© 2023 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.