The ‘Smartest’ Cities Will Be Future-Proofed

In the wake of natural disasters, it can be easy to feel like there’s nothing we can do to prevent or minimize the damage they cause. However, often this is not the case. Some cities are already making changes to offset future crises, and it’s time we learn from their efforts. Similarly, we can look at urban planning mistakes in cities such as Houston, Texas, which exacerbated the effects of Hurricane Harvey, in order to identify potential weak points in other cities.

Houston vs. Harvey

Taking a closer look at the situation in Texas, there are a few factors that contributed to the damage sustained during Harvey and may lead to more problems in the future. For one, Houston is the only major U.S. city without a zoning code dictating where different types of buildings can be constructed. As a way of encouraging growth, Texas as a whole has one of the most hands-off approaches to building codes and inspections. Stricter regulations have been actively opposed by the Texas Association of Builders, leading to poor building standards and houses being built (and rebuilt) in vulnerable areas.

Of course, the sheer amount of rain that Hurricane Harvey brought to the area would have resulted in flooding, despite precautions they might have taken. Although Houston has spent its flood-control budget on canals, levees, culverts and gutters, these solutions alone aren’t enough to curb massive flooding. Unfortunately, Houston’s unchecked growth means many natural areas that would have absorbed some of the water have been paved over, making it significantly more difficult for the water to dissipate naturally.

Finally, the petrochemical economy that has been a foundation for Houston contributes to climate change, which some say makes it possible for storms like Harvey to become even more destructive. Higher surface temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico allowed Harvey to pull more sea water toward land, and many scientists attribute this rise in temperatures directly to carbon-dioxide emissions from human activity.

Examples of sustainable city planning

It’s often difficult for public officials to justify dedicating limited funds to prepare for what can seem like freak occurrences. However, hopefully the damages left by weather events such as Harvey, along with the increasing evidence of climate change, will encourage a shift in thinking about the needs of vulnerable cities. Fortunately, a number of cities around the world are making solid efforts toward achieving sustainability and minimizing the effects of natural disasters.

For example, in the past 40 years, Jakarta has seen the loss of nearly 80 percent of its public green space. As with Houston, this means flood waters are less likely to absorb into the ground. To combat this trend, the Indonesian city has set plans in motion to build 3,000 parks by 2022, increasing the amount of green space in high-density areas and lessening the duration of floods.

An increase in natural urban areas provides other benefits, such as cleaner air, places for recreation, and a reduction in energy costs spent on cooling. Paris, France is working to leverage these benefits, as it plans to plant 20,000 new trees by 2020 and has created initiatives to plant vegetation on all new buildings, as well as add rooftop gardens to existing buildings, designed to reduce heat in the city. Paris also encourages citizens to get involved by allowing them to apply for a license that gives an individual free rein to plant trees and gardens on any vacant piece of land.

While green spaces help offset the ill effects of carbon emissions, South Korea’s city of Suwon is taking a different approach to tackle the problem of rising emissions. Citizens there have started the “Sharing Solar Power Project,” which is a cooperative that invests in solar energy and places 50 percent of any profits into a social welfare fund. As of February 2017, the project has earned $200,000 in profits, and the city is well on its way to reaching its goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions 20 percent by 2020.

Singapore is another city that is placing an increased emphasis on solar power. Though the city lacks the land necessary for large-scale solar plants, it is developing solar panels designed to float on their freshwater reservoirs. The plan is to allow eight companies to design and install solar panels, and after six months, the city will choose the two most efficient systems for additional installations. The vetting process is important to note as city planners around the world need to be selective about which solar providers they utilize.

When setting sustainability goals, city planners can take a cue from San Francisco’s use of a virtual planning tool that analyzes data from the city’s transportation, energy and building sectors in order to predict how improvements in infrastructure technologies could aid its efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. By partnering with Siemens to use this tool, San Francisco has been able to identify the areas with the greatest need for improvement, including investments in high-performing technologies such as electric car sharing, home automation and electric heat pumps that will help the city to reach its goal of reducing carbon emissions 80 percent by 2050.

Working toward sustainable practices through urban planning is necessary not only to help reverse climate change, but also to allow for progress concerning environmental and social justice. Too often the value of taking preventative or reactive measures related to climate change and natural disasters seems centered solely around a financial standpoint. However, every year millions of people are displaced from their homes due to natural disasters, creating harrowing economic and social situations.

Social damage takes place whether or not people have access to resources such as insurance or disaster-relief programs, which are already stretched thin. This is why it is more important than ever to consider how city planners and other public officials can improve their city’s design and technologies in order to prepare for short- and long-term crises.


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