5 Ways City Transport Systems Must Prepare for the 21st Century

Handling tomorrow’s mega-trends means rethinking today’s infrastructure.

Jonathan F.P. Rose


 Flickr user MTAPhotos

In the 21st century, cities face many forces far beyond their control: mega-trends such as dramatic shifts in population, the financial vulnerability of a globally connected economy, resources scarcity, rising income inequality, and an increase in the droughts, floods, heat waves, cold waves, sea level rise, and storm surges caused by climate change. Preparing for all these stresses won’t be easy, but a critical place to start is with urban infrastructure, an area where many U.S. cities are most vulnerable.

Infrastructure is the platform of the common good. It connects us in nested networks of systems, integrating homes, neighborhoods, cities, regions, and nations. Cities thrive with internal and external connectedness, and the backbone of this connectivity is our urban transportation systems. It’s essential that we begin now to plan, finance, and construct or renovate transportation systems that can respond to the emerging mega-trends. The following are five ways to rethink today’s infrastructure for a successful tomorrow.

Plan for an uncertain future

In 2005, New York City’s MTA began work to reconfigure the South Ferry subway station at the tip of Manhattan. The goals of the project were fine ones — to solve long standing American Disabilities Act issues, to reconfigure the platforms for longer trains, and to create better connectivity between lines. The $530 million project was completed in 2009, and as projected, significantly increased the throughput capacity and comfort of the station.

However, because of the very long planning, engineering, funding and procurement cycles, the project was set in motion before the risks of a more volatile climate and rising seas were being taken seriously by the transit community. As a result, only three years later, the rising seas of Superstorm Sandy swept across Lower Manhattan and flooded the South Ferry station with salt water, destroying much of what had just been built. The repairs are projected to cost $600 million and won’t be completed until 2016.

The lesson is not only to now plan for sea level rise and increased storm surges, its to anticipate a wider range of coming   extreme circumstances. How might agencies design for extreme heat, for energy shortages, for changing settlement patterns? City’s transit managers are now challenged to plan for an uncertain future, to estimate the range of future demands, stresses, and opportunities, plan robust, repairable, resilient and responsive systems, and then fight for the funds needed for the transformation.

Designing Robust, Repairable, Resilient and Responsive Systems

In 1989, the Loma Prieta earthquake caused the collapse of the San Francisco- Oakland Bay Bridge. The original bridge was designed to be stiff, to resist the seismic movements of the earth. But the earthquake overwhelmed that design strength and the bridge failed, a tragic example of robust but fragile infrastructure. The bridge’s replacement has been designed to be ductile, strong but also flexible enough to absorb almost any shock. Its lead engineer, Marwan Nader, writes, “The idea is to build a structure that can stretch and deform without breaking.”

Nader and his team also designed the new bridge to be easily repaired after its been stressed. . For example, the bridge’s shock absorbers can be restored in a few hours after an earthquake — its spare parts are stored under the bridge, so even if other road networks are down, the necessary parts are on site. Sensors allow for continuous monitoring of the bridge, and its structure can be adjusted for various loads and stresses. The bridge is robust, resilient, repairable, and responsive.

As cities plan and rebuild vast amounts of critical infrastructure, these principles should be applied to all infrastructure improvements.

Shifting from Lines to Networks

A century ago, when many American cities built their first streetcar and commuter rail systems, metro regions were organized around central hubs, with the lines running as spokes from suburbs to the city. But the automobile-oriented suburban revolution that followed World War II changed all of that. No longer shaped by rail lines, suburbia could sprawl in all directions. As a result, many destinations that Americans need to reach everyday can only be accessed by car.

As our regions become more layered and complex, and metro area residents want more options then just cars, our transportation systems need to function as integrated networks, not just lines. Americans marvel at the elegance of interconnected European systems, which tie together airports, long-distance high-speed rail, local rail, street cars, buses, bike systems, and walking paths. We deserve the same.

Personalizing Mass Transit

America’s transportation needs are further changing as Millennial transportation preferences shift from driving to biking, walking, and mass transit. The emergence of services like Megabus, CitiBike, Zipcar, Uber and Lyft, and their many variations, reflect a desire for a more affordable, personal, and pervasive range of transportation options.

Meanwhile, NextBus and other mobile apps are increasing the public’s access to transit information, increasing ridership and rider pleasure. These systems are more resource and financially efficient for both the manger and the users. The next step is to use the information from these apps and adjust transportation services in real-time to meet demand, just as Uber tells drivers and customers each other’s location. Just two examples are San Fransisco’s smart parking system, Stockholm’s congestion pricing system.

Changing Oversight

Resilient, responsive, and adaptable transportation technologies are rapidly evolving. Technology is not a constraint — but our rigid ways of planning, designing, building, operating, and funding transit systems can be. Too often, transport agencies are bound by rigid federal, state, and local regulations that constrain their ability to integrate with other city services and objectives, so as to more effectively respond to rapidly changing climate, economic, housing and work patterns. For example, Transit Agencies are often obligated to obtain the highest price for land near new transit extensions, rather then the most community serving uses, which may include affordable and senior housing. The HUD sustainable community planning grants began to assist communities in seeing the benefits of integrating housing, transportation and environmental goals, but they were often hampered because our cities and regions didn’t have the integrated governance systems to implement these plans.

To serve our ever-changing cities, we need to develop more flexible governance systems and operating systems to loosen the rules that rigidly bind our transportation networks to the needs of the 21st century.

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Community Resilience Centers

Community Resilience Centers – our team’s HUD Rebuild by Design proposal

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The Prosperity / Wellbeing Conundrum

Earlier this year, UNICEF released a report comparing the wellbeing of children in 29 of the world’s most advanced nations.  The report compiles data on material wellbeing, health, safety, education, behavioral factors, and living environments, in addition to subjective “life satisfaction” surveys from children themselves.  The United States landed near the bottom on almost all measures.  Our total ranking was of 26th out of 29 countries; only Lithuania, Latvia, and Romania performed worse.  Yet the United States has the 10th highest GDP per capita in the world – more than three times that of Estonia and Slovakia, which both had higher levels of child wellbeing.

The traditional economic view has been  that growth and productivity, measured by GDP, are the key markers of success and the solutions to poverty.  The UNICEF wellbeing report shows how this traditional view is incomplete.   In actuality, cities and countries with rising incomes have been confronted by the paradox of unhappy growth in which increased GDP per capita has not led to increased or widespread wellbeing.

Stanley Kuznets, the Nobel Prize winning economist who introduced the concept of GDP to the U.S. Congress in 1934, was actually the first to caution about GDP’s limitations.  Kuznets wrote: “Economic welfare cannot be adequately measured unless the personal distribution of income is known.  And no income measurement undertakes to estimate the reverse side of income, that is, the intensity and unpleasantness of effort going into the earning of income.  The welfare of a nation can, therefore, scarcely be inferred from a measurement of national income.”

Kuznets recognized that wealth and welfare are different things, and factors like inequality, social capital, and labor conditions are important in gauging the success of a society.

Thriving, Struggling and Suffering

In 2005, Gallup began polling selected residents of almost every country in the world to gauge their state of wellbeing.  Respondents are asked about their employment status, their confidence in government, the quality of their public education system, their food security, and a variety of other issues. They are also asked to describe their lives as thriving, struggling or suffering.

In the period from 2005 to 2010, the GDP in Tunisia rose by 26.1% and in Egypt rose 53.4%.  But the Gallup polls showed that increased GDP was not leading to increased happiness.  In 2005, 25% of those polled in Tunisia said they were thriving.  By 2010, that had dropped to 14%, a 44% reduction. The numbers were even worse for Egypt. In 2005, 26 % of Egyptians described themselves as thriving. By 2010 only 12% did, a 54 % drop. And in 2010, the country with the lowest reported thriving level in the entire world was Bahrain.

One of the key issues is that the prosperity generated by increased GDP has not been equitably distributed, and it has not been invested in improving the overall society’s wellbeing.  So we should have not been surprised, when, in the fall and winter of 2011/12, massive protests took place in these countries. These were places in which the GDP rose, but an increasing number of people felt that they were struggling or suffering.

There are now many systems that define and measure components of wellbeing for people, cities, and nations: Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness index, the Gallup Healthways index, and the New Economic Foundation’s Happy Planet Index, and the OECD’s Better Life Index.

The challenge for the world’s cities is to connect our knowledge of how to improve prosperity with our knowledge of how to improve wellbeing.   Measuring prosperity and wellbeing are important first steps. The next is to focus on solutions that are most likely to increase prosperity and wellbeing simultaneously.

The Answer is Urban

Unfortunately, the political turmoil of Tunisia, Egypt and Bahrain have made it very hard to initiate innovative new social strategies at the national level.  Even calmer countries, such as the United States and Italy are too gridlocked to innovate new solutions. The answer is urban.  Cities are the most likely venues for developing, testing and measuring new solutions to the prosperity/ wellbeing conundrum.

How to Make Prosperous Cities

Over the last decade, ten strategies have emerged as key drivers of the economic prosperity of cities. These are:

1. Connectivity
2. Productivity
3. Economic Diversity
4. Social Diversity
5. Knowledge and Innovation
6. Cultural flexibility
7. Trust/Security
8: Infrastructure
9. Density
10. Regional Integration

How to Make Happy Cities

There have also been significant advances in the study of wellbeing.
According to the OECD, the key drivers of wellbeing are:

1. Income/Wealth
2. Jobs and Earnings
3. Housing Conditions
4. Health Status
5. Work/ Life Balance
6. Education and Skills
7. Social Connections
8. Civic Engagement and Governance
9. Environmental Quality
10. Personal Security
11. Subjective Well Being

The Prosperity/ Wellbeing Matrix

Economic security lies at the core of every issue of wellbeing, but prosperity alone is not a sufficient cause of wellbeing.  The solution is to find the “sweet spots”: urban strategies that enhance the factors of both prosperity and wellbeing.

Cities have important tools to shape their futures: regulations, investments, incentives and leadership. When integrated, they can help advance “sweet spot” solutions.  Four such sweet spot goals stand out: 1) sufficient, well-located affordable housing; 2) easy access to multiple transit modes including public ones; 3) quality, resilient urban infrastructure; and 4)  quality public education systems, from pre-k to graduate and ongoing training. Each of these is essential for a healthy economy, creates jobs, improves wellbeing and enhances a region’s capacity to thrive.

So which cities are doing the best job of balancing prosperity and wellbeing?

While there are ample data on income, wealth, and prosperity, and a growing body of wellbeing data, there are few approaches that combine these metrics to provide an integrated assessment of a city’s performance.

My colleague Will Goodman and I began by examining prosperity and wellbeing indicators on the United States’ largest 100 metro areas, and then synthesized data to create a prosperty/wellbeing metric.  To measure metropolitan area prosperity, we used U.S. Department of Commerce Bureau of Economic Analysis 2011 data on real GDP per capita.  To measure metro area wellbeing, we used the Gallup-Healthways 2011 polling data for its U.S. Well-Being Index.  The Gallup-Healthways methodology includes survey data in six key “domains”: Life Evaluation, Emotional Health, Physical Health, Healthy Behavior, Work Environment, and Basic Access.  Gallup-Healthways combines results in each of these areas to reach a total Well-Being Index score for each metro area.

2011 Gallup-Healthways Wellbeing Score

Our prosperity/wellbeing rankings are based on a composite score that we reached by normalizing and combining GDP per capita and Well-Being Index scores for the 100 largest metros (more on methodology below).   Based on this simple analysis, the top ten prosperity/wellbeing metros are:

1    San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA
2    San Francisco-Oakland-Fremont, CA
3    Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV
4    Bridgeport-Stamford-Norwalk, CT
5    Lancaster, PA
6    Charlotte-Gastonia-Rock Hill, NC-SC
7    Boston-Cambridge-Quincy, MA-NH
8    Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington, MN-WI
9    Honolulu, HI
10    Des Moines-West Des Moines, IA

View the full list of rankings

Looking at prosperity and wellbeing in this way produces some interesting results.  It may not be surprising that wealthy Silicon Valley and sunny Honolulu are among the top metros for GDP per capita and wellbeing.  However, Lancaster, PA, the 99th largest metro on our list, may be less obvious as a top prosperity/wellbeing location.  Lancaster ranks only 80th in terms of GDP per capita, but its #1-ranked wellbeing score is well above the other metros in the top ten.  Meanwhile the New York metro area ranks 11th in GDP per capita, but its relatively low wellbeing score (ranked 66th) drops it to #27 on the composite rankings.

It is also clear that focusing on metro areas loses some of the nuance of municipality and neighborhood dynamics.  For instance, Bridgeport-Stamford-Norwalk ranks #4 on the composite score, but those familiar with this metro area know that living conditions in Bridgeport (median household income of $34,658) are far different from Stamford (median household income of $75,454).

The Distribution of Wellbeing Matters

The relative distribution of income within a metropolitan area, and opportunities to move up the income ladder, are important elements of prosperity and wellbeing.  Research shows that societies with greater levels of inequality have less stability, worse health outcomes, and lower overall wellbeing.   We tested the impact of metro inequality on our prosperity/wellbeing rankings by incorporating each metro area’s Gini Index score (the Gini Index measures how much each area’s income distribution deviates from a perfectly equal distribution).  We used DiversityData.org’s analysis of 2010 income data for the 100 largest metros, then normalized and added each Gini Index score to our prosperity/wellbeing composite (weighted equally with GDP per capita and the Gallup-Healthways score).  With the Gini Index included, the new top ten prosperity/wellbeing metros are:

1    San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA
2    Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV
3    Des Moines-West Des Moines, IA
4    Lancaster, PA
5    Honolulu, HI
6    Madison, WI
7    Salt Lake City, UT
8    Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington, MN-WI
9    Ogden-Clearfield, UT
10    Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue, WA

View the full rankings including the Gini Index

This methodology dramatically changes the ranking of metro areas like Bridgeport-Stamford-Norwalk, which dropped from #4 to #57 because of its relative income inequality – it had by far the highest Gini score, meaning it was the most unequal metro. Although Ogden-Clearfield’s GDP per capita of $29,898 ranked it 88th of the top 100 cities, because it  scores very high in wellbeing and income equality (it had the best Gini Index score),  it rose  in the  combined rankings from #46 to #9.

This analysis is just a start — I’m interested to explore how we can improve integrated measures of prosperity, wellbeing, and  equality  to guide policy decisions towards the sweet spot solutions.

One new study shows the likelihood that lower-income households can rise to middle- and upper-income levels within a given “commuting zone” (http://www.equality-of-opportunity.org/).  Unfortunately, its data set did not correlate with the other data we were using, so we could not test its impact on our rankings. But it raises an interested question: is it more important to measure the distribution of income within a city, or the city’s level of access to economic opportunity and mobility?

What other economic, social, and/or environmental data should be incorporated into a comprehensive wellbeing/prosperity metric?

What are the most important common characteristics of the top metros on this list?

How do we incorporate the wellbeing of a metro region’s natural systems into this metric?

We are eager to hear your comments and thoughts.

Note on methodology:
In order to develop a composite ranking system, we normalized data sets (GDP per capita, Gallup-Healthways Wellbeing, and Gini Index scores) for the 100 largest metros so that they could be combined “apples to apples.”  This involved assigning each metro a “z-score” in each category (z-score = (score – mean score) / standard deviation of data set), which measures a given score’s standard deviations above or below the mean score in that category.  Each metro’s z-scores are then added together, and metros are ranked based on their composite scores.  For this exercise, the categories are weighted equally in the composite score.

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Resilience lessons from Katrina and Sandy

Prepare for the multiple threats of the 21st century.

One of the key failings of the Federal Government’s Homeland Security mandates is that, after 9/11, they prepared New York City for the last threat, a terrorist attack, not the next threat, climate change. Although we must prepare for sea level rise, that is not the only natural threat facing our cities. We also have to prepare them for other natural systems issues such as drought, heat, earthquakes and sunspot cycles. Cities also need to prepare for risks in human systems- degraded trust from social inequity, the contagion of diseases, massive urban migrations, cyber attacks, power outages and financial volatility. And there are rising threats from interactions between human and natural systems which are degrading and salinating water supplies, polluting air, and undermining and adding toxics into the food system. All of these threaten our cities’ viability. And there will be many more that we cannot conceive of. We are challenged with the task of planning for an uncertain future.

Planning for an Uncertain Future

The first step is to clearly define the risks to a city and their likelihood of happening. Making a list from the three catagories above- natural risks, human caused risks, and human/ natural interactions risks is a start. Normally we think of risks to systems, such as water or electrical systems. But that limits our ability to think broadly.

We cannot predict all of the outcomes of these risks.

The interactions between them are extremely complex. And each risk has implications for human, natural and economic systems. The key is to focus on solutions that have the most co- benefits and that enhancing the capacity of human and natural systems to be the most positively adaptive. Adaptive capacity is the best inoculation against uncertainty.

But there are a few risks that are very clear, and we need to begin to address them.  For example, prior to Hurricane Katrina, the insurance company FM Global guided 500 commercial clients on hurricane preparedness- as a result, these businesses experienced 85% less property damage from the hurricane then similar properties that were not well prepared.  A $2.5million of investment prevented $500 million in damages. The National Institute of Building Sciences states that every dollar spent on mitigation saves four dollars of losses.

Start Designing for more than a century of Sea Level Rise now.

Eighty per cent of the world’s GDP take place in rivers and coastal based cities. Their infrastructure was designed to function at a sea level that will dramatically change over the next century. Every single urban water, sewer, electrical and transportation system will have to be raised, or changed to accommodate new sea levels. That will take a great deal of time and investment. Cities need to start planning and investing in this work now. They also need to be designing the new dynamic, responsive systems of the future, not simply raising the static systems of the past.

Storm barriers, harbor versions of New Orlean’s levees may help in transitions, but over the long run, the risk of cities functioning below sea level or high surge levels is too high. We need to make the investments to adapt to new sea levels.

Recognize limits and establish buffer capacity

Each city faces different limits. Many are facing future water shortages, and will need to recycle more water and consume less.

They may also have to limit their growth. Others will suffer from too much water, and need to establish natural buffers and absorption areas. Others might be straining at the limits of their regions electrical generation, others may have maxed out their transportation systems, and be facing huge traffic issues. The key is to recognize that cities at the edge of any resource or impact limit are fragile- the solution is to develop a buffer to accommodate increased volatility.


Redundancy increases resilience.

Higher density cities need to develop multiple lines of defense for sea level rise- restoring natural conditions on both the water and land side, constructed barriers, elevated streets and infrastructure, and storm ready buildings.  Cities facing droughts need to combine multiple water sources with conservation strategies. Cities with more diverse energy sources will be less vulnerable to fuel shortages of any one. Redundancy is inherently in- efficient. During low risk times, the cost of developing and maintaining multiple systems seems excessive. During times of stress, they will seem essential.

Integrate Natural and Technical systems.

Much of The Netherlands has been developed on land reclaimed from the sea. With whole communities lying below sea level, it is extremely vulnerable to rising sea levels.  Rotterdam, its second largest city, and Europe’s largest port is the country’s most economically important city. Swamped by a devastating storm in 1953, Rotterdam responded by constructing hard infrastructure- dams, barriers, and seawalls.  But in the 21st century, the city’s planners began to develop the architecture of accommodation- floating buildings that can rise with storm surges.

Rotterdam is re-thinking of itself not as a city resisting water with levees, dykes and pumps, but rather, as a city living with water, integrated with the water flowing through it. Its goal is to have fully transformed itself by 2035, planting green roofs and parks to absorb and detain water, and reduce climate rising temperature.  Its new codes require building façades, garages, and ground-level spaces to be designed to be waterproof. Its power grid is being encased in waterproof underground pipes, and the entire system is being re-designed to withstand high seas and winds.

Rotterdam’s approaches include both hardened infrastructure, and also much softer natural systems, woven together.

With the movement of shipping from the heart of cities to more remote container ports, cities around the world are reconfiguring their waterfronts to serve as storm barriers, parks and bike and walking corridors. The architecture firm Weiss Manfredi recently designed a “Wandering Ecologies” park for Toronto’s Don Riverfront, creating marshlands with boardwalks for runners and cyclists. James Corner Field Operations has designed a water permeable park and walkway system on the land side of Seattle’s Elliot Bay, while enhancing salmon breeding grounds on the water side.

In 2010 New York City’s Museum of Modern Art invited a group of younger, forward thinking architects, landscape architects and planners to generate plans for New York’s future with higher sea levels. Many of the proposals in the Rising Current’s exhibit included regenerating natural edges between the land and the water, in some cases building out into the harbor, in others, eroding the land back. (Image 12) The oyster beds, barrier islands and marshy edges that protected much of Mannahatta and the Mississippi Delta are not only inexpensive ways to soften storm surges, but they naturally adapt to rising sea levels, rising with them. And, like land based parks and gardens, they have many co- benefits, including naturally cleaning urban waters of chemical and biological toxics.

The old Islamic cities were designed to provide naturally cooling breezes and shade to the summer’s heat.  The new town in Umm Al Quwain, in the United Arab Republics, designed by City Planner Peter Calthorpe updates those technologies, using shade, thermal mass and the cooling of the desert in the evening to create comfort passively.

Plan where to Retreat from Risks

New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo, describing high risk waterfront property said “ There are some parcels that mother nature owns. She may only visit every few years, but she owns the parcel, and when she comes to visit, she visits !” ( 61)


These are the areas, like the lower 9th Ward, the low lying area’s of Rotterdam and on New york City’s barrier islands that are very poor places to occupy, but if returned to their natural role, add to a city’s resilience. Each city should map its known natural risks and figure out a plan for how to retreat from them, converting them into resilience reserves.  This applies to all kinds of risks- for example, it makes no sense to keep operating nuclear power plants near known fault lines.


Lower Manhattan’s real estate and infrastructure may be worth more than a trillion dollars. It would be very costly to relocate. But it is also very concentrated, and so it may be cost effective to build a substantial sea wall around the area. But there are many coastal areas that are neither so concentrated nor so valuable. Currently, the Federal Government provides below cost insurance for home and business owners in areas that for profit insurance companies won’t insure. The government looses money every time there is a flood, paying to rebuild in high risk areas. This makes no economic or ecological sense. Even worse are voluntary buy back programs, which offer to buy back homes in high risk areas from those who are willing to sell them. This will lead to replicating the spottily resettled Lower 9th Ward.  If two third’s of the residents of the ocean facing blocks of a coastal community choose to sell, the city will still have to provide water, sewer, roads, police and fire protection to the remaining one third. And they will not be able to replace those blocks with a natural edge of dunes and wetlands which could benefit the rest of the city.

Federal and local governments should not have to bear the ongoing burden of funding the costs of a few high risk areas. Buildings in lower density higher risk locations need to be purchased at fair market value, and their residents given an opportunity to re- locate.

Retreat from the risky water’s edges should be planned over time,staged in conjunction with the rising sea levels of the coming century.

Robust, Resilient, Repairable and Responsive

In 1989, the Loma Prieta earthquake  caused the collapse of the San Francisco- Oakland Bay bridge. The original bridge was designed to be stiff, to resist the seismic movements of the earth. But when the earthquake exceeded its design strength, the bridge failed, a perfect example of being robust but fragile. The bridge’s replacement has been designed to be ductile- strong, but also flexible enough to absorb almost any shock. Its lead engineer, Marwan Nader says “The idea is to build a structure that can stretch and deform without breaking.” (59)

The bridge was also designed to be easily repaired if broken. For example, the bridge’s shock absorbers can be restored in a few hours after an earthquake.  And sensors allow the bridge to be continuously monitored, and adjusted to loads and stresses. The bridge is robust, resilient, repairable and responsive.

These principles should be applied to all infrastructure improvements.

Plan the Human Operating Systems

When Katrina struck New Orleans, the City, State and Federal operating systems failed causing and exacerbating hardships. When Superstorm Sandy struck New York City, the coordination between agencies was much more effective. Information collection was generally accurate, and shared in real time, leading to dynamic decisions. Interagency co-ordination, data sharing and planning are critical behaviors needed to increase a city’s resilience.

New York City was also willing to “fail safely.” Understanding that power lines would come down in the winds, and that the transit system would be disrupted, the subway system was closed so that it could be more rapidly restored. Teams of linesman were brought in from around the country and stood by, ready to swing into action as the storm abated.

And because the storm only damaged the City’s coastal areas, most of its leaders’ homes survived, leaving them untraumatized, and thus capable of thinking more flexibly. But the next disaster may effect the entire city, or region. City leaders need cognitive training in resilience thinking under stress.

Design for Islandization.

Battery Park City sat closest to Lower Manhattan’s water’s edge, and yet it survived the best of all. By having a power grid that was linked to the rest of the region, but separatable, it was able to disconnect from the failure that blanked out the rest of the city. As utilities  repair and replace 20th dumb century grids, they should be re-conceived of as networks of smart, interconnected micro grids- smaller, localized electric grids serving a collection of buildings or a neighborhood.  These can draw power from the larger grid, but also generate enough power from cogeneration, solar or microturbines. By adding sensing and operating intelligence, these systems can balance predict and their loads. The US Military is rapidly introducing micro- grids into its installations to increase their resilience.

The economies of cities is increasingly dependent upon internet connectivity, which, for example, ties the New York Stock Exchange to global markets. As cities and their industries move their data to the cloud, they access more robust systems- but they are are ignoring the fragility of their connection to these systems. Cyber attacks, or even worse, a cyber war could cut them off from their data and operating systems. Cities must also store their data and operating systems locally, and keep the duplicate capacity to function as data islands if necessary.

The same strategy can apply to buildings. Grid connected Solar photovoltaic systems should be able to disconnect from the larger system and provide power for building’s essential services. To do so they will need battery or other energy storage systems. Local food and water systems also help buildings or neighborhoods through disruptions. As we read in Chapter five, designing buildings for passive resilience enhance the ability of buildings to provide adequate comfort and water without requiring a significant energy supply.

We also need to design our social system’s for islandization. Chicago’s most resilient neighborhoods during its heat wave were able to self organize, separately from the larger city. Andrew Zolli’s emergent self organizing adhocracy is an essential component of a city’s resilience. When the very low income community of the Far Rockaways lost all power, food and water as a result of Sandy, the members of the Rockaways Surf club sprung into action. These were mostly Brooklyn Hipsters who had gotten together a shack by the sea as a place to gather, change and store their gear. Prior to the storm they had been viewed as odd outsiders, but after the storm, when they self organized and brought resources and visibility to the Rockaways, they were embraced. The locals described it as the hipsters becoming helpsters !

To do this effectively required the pre-existing strong ties of the surf club membership, but also the ability to rapidly form new bridging ties, as the surf club made with its public housing neighbors.

Passive Resilience

As cities and buildings become smarter they become more dependent on energy and data systems to operate. However with increase weather volatility, cyber attacks and other large scale threats, pervasive energy and data systems are more likely to go down. This requires cities and buildings to be able to function in the passive, or manual mode.

Although its currently very difficult to make dense urban buildings that can survive entirely independently from urban infrastructure, in a world of increasing weather and energy volatility, it is essential to design buildings that will perform sufficiently when the power goes out or the temperature hits extremes. They may not be the most comfortable, but they need to be livable. Their passive resilience will be enhanced by better insulation to reduce energy needs, and local generators, to keep core functions such as boilers, hallway lights and and elevators running.

One of the aftermaths  of both Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy was that oil refineries were shut down, fuel storage and pumping facilities lost power, and as a result, gas stations ran out of diesel and gasoline. Diesel fueled generators ran out of fuel, and ceased working after a few days. This raises a key element of resilience.  People, buildings, communities and cities thrive when they are connected into larger networks and systems. But they also need to be designed to function when they are disconnected, although perhaps at a less effective level. They may thrive when part of an energized, complex system, but they need to be able to survive when the system goes down.

Smart Cities also need a manual mode- a way of functioning when  automated systems fail. In manual they may be less efficient, by at least they will work. Gravity powered water supply systems such as the system that feeds New York City function even when the pumps are down.

Networks of Neighborhood Centers

Social efficacy is key generator of strong neighborhoods, and it is generated by strong not for profit and voluntary institutions. These need to be anchored in community centers such as TheArc and The Educational Alliance. Cities need to invest in a network of prepared neighborhood centers. These can be settlement houses, schools, libraries, churches or hospitals, designed to serve neighborhoods with shelter, food, water, electricity and communications when disruption comes. Their leaders should be trained to deal with the range of climate and health events that will come in an increasingly volatile era.

Resilience restores human and natural systems well being

In the beginning of this chapter we noted the interdependence of human and natural systems. We also observed that resilient strategies are evolutionarily successful when they restore their own wellbeing and increases the wellbeing of the systems that they are  interdependent with. Thus, the most valuable strategies will enhance the wellbeing of human and natural systems together. For example, greening streets and enhancing their biodiversity provides the many human and natural benefits described in chapter 5. As we will discuss in chapter 10, we need to develop measures of human and natural systems wellbeing, and measure our progress towards increasing them.

The most effective strategies will also enhance the ability of urban systems to adapt to future, unanticipated changes. They encourage positive evolution.

For societal wellbeing, solutions need to be equitably distributed.

Disasters and climate change hit the poor the hardest. They often live in the most vulnerable and most toxic neighborhoods. Lacking resources, they have the fewest options. 9/11 dislocated every resident of Lower Manhattan- the well off were inconvenienced, many moved to their second, weekend homes. The poor had to choose between homelessness and doubling up with already overcrowded relatives. Globally, the urban poor are even worse off- Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh is a city of 7 million people, living no higher than 13 feet above sea level. As the sea levels rise, they will have no where else to go- and India is building a wall to keep them out.

After 9/11, a great deal of thought was put into protecting the New York Stock Exchange from a future loss of power- no thought was given to protecting residents of nearby public housing projects, whose elevators and heat could have operated after Sandy with just a few generators.

Low income families and communities have the least resources to deal with the stress of climate change. Columbia University professor of Clinical Psychiatry Mindy Fullilove describes low income families as living in an environment of unmitigated disaster- unmitigated trauma, health and educational deficits. With low levels of auto use and resource consumption, they have contributed the least to the causes of climate change. If we envision civilization as providing more equal opportunities and responsibilities for all, then we must plan to equalize our preparations for the coming volatility.

The degree of social inequality shown the world during Katrina was deeply disturbing. But distribution of wealth and wellbeing in New York City is also increasingly unequal. If social efficacy is a key element of a community’s wellbeing, then our rebuilding efforts must aim to increase equality of opportunity for all of a city’s residents and workers.

Does it take a disaster to rebuild our cities?

The destruction and rebuilding of Lower Manhattan and the Gulf Coast raise several questions that America, and perhaps all nations need to ask.

The first is, can we rebuild our cities without them first having to be destroyed?  Is our collective status quo bias so strong that we cannot re- imagine our cities, and make the tough political decisions to move them towards a better future while they are still functioning? Wouldn’t it be better to rebuild the decaying physical and civic parts of our cities now, without having to wait for an external destructive force?

And the second question is, if we as a nation believe that our cities are too important to be destroyed and not rebuilt, than what should we be doing to build up the planning and funding capacity for this reconstruction? Our current policy is another version of “too big to fail”. Our Federal government has been the rebuilder of last resort.

But with the increased climate change ahead, we cannot afford to respond incident by incident. We need a national strategy that integrates Federal resources and credit with State and Local initiatives, and that harness’s private capital. These resources need to begin making our cities more resilient now.

To answer these, we have to re- think the way that we plan.

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