This article first appeared in Huffington Post September 8th, 2010.
There’s no alternative to sustainable development.”
So began a 2009 article in Harvard Business Review. Although the message was aimed at business, it applies equally well to building cities.
This is especially prescient when the cities in question have been damaged or destroyed by climate disaster. Are they being redeveloped with an eye to accommodating that climate, and lessening its impact?
If we use Pakistan as an example, the answer seems to be ‘no’.
Pakistan is currently experiencing the worst floods in 80 years. 1,600 are dead, and more than 20 million affected – nearly 10% of the population.
It’s too early to say if rebuilders will incorporate systems that help Pakistan’s cities accommodate flooding this time. Past experience doesn’t paint a promising picture. There are regular floods in the country, and each one seems to surpass the last in damage caused. Clearly, rebuilding efforts have not addressed the recurring flood problem, leading to ever-more-expensive repetition.
Here in North America, the damage caused by Hurricane Katrina echoes that of Pakistan. 1,836 people died, 15 million people were affected, 275,000 homes were lost.
Unlike Pakistan, however, the US Army Corps of Engineers is building a $14.3 billion line of defense. This will provide greater safety against storms. But it’s a system designed solely for protection, and not accommodation.
An opportunity to rethink
Tragedies like these create opportunities to start anew, with modern approaches and the lens of a more sustainable future.
Core to this is an approach that transitions from immediate needs to insightful long-term strategies.
From technology and systems thinking to urban design and economic development, the community needs to consider not just rebuilding, but reassessing the way the city interacts with nature.
The long term vision has to incorporate restoration of natural harmony, not just damage control. This means constructing cities that blend environmental value with value to humans.
Learning from anatomy
The city is, in many ways, similar to the human body: a dynamic, complex system that influences, and is influenced by, its environment.
The norm in urban planning can be likened to the ‘isolated ailment’ thinking of traditional western medicine. Heart treatments, for example, generally focused on the heart – not the stressful, unhealthy existence of the person.
Holistic cures, thankfully, are considering ailments on a broader level. Today, patients can be treated for cancer, for example, even as they undergo vitamin and diet treatment to boost their internal well-being, and spiritual and physical programs to make them less susceptible to stress and disease.
Imagine if Pakistan and the Gulf Coast took the same approach?
The hurdles to healing cities
The biggest hurdles preventing a holistic approach to rebuilding climate-damaged cities are timelines, silo thinking, and scale.
Governments generally function on a three-year timeline. As such, it is rare to find an administration willing to risk taxpayer money in a program with a distant payback. Short-term fixes that return life to status quo are far more popular.
Even if there is vision for creating a more sustainable city, silos between local authorities, planners, developers and NGOs can hamper implementation. If the city was struck by a climate disaster, the silo problem only increases as relief agencies and the military are added to the mix.
Finally, there is the problem of scale. Revisiting the comparison with the human body, it is no easy matter to heal multiple systems that interact on many different levels – especially if the treatment has to happen rapidly to avoid even greater damage.
Lessons for innovators
1. Address the deeper cause of damage – Cities damaged by climate disaster must look at the deeper causes of that disaster. Hurricanes happen, but hurricanes that wipe out cities can be mitigated if natural barriers are left intact.
2. Get outside the jar – There are many experts in the field of urban planning and implementation. Unfortunately, they’re also inside the expert jar, and may be blind to uncommon solutions.
3. Be guided by a north star vision – A vision of a goal that is grander than status quo will, if properly communicated, inspire and guide your team. More important, it will help break down silos.
4. Model success – There are many examples of successful rebuilding efforts to model. Don’t reinvent, when you can learn.