Connecting Hazard Science and Planning Down Under

Much of New Zealand is a land of striking natural beauty riddled with natural hazards.

Much of New Zealand is a land of striking natural beauty riddled with natural hazards.

Nearly nine years ago, when I was invited to accept a three-week visiting fellowship in New Zealand with the Centre for Advanced Engineering in New Zealand (CAENZ) at the University of Canterbury, people began to ask me why the New Zealanders were so interested in me or the work of our Hazards Planning Center at the American Planning Association. My response was to ask another question: “Have you seen Lord of the Rings?”

The overwhelming majority of inquirers would say yes, and I would follow up by asking whether they were aware that the entire trilogy was filmed in New Zealand. Most were, though not all. “Look at the landscape in those films,” I would say, adding that “it ought to come to you” after doing so. Later, I wrote an article for Planning, APA’s monthly magazine, about the experience, titling it “A Landscape of Hazards.” New Zealand almost literally has it all: earthquake faults, active volcanoes, coastal storms, landslides, flash floods, and even occasional wildfires. One day, back in the states, I even learned that a small tornado had struck in Auckland. There were very good reasons CAENZ spent enough money to bring me there to consult on national hazards policy and land use.

Damage following a coastal storm on the North Island in August 2008.

Damage following a coastal storm on the North Island in August 2008.

One serious consequence of the visit, which included my doing seven lectures and seminars around the country during that time, was that I established a number of valuable and lasting professional relationships, some of which are occasionally rekindled by meeting Kiwi researchers at conferences in the U.S. since then. One was a young researcher, Wendy Saunders, at GNS Science, who recently sent me a copy of a new report she co-authored for this crown research center, released in November. “The Role of Science in Land Use Planning: Exploring the Challenges and Opportunities to Improve Practice” made me realize that a common problem in U.S. planning, the introduction of scientific information related to natural hazards, is not much different halfway around the world, even under a rather different planning framework than ours.

Indeed, one other benefit of the trip was that, not only did they learn from me about the complexities and idiosyncrasies of land-use planning in the United States, but I learned a great deal about their system as well, and it broadened my perspective on how planning is practiced around the world. Things are somewhat simpler in this small nation of 4.2 million people on two islands that together are somewhat smaller than California. That led to an interesting comment from one gentleman to another in the front row of a modest crowd at the Christchurch regional council following one of my presentations. “We’re about the size of a small state over there,” he mused. Yes, I thought, we are two sovereign nations, but vastly different in size, with systems calibrated to very different needs as a result.

In the New Zealand context, the result is a system, based on 1989 reforms, in which there is no “state” layer of government between the national government in Wellington and local government at the municipal level. Under the nation’s Resource Management Act, however, a series of regional councils does provide oversight of environmental policy and reviews local decisions for compliance. Those regions are basically based on watershed boundaries, which may seem like nirvana to some bioregionalists in the U.S., but they entail their own political challenges. No system is perfect.

The challenge the GNS Science report addresses, in fact, is that of properly introducing natural hazards science into land-use policy at the local level, which is not an easy task even in New Zealand, where such hazards seem abundant and omnipresent. The report includes a case study of GNS’s own experience in intervening in a plan change in Hutt City, near Wellington on the North Island, where a major earthquake fault straddles and affects much urban development. The problem of how to introduce issues like climate and hazard mitigation into the planning process is one we have pondered repeatedly at the Hazards Planning Center at APA, precisely because that is our mission. As the GNS report notes, while local planners may complain that science is often presented In ways that lack translation into a local context, with no straightforward means of resolving conflicts between experts, scientists nonetheless “are often frustrated by the lack of uptake of their science in land use planning decisions.” Maybe Kiwis and Yankees, at least in this respect, have far more in common than we realize.

Inevitably, because there are no simple solutions that fit all cases, the report concludes that incorporating natural hazards science in land-use decision making is a “complex process influenced by numerous social levers and networks.” In the Hutt City case, economic development was paramount, but natural hazards took their place on the stage in part as a result of GNS Science’s intervention, a lesson to scientific researchers that it is important for them to find their voice even if local elected officials and policy makers may not absorb all the subtleties of scientific conclusions. It is not always a matter of scientists being poor communicators. Sometimes public officials must be better listeners. Scientists must be willing to learn more about the planning process, but planners must learn more about the nuances of scientific assessments. Public safety with regard to natural hazards risks is not a matter of stopping all development, but of using scientific knowledge wisely to make development better. We must all become better at reaching across disciplinary boundaries to reduce misunderstanding and misinformation and to receive information vital to making better decisions. The importance of this became very clear to me less than three years after my visit, when Christchurch, the home of CAENZ, was shaken by significant earthquakes from which the city is still recovering.

 

Jim Schwab

Resources for Planners to Address Hazards

Sri Lankans dedicate new housing built in 2005, after the Indian Ocean tsunami, in a Buddhist ceremony.

Sri Lankans dedicate new housing built in 2005, after the Indian Ocean tsunami, in a Buddhist ceremony.

One benefit of increased attention to hazards and climate change within the planning profession is a growing array of valuable literature that can benefit practicing planners and widen the scope of thinking on the subject among academics. This review of books published within the past year or so is intended to highlight some of this new literature and offer some comparisons on the focus and practical value the authors provide.

Because urban planning is ultimately about people and the built environment, it may make sense to start this survey with two books that examine the context within which risk happens. Kathleen Tierney, a professor of sociology at the University of Colorado in Boulder and director of the Natural Hazards Center there, sets out in The Social Roots of Risk: Producing Disasters, Promoting Resilience (Stanford University Press, 2014) to reorient our thinking away from the idea that individual natural phenomena—earthquakes, hurricanes, floods, etc.—“cause” the death and destruction that we often associate with them. In fact, she says, the death and destruction, particularly in the modern world, is an artifact of the social decisions that produce and, equally important, distribute risk differentially among populations, often producing widely varying impacts. In the opening chapter, she states, “the organizing idea for this book is that disasters and their impacts are socially produced, and that the forces driving the production of disaster are embedded in the social order itself.”

By itself, the idea that disaster losses result from the collision of natural forces with the built environment should not surprise any planners with a modicum of intelligence. And the built environment is inevitably the result of both individual and community decisions. The devil of Tierney’s thesis lies in the details: paying attention not only to all the social, institutional, and political decisions that either enhance or mitigate risk but to how those decisions get made and for what reasons. It is clear that those impacts are anything but randomly distributed and that most are avoidable, yet the litany of losses marches on. Tierney notes that a great deal of professional attention in recent decades has focused on how people perceive risk, a legitimate area of inquiry, but not nearly as much has focused on the origins of risk and how it was socially constructed. There are reasons, after all, why a 7.0 magnitude earthquake in Haiti kills an estimated 300,000 (but who really knows?) yet only dozens at most in California, and why the 1,800 who died during Hurricane Katrina included overwhelmingly disproportionate numbers of the economically disadvantaged.

Most planners work in local or regional government, and they serve power structures that must make the decisions, even when they choose to do nothing, that affect these outcomes. In that sense, some of Tierney’s theories and conclusions may challenge our comfort zones because they imply (or state directly) a need to challenge power with regard to these issues. For precisely that reason, I recommend reading it. Most social progress results from stepping outside traditional comfort zones. For planners, it is also within our ethical and legal responsibilities to help protect public health, safety, and welfare.

Those who wish to examine more closely how differential risk affects more vulnerable subsections of community populations can follow up with a case in point provided by Michael R. Greenberg, professor at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers in New Jersey, where he had a front-row seat to observe Superstorm Sandy in 2012. As a baby boomer with aging parents, he says, the event inspired him to examine the issues such events pose for seniors. Protecting Seniors Against Environmental Disasters: From Hazards and Vulnerability to Prevention and Resilience (Routledge, 2014) closely dissects the vulnerabilities of the rising generation of seniors among baby boomers. It exposes the resulting collision of demographics with natural hazards and often inadequate public policy in considering the reduced resilience that may result. At the same time, he notes that many seniors in good mental and physical health can become assets in using their to help build the very resilience many communities will need in coming decades, if only their communities learn to focus these social resources to address and help solve such problems. My only regret after reading this thoughtful book is that the publisher chose to make it so expensive ($145 hardcover), but perhaps a library or electronic copy can make it more accessible.

Six authors, mostly at Texas A&M University (TAMU) have addressed the question of resilience head-on in Planning for Community Resilience: A Handbook for Reducing Vulnerability to Disasters (Island Press, 2014). Jamie Hicks Masterson, program director of Texas Target Communities (TAMU); Walter Gillis Peacock, professor in the Department of Landscape Architecture and Urban Planning and director of the Hazards Reduction & Recovery Center (TAMU); Shannon S. Van Zandt, associate professor in the department and director of the Center for Housing and Urban Development (TAMU); Himanshu Grover, assistant professor in the Department of Urban Planning and Regional Planning at the University of Buffalo; Lori Feild Schwarz, comprehensive planning manager for the City of Plano, Texas (and formerly in Galveston); and John T. Cooper, Jr., associate professor of practice in the same department at TAMU, have combined somehow to produce an almost seamless document that lays out a very practical approach to understanding and developing resilience within communities. The book is littered with tables, checklists, and exercises to walk planners and city officials through the necessary analysis to grasp the impacts of everyday planning decisions in connection with natural hazards. The book tends to rely heavily on the Texas and Gulf Coast experiences of the authors, but as they note with a wry sense of humor, “We like to say that if you can plan in Texas, you can plan anywhere.” For the practicing planner, this may well be the most useful of the five books reviewed here.

Two other books represent the rising level of interest among planners in addressing the impacts of climate change, a subject implicit, and sometimes explicitly expressed, in the three books noted above. One of these, Local Climate Action Planning (Island Press, 2012), by Michael R. Boswell, Adrienne I. Greve, and Tammy L. Seale, is actually three years old but still a very useful and well-informed primer for those planners and city officials undertaking to address climate change. The primary focus is actually not hazards but climate action plans, which focus on mitigating climate change by using public policy and planning to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. For climate change skeptics, it is worth noting that many of the resulting strategies have local environmental and economic benefits that add to the allure of effective climate action plans. While much of the book addresses techniques like inventorying local greenhouse gas emissions and developing reduction strategies, nonetheless, the authors devote one chapter to climate adaptation and outline means of assessing community sectors for vulnerability to climate change impacts.

Finally, Adapting to Climate Change: Lessons from Natural Hazards Planning (Springer, 2014), assembled from a variety of contributions by editors Bruce C. Glavovic, of New Zealand’s Massey University, and Gavin P. Smith, of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, brings together the subjects of climate and natural hazards in a way that points to future successes in addressing the increased vulnerabilities associated with climate change. Unlike the other books, it is less a single narrative than an anthology using examples of climate change adaptation from around the world. It is unquestionably the most cosmopolitan and far-reaching of the five books in its aspirations for global relevance, using case studies from South Africa, Peru, New Zealand, and the South Pacific, among other locations, in addition to the United States. The two editors first met while working in different capacities along the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina and have collaborated periodically ever since. Both have been anxious to explore and explain the critical roles of planning and governance in managing exposure to natural disasters, especially as “practitioners from diverse backgrounds  . . . are faced with the grand challenge of adapting to climate change. Planners who like to mine the experience of other cities and regions in case studies will find plenty to contemplate as they review the mixed international track record of community resilience in facing floods, coastal storms, and other weather-related phenomena influenced by a changing global climate with its wide-ranging variations in specific local settings. It may take a while to digest this substantial book, but it is probably well worth the effort.

 

Jim Schwab

Bucket List from Down Under

 

It was one of those summer days this past Monday when I had been working hard to compose an online presentation and needed to come up for air. At a suitable point, I took a break and left my 12th-floor office in our downtown building on Michigan Avenue in Chicago, headed for the elevator, and went downstairs to the plaza in front of our building. It was a sunny day but not too hot, with a slight, pleasant breeze, and one can sit among the flowers at various small metal tables anchored in the cement, on seats that are equally anchored to the tables. It was time to smell the roses.

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I looked for an empty table; it’s easier to find peace and quiet and less intrusive on someone else’s peace and quiet, though it means that five-sixths of the seats remain unoccupied when everyone does that, which they generally seem to do unless they are with someone they know. A woman was just leaving at one table, so I went there and sat down when she departed. I wanted to just look around and take in the scenery. Right now, some of that scenery involves construction on the other side of Michigan Avenue. A developer has been demolishing the old building at 200 N. Michigan for the last three months or more and is planning to build a new residential high-rise in its place. There is currently a big pit behind fences.

I was not alone for long. Looking for some place to sit, a gentleman about my age sat down, and I said hello politely. He was dressed considerably more casually and was very friendly. Somehow, a conversation began, which is not unusual for me because I am a gregarious sort, and so was he. I soon learned he was visiting Chicago as a tourist, had just recently flown in from Los Angeles, was originally form the United Kingdom, but was now living in Australia. His son was traveling with him and was somewhere nearby.

“We’re planning to drive Route 66,” he told me. I soon learned they were getting a rental car here in Chicago for a one-way trip back to Los Angeles. I had always thought of the Route 66 adventure as a uniquely American obsession, but I was about to learn otherwise.

“It’s been on my bucket list,” he said, “and now I’ll be able to cross it off.”

In contrast, I noted that I had not been to Australia, although I had been on a three-week visiting fellowship to New Zealand in 2008 with the Centre for Advanced Engineering in New Zealand at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch. He asked if I had seen the earthquake, and I said that regrettably, I had not been back. But I also noted happily that I had toured much of New Zealand at the time as part of the fellowship, that I had loved it, and that I woke up every morning having to remind myself that “I was actually getting paid to do this.” Then I noted that the generous Kiwis had often bestowed on me, after each presentation, a bottle of locally grown wine.

“Some of the best wine anywhere,” he said joyfully.

Then he told me that they planned to visit the Arch while in St. Louis, though he initially referred to it as “the Arches,” perhaps confusing it with those golden ones at McDonald’s, and I noted for him that there is only one, but that you can take an elevator to the top to see St. Louis from a height of about 600 feet, as I recalled. He seemed to relish the forthcoming opportunity, as did his son, who by then had joined us. Both looked slightly scruffy, but only in the manner of tourists who are enjoying a great adventure.

I said that someday, perhaps, taking a boat all the way from the top of the Mississippi River to the Gulf might be on my bucket list. “Is it navigable that far?” he asked. I assured him that river traffic moves as far north as the Twin Cities, and that by the time the river reaches New Orleans, it is typically about two miles wide.

He contemplated that thought for a minute in silence, a smile growing on his face. They don’t grow such rivers in the UK, and most of Australia is too dry to generate such a volume of water.

“The mighty Mississippi,” he finally said.

Unfortunately, I only had about ten minutes for a break before needing to join a conference call, so I excused myself and left the man and his son to their enjoyment of the urban pleasures of Chicago. They were clearly relaxed and set for their great adventure, a chance to scratch something off their bucket list. I did not learn how long they planned to stay in Chicago or when they were starting their trip down Route 66. But right about now, the two may be crossing the bridge into St. Louis from Illinois, and the old man, with his first up-close and personal encounter with Mark Twain’s highway, may be saying to himself once again, “The mighty Mississippi.”

He should have seen it when it was flooding.

 

Jim Schwab