Urban Design that Can Save Lives

David Plick — 

“Climate change did not avoid planning regulations. Climate change did not cause Houston’s population to expand by 40% since 1990. Climate change did not build a chemical factory in a flood zone after politicians lobbied for a delay in safety rules.

No matter what climate change did to the hurricane, a major disaster would have happened. Not from the rainfall or floods, but from the unnatural vulnerabilities and choices which created them. Rather than blaming a natural disaster, we can make individual and collective decisions to live in a hurricane zone without forcing a human-caused hurricane disaster.”

—Ilan Kelman

Due to the severity of Hurricane Harvey and the fact that Houston has no zoning code, this debate about urban design and the role of government in business has escalated. There are those, such as in this surprising piece in Slate, who argue that Harvey’s damage wasn’t affected by Houston’s lack of a zoning code, that this would’ve happened even if zoning laws were in place. Yet this is what Rusty Bienvenue, the Executive Director of Houston AIA, said:

“Some of the criticisms about how Houston is designed are valid, especially in regards to how the reservoirs are designed in the west part of Houston. They were designed at a time when the city didn’t reach that far; now people have built houses in the flood zone. That needs to be addressed.

Though it’s correct to say that Houston doesn’t have a zoning code, it’s not correct to say the city doesn’t have land use regulations. Strengthening those is something that will be done . . .

Katrina was 12 years ago, and I can’t even name all the ones in between. Wake up, people. It’s not a new reality, but it is the reality on the ground now. We will have storms the size of which we can’t fathom, and we need to design accordingly.”

Let’s say something really obvious: urban design and architecture saves lives. It prevents catastrophe in the face of human error and poor choices. For instance, if you sell someone a home in a city for $200,000 less than the market value, would they do their research and find out it’s in a flood zone, or would they be so excited to finally have their dream come true—being a homeowner in America—that they just jump on the opportunity? Or, is it possible that they’d know it was in a flood zone, and do it anyway? Urban design, zoning laws, the “red tape” that conservative journalists like Kim Strassel (who, after Harvey, still boasted of Houston’s approach to urban design) of the Wall Street Journal complain about, saves lives.

Ilan Kelman is a Global Health professor who argues in this Dezeen article for urban design necessities. His article starts to scratch the surface, but more research needs to be done. More compliance needs to happen. Let’s not avoid the issue to make real estate developers and local politicians wealthy.

Here’s a couple of Professor Kelman’s main points of how urban design can prevent catastrophe, but I urge you to read the article in full.

Keep Green Spaces

Having more green space in a city gives the water a place to be absorbed. Trees, grass and dirt soak up water naturally. If the city is designed for the water to reach its lowest point, it can find refuge in a reservoir. In fact, make a park at the reservoir with bike paths and walking trails.

Don’t Build in a Floodplain

Houston grew quickly, and neighborhoods were built by developers. Many of them were either directly in, or next to floodplains. Westlake Forest, Fleetwood and Briar Hills were all in or near floodplains, and the flooding they experienced vastly surpassed their expectations.

By: David Plick

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