Houston floods: Exclamation points in the debate over urban resilience
Tuesday, September 05, 2017
While climate change is a global topic, events like the catastrophic floods we have seen in Houston after Hurricane Harvey remind us that the consequences can be very local.
Scenes of floating trucks and ruined homes are exclamation points in the debate over climate change. In between such events, it can be difficult to build momentum in the debate over urban resilience to increasingly severe weather patterns. But when disaster strikes, the shortcomings can become all too obvious.
Making the case for urban resilience
Much of the debate over climate change and sustainability focuses on preventative measures, such as public transit or energy efficiency. But their counterpart — resilience to the impact of rising temperatures — deserves equal attention. In 2017, it is simply too late to think about prevention alone.
Climate risk is only one face of urban resilience. Stresses and shocks such as urban violence, unemployment, poverty and economic downturn all come into a more inclusive understanding of resilience. However, what we are seeing in Houston shows us that climate risk will likely be the threat that will dominate the next generation.
Becoming more resilient calls for stronger levees, an overhaul of data-led planning that helps to assess and communicate risks, and thinking more carefully about where new settlements are located as the city grows. It also might involve strategies for community resilience, innovative measures like the restoration of floodplains, the installation of green roofs to manage surface water run off, or even "smart parks" with embedded sensors that warn of impending floods (like this project in Iowa).
As severe weather trends become a reality, facing up to these risks will cost serious money. In the words of Daniel Homsey, San Francisco's Director of Neighborhood Resilience, urban resilience is all about spending more money on the front end so you can save on the back end.
Experts predict Hurricane Harvey will cost Texas around $30 billion, potentially rising to $100 billion.
The emergence of the chief resilience officer
The 100 Resilient Cities initiative was established by the Rockefeller Foundation with exactly this in mind — to draw attention to resilience as a counterpart to prevention.
They have been champions of the role of chief resilience officers in cities across the world, a position that has only been on the radar of local government for a few years. Houston's own chief resilience officer, civil engineer Stephen Costello, was dubbed by the mayor as the city's "flood czar" in May 2016, in the wake of the previous round of flooding.
So how has the "flood czar" performed in his first major test?
It did not take long after the latest floods for comparisons to be made to 2005's Hurricane Katrina. While the better coordinated rescue efforts in Houston are a far cry from the abject failure and scale of suffering following Katrina, there are still concerns that not enough was done to prepare Houston to deal with this level of flooding.
Allegedly lax building rules have allowed the growing city to sprawl onto crucial floodplains. And reports that President Donald Trump had reversed Obama-era flood-risk management regulations just 10 days before the Houston flooding began, in order to speed up infrastructure projects, have provoked questions about what lessons we have failed to learn from the disaster in New Orleans.
The politics of resilience
Natural disasters are notoriously difficult to allocate money for in advance.
We frequently hear warnings that vast areas of cities sitting on key fault lines, such as Istanbul, could be flattened if a big earthquake hits. While progress has been made on earthquake-proofing large infrastructure in the Turkish capital, failure to enforce strict building codes amid explosive urbanization and a construction boom have many worried about the devastating effect the next earthquake could have. Cutting costs for construction speed and profit can become fatal.
However, when it comes to the problems of coastal cities, there is a sharp political dimension to the debate. Climate change is one of the most divisive of political issues. The widespread doubts over climate change science — encouraged by too many leading politicians — make spending on resilient infrastructure more politically challenging.
Despite the clear vulnerability of Texas, a long list of the state's congressmen have expressed doubts about climate change. But Texas, along with Florida and Louisiana, is one of the states most vulnerable to severe flooding.
These challenges in coastal cities will be a test for how far long-term thinking can triumph over short-term pork barrel politics. But as long as leaders see climate change as a "political agenda," raising the political will to stop this happening again will be difficult.
Will the Houston floods be a turning point in the debate over climate change and urban resilience to severe weather? Let's hope so.
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