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  • Writer's pictureCJ DiMaggio

How to design soft cities for a hard future

Updated: Jul 28, 2020

Simplify. Simplify.

How quickly can a community spring back from a disaster?

Sadly, more and more, we’re finding out that the answer is slowly, if at all.

As climate change makes disasters worse and more frequent -- from hurricanes to wildfires -- communities are being forced to take a hard look at what kinds of investments help them recover and what kinds of investments actually hinder their recovery.

Recovery boils down to resilience. Is a community’s infrastructure able to rebound on its own, or are costly repairs needed?

Resilient infrastructure mimics natural systems. Natural systems can recover on their own, if given enough time. Just as a forest naturally springs back after a wildfire. Green shoots pop up after only a few weeks or months. Or a coastal city surrounded by healthy wetlands, which can absorb the shock of a big storm, soak up flooding, and slowly drain flood waters away.

Human-engineered systems aren’t usually like that, though it sure would be nice if they were. Imagine a building that picked itself up after an earthquake. Or a dam that patched itself after it sprung a leak. Perhaps someday we’ll have fleets of drones and self-driving bulldozers that harness AI to build and repair our infrastructure without us lifting a finger.

But for now, we’re stuck with what we have. Most of the infrastructure we’ve built over the past century is actually the opposite of resilient. It’s brittle. Fragile, even. It needs to be repaired after every disaster, and it needs expensive maintenance the rest of the time. Take California’s Oroville Dam -- the tallest dam in the United States -- which almost collapsed after heavy winter rains in 2017, forcing almost 200,000 people from their homes.

Just repairing the dam cost nearly ten times what it cost to build the dam fifty years earlier.

You would think that any investment in infrastructure would improve a community’s health and safety rather than put it at greater risk, but often that’s just not the case. Rigid, brittle infrastructure is more liability than asset.

That’s why it’s high time more cities and towns took a close look at how communities on both ends of the wealth scale have managed to increase their resilience without burdening themselves with needless expense.

It’s a phenomenon that has largely gone unnoticed: wealthy communities and much less affluent communities pursuing the same strategy for staying resilient.

Take a close look at the graph above. It’s not based on actual city budgets, but it helps to explain the trap that a lot of communities find themselves in and how others have managed to escape that trap.

On the left side of the graph, communities with modest means avoid unnecessary spending on brittle infrastructure, mostly out of necessity. They don’t have a large tax base to support it, so they don’t bother. A subsistence community in bush Alaska might be a good example. They can’t build roads or sidewalks because of frost heave. Every house has its own septic system, so there’s no need for a wastewater treatment plant. There’s no municipal airport, since small planes land either on the water or on a simple gravel strip that can be regraded in a couple hours. When disaster strikes -- a heat wave, or a fierce blizzard, or an earthquake -- there’s little or no infrastructure to crack or break or repair. Costs are low, but resilience is high.

On the right side of the graph, an affluent community intentionally avoids expensive infrastructure because residents find it detrimental to their quality of life. The community chooses to cultivate a simpler, more rustic appearance that affirms their lifestyle values.

Take the coastal resort town of Carmel, California. Outside of a small downtown area, there are no sidewalks. Streets are narrow, and storm water runs out to sea through natural swales and gullies rather than underground pipes. There are no streetlights, but property crime is almost non-existent. The median house price is nearly five times the national median, but even though its tax base could more comfortably support expensive infrastructure than other communities, the town politely declines.

Two streets in Camarillo, California: the one on the left is friendly to cars. The one on the right is friendly to pedestrians.

This is not to suggest that either community is perfect. We know that poor rural communities face many social and economic challenges and that affluent communities struggle with issues of wealth inequality and economic justice. Nor is it to suggest that poverty is correlated with resilience. Hurricanes Katrina, Irma and Harvey disproportionately affected poorer communities in flood-prone areas with underfunded, substandard infrastructure.

But for very different reasons, both communities decided to simplify their needs, and in so doing they maximized their resilience. Things can still go wrong in either place, but they can rebuild faster and cheaper than those of us stuck in the middle.

Why pave paradise? A street in downtown Hana, Maui, Hawaii with narrow lanes and soft shoulders.

Those of us in middle-income communities pay a lot for infrastructure but get little resilience in exchange. We’re like those downstream of Oroville Dam. Our auto-centered, suburban lifestyles make us dependent on expensive infrastructure -- freeways, sound walls, wide streets, flood control channels, and underground pipes that constantly need to be repaired and replaced. We pay a fortune to maintain all this infrastructure, and when disaster strikes we pay a fortune again to replace it.

Huge costs, little resilience. It’s an enormous waste.

The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that the United States needs to spend about $4.5 trillion over the next five years to fix the country's roads, bridges, dams and other infrastructure. But with astronomical debts and deficits at every level of government, where is even a fraction of that funding going to come from?

Households certainly don’t have that kind of money, either. Homeownership is declining in more and more cities as they become less and less affordable. Asking residents to shoulder the costs of unsustainable infrastructure isn’t just unreasonable. It’s unethical.

Our hard infrastructure has proliferated because it’s often the path of least resistance, literally. It’s often easier to design and build a concrete sidewalk than one using softer natural materials. Also, many designers reflexively assume that the Americans with Disabilities Act mandates hardscape everywhere, which couldn’t be further from the truth. They’re right to make accessibility a priority, but they’re wrong to think hardscape ensures accessibility and safety. Hardscape actually forces disabled pedestrians to enter or exit a sidewalk only at intersections, where conflicts with vehicles are more likely. And when it inevitably buckles and cracks, pedestrians get hurt.

Having watched my own father -- a civil engineer -- lose his ability to walk because of ALS, I would be the last to suggest cutting corners with accessibility. But I would be the first to point out that the enormous expense of building sidewalks to nowhere diverts scarce funding from where it can really enhance accessibility -- like retrofitting public buildings and parks or improving paratransit.

The softer city is a safer city for everyone. It has walkable neighborhoods. It has a more natural mix of street surfaces and uses. Residential streets are narrow, blending into soft shoulders of loose gravel or compacted earth. The pedestrian meanders around the occasional tree or parked car rather than along a sidewalk inches away from rushing cars. Better able to get water and nutrients than they can in the middle of concrete sidewalks, street trees form a healthier urban forest that improves air quality. By gently raising the street pavement here and there, their roots even provide natural speed bumps, calming traffic.

And it’s not just small towns. Even some of the biggest cities can reap the benefits of softer infrastructure.

On the typical summer day, Phoenix, Arizona has hundreds of miles of concrete sidewalks roasting in the sun without a pedestrian in sight. But rain or shine, dawn to dusk, one of the city’s sidewalks stays busy 365 days a year.

It’s called the Murphy Bridle Path, and it’s beloved by joggers and dog-walkers and everyone in-between. It’s in the heart of the city, on the city’s central avenue, surrounded by some of the city’s most affluent neighborhoods -- and it isn’t concrete or asphalt. It’s just loose gravel.

Resilience is really a package deal. It can be by choice or by necessity.

But when a community chooses resilience, it is choosing a safer, more sustainable future.

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