Kevin Shanley, FASLA, is CEO of SWA Group and a long-time resident of Houston.
You were recently in Washington, D.C. speaking at the Renewable Natural Resources Foundation on improving the resiliency of our coasts in an effort to protect them from increasingly damaging storms and sea-level rise brought on by climate change. In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, this is an issue on the minds of just about everybody who lives on the coast. What were the lessons of this disaster?
There are several lessons. There are real-world lessons and then “should-be” lessons. The real-world lesson is that everybody is at risk. These storms don’t just happen to Florida or Bangladesh. They can hit New York City. The storm could have hit Washington, D.C., with disastrous results. We’re not ready.
The other lesson we need to learn is quite important: we forget really quickly. Katrina happened, now eight years ago. Some structural changes were made to the levee system, but all of the really great plans to re-build New Orleans as a more sustainable community, a better community, a more integrated community came to nothing. In Houston in 2008, Hurricane Ike was a near miss. The SSPEED Center at Rice University is involved with this and has been working to make sure we don’t forget what happened with Ike. If Ike had come in, it would have been a disaster ten-fold Katrina. It didn’t, so we were lucky. It swerved about sixty miles to the east and it literally wiped the Bolivar Peninsula clean, virtually every structure on the peninsula was gone. It went up Chambers County, an agricultural community, and created huge damage, but relatively light because there’s nobody there, which is a lesson to learn.
The challenge after Sandy is to ask ourselves what’s the next thing that’s going to distract everybody? In 2001, Houston was hit not with a hurricane but with a really amazing tropical storm called Allison. It dumped thirty inches of rain in twenty-four hours. It flooded seventy-five thousand homes and ninety five thousand cars. It was an amazing flood. It actually tracked all the way up to Canada. Post-Allison, many good things started to happen and a number actually did happen. There were bigger policy changes and changes that many of us were working on, but then in September 2001, guess what happened? The national attention, the local attention, everybody’s attention totally changed and a lot of policy-changing momentum was lost.
So will there be a diversion from Sandy? Yes. North Korea is percolating, and, now we’re focused on whether or not something terrible will happen there?” As is the case with media and big events, each successive one diverts energy and intellectual focus from the present problem—in this case, Hurricane Sandy. Sandy will be forgotten in the national attention, and unfortunately at the local level, attention might diminish as well. While there will be some good policy people working at it, and the number of people personally affected won’t forget, our national focus on Sandy will fade. In some respects, the recovery is amazing. The human species is amazingly resilient. The Bolivar Peninsula was wiped clean. Today, you wouldn’t know it. People have rebuilt right there in exactly the same place. It’s phenomenal. The key is finding a way to rebuild strategically and learn lessons from these disasters to shape our future plans. We also need to find a way to take a long-term view on many of these problems.
The New York Times reported that New York Governor Andrew Cuomo wants to spend $400 million to buy up homes in New York City, demolish them, and then preserve the flood-prone land as undeveloped coastline. The idea is to spend some big bucks to turn some coastal areas into wetland or parkland. Does this approach make sense? Can this model be realistically scaled-up elsewhere in the U.S.? What are the alternatives?
It’s a potentially very powerful tool. Speaking globally, the British and Dutch have been at it for decades. It’s called “managed retreat.” It’s about getting out of harm’s way. FEMA has been funding buyouts like that for a while now. It’s a really good program to remove the most at-risk structures, particularly federally-insured structures that time after time are repeat sinks for federal flood insurance claims.
What needs to be thought about, however, if you’re talking about scaling it up, is how to replace the economic value of the development that’s being removed from harm’s way. It’s about the loss of tax revenue. There are sales taxes based on the occupants, all kinds of revenue to the community. This revenue pays for schools, sewer systems, security, and all of the other things that we take for granted in government. Coastal real estate is expensive because it’s attractive. If you take that out of the equation, you’ve got to be ready to think how to replace that. That’s the challenge facing all of us. Great ecological strategies need to be considered economically, and vice versa.
New York City seems to be seriously considering using “soft” green infrastructure instead of “hard” infrastructure, like hugely expensive seawalls, to protect against another disaster. In a recent Metropolis magazine piece, Susannah Drake, ASLA, ASLA NY Chapter president, described soft infrastructure as “transforming the waterfront from a definitive boundary into a subtly graded band.” The Dutch are already moving ahead with this kind of infrastructure, having seen the ecological damage caused by hard infrastructure. Will American policymakers ever buy into this?
Soft green infrastructure along coastal fringe areas can play a really important role in restoring ecological functions to our coastlines. Our coastlines have been severely degraded from an ecological performance standpoint. Green infrastructure as protection for urban areas needs really serious science and engineering studies to figure out the effectiveness of the interventions across different scenarios. Just how effective is a coastal marsh of several hundred yards wide? We’re not talking about miles wide. We’re talking probably several hundred yards or hundreds of feet. What is the benefit to, say, Manhattan? How does that compare to other strategies? Can we take a blended approach to soften our edges and create redundant and resilient strategies?
I’ve seen some beautiful renderings of the edge of Manhattan as it could be. There would be dramatic changes in ecological performance and a transformation in public perception about the city as a green place. There are a lot of wonderful aspects to this. But from a surge and hurricane risk-protection standpoint, we need to be careful not to set up false expectations. To what extent do coastal marshes protect us when a surge comes in that is 15 or 20 feet above those marshes? The green infrastructure could impede the wave action and the movement of the water or even exacerbate the run-up of a surge in shallow waters. The Gulf Coast of the North American continent has a long, shallow coastal run-up, which tends to exacerbate wind-driven surge.
We need to ask specific questions about where the benefits are. We need to ask our scientists, engineers, policymakers, and economists if we are looking at increased sea-level rise rates that are projected to be about a meter every 100 years (three feet every 100 years). Also, rising water levels drown coastal marshes. That’s what has happened in the Galveston Bay complex. Because of subsidence caused by groundwater withdrawal, we lost square miles of emergent coastal marsh. The bottom dropped out and it drowned the marshes. How does this progression work? One can say, “Well, the marsh will just march inland.” Well, will it? Does the actual geography allow it to just march inward? Will there be a period where there’s nothing and then it has to get above a small bluff elevation? Those are important questions to ask if we’re talking about putting really significant resources into this green infrastructure approach to improving coastal resiliency.
Respected scientists argue that sea levels could rise four feet by 2100. If any of the recent hurricanes to hit the U.S. had occurred at higher sea levels, the damages would have been that much more extensive and costly to repair. What are you hearing about seal level rise? How does this change the timeline for action on improving coastal resiliency?
Sea level rise is like watching the hour hand move. We are like grammar school students: the hour hand doesn’t seem to move during class. Our time horizons are measured in just a few years at best. If we’re forward-thinking, we might think out 10 years. The meaningful impacts of sea level rise, the really serious impacts are happening right now, but this is a process that’s been going on for thousands of years, millennia, actually millions of years.
Are anthropomorphic forces going to increase the rate of change? It’s a really good question and there are certainly many scientists who think that the burning of all this fossil fuel is increasing carbon dioxide, which is increasing the temperature of the globe, which is melting the icecap and raising sea levels. Will public policymakers be able to think out beyond a year or even 10 years to 100-year thresholds? The dialogue is there, but I don’t see it coming down to meet real public policy changes yet.
There are outliers in the predictive scientific community who suggest the possibility that if the Greenland icecap, which is the big gorilla in the room, increased its rate of melt or disintegrated due to some threshold that we’re not sure about, sea levels could rise very rapidly within an individual’s lifetime. It could be a disaster. Would we be prepared for that? Absolutely not. As somebody who thinks about public policy, I think we should be running scenarios. We are uncertain as to the disposition of our climate and sea levels. When you’re not sure of something you should be thinking about different scenarios. You should be thinking “Well, what if it’s only three feet in 100 years? What do I need to do? But what if it’s six feet? What if it’s 10 meters, 30 feet, in 100 years? What should I do?” This dialogue should be occurring so that if the natural world presents us with an existential challenge at least some part of the community has been grappling with it and may have some appropriate paths to take.
You’ve been a long-time advocate for using natural systems to deal with water. In a recent article in The Huffington Post you write that Houston and other cities along the Galveston Bay rely on “antiquated storm-protection techniques and land practices doomed to repeated failures.” What’s needed are “policy shifts rooted in a natural systems-approach that work with nature’s tremendous forces.” What’s holding back these policy shifts? Where are the biggest obstacles at the federal and local levels?
The biggest obstacle is the lack of public awareness. FEMA creates flood-risk maps or flood insurance rate maps. In the coastal areas of North America they are woefully inadequate. FEMA realizes that and they’re in the process of updating them. In our region we haven’t seen the updates. We’re waiting with bated breath. We’re not sure we’ll entirely agree with their characterization of risk. Large swaths of the community rely on this public information to advise them about the level of risk. They look at the maps and say “I’m not at risk,” whereas actual surge models being prepared show huge areas are at risk. So, first there has to be clear science that determines what defines the level of risk.
Second, there needs to be clear communication about the risks. That can be through things like flood insurance rate maps, but it also needs to be through public education and policy. There needs to be clear disclosure on every real estate transaction. There was an effort in the Clear Lake City area, which is in the Houston metro region where NASA’s Johnson Space Center is located. They actually put up signs, little colored pylons, that indicated “This is the water level for a category four storm. This is the water level for a category five storm.” These little pylons were 10 feet tall and very clear. You see it there and you would wonder, “Gee, should I buy a house here?” or certainly “Gee, should I make sure I renew my flood insurance?” A local politician, at the behest of the real estate community, insisted they be taken down.
Beyond research you’ve also made these natural systems work in real-world landscapes. The Buffalo Bayou Promenade in Houston really set the example for how to turn a trash-soaked eyesore into a beautiful piece of parkland that also supports flood control. Houston seems to really understand the value of this kind of multi-use infrastructure. What led to the changes in Houston’s approach to its waterways and green space?
Houston is just beginning to learn the value of its waterfront real estate and for Houston it’s the value of our rivers and streams (we call them bayous).
A lot of cities around the country are actually way ahead of Houston in having recognized that value, whether it’s a coastal waterfront or a river waterfront. In Houston, the new riverfront has been the result of years of work by lots of individuals, non-profit organizations, and government agencies. Each main bayou in the city has its own citizen advocacy organizations. Some of them are fairly significant and have permanent staff, whereas others are purely volunteer citizen groups. There have been willing ears in the public agencies. More recently, there has been support at an elected official-level, including a very supportive mayor right now. That’s very encouraging. But we have a long ways to go. We’re just starting on this effort. We have 2,000 miles of open stream channels in Harris County alone, so we’re just beginning.
You’ve done a lot of work in China. What is your impression about how they are approaching coastal resiliency? Is there a uniquely Chinese approach to these issues that we can learn from in the West?
The universe of what’s going on in China is amazing. You might think “Ah, Beijing controls everything. They can tell everyone what to do.” Well, it actually doesn’t work like that. The local government officials can have a surprising amount of independence and resistance to federal or provincial policies. There’s that normal political friction that happens between different units of government. Good policies are being generated at the federal level, at the Beijing level; good policies are being generated at provincial levels. Good policies and projects are being implemented at local municipal levels. That’s exciting news.
The country is doing great wetlands restoration projects. Wetland parks are all the rage across China. Kongjian Yu, FASLA, principal at Turenscape and professor at Beijing University, probably has a dozen wetland parks on his desk in his office at any given time. We’re working on a number of them. It puts to shame anything we’re doing here. On the other hand, one has to balance that against the unbelievable rate of urbanization and its impact on the environment in China. It’s maybe only a drop in the bucket toward mitigating the impacts of urbanization that are going on right now.
The good thing is they’re very interested in the topic. The people that we work with, which is a very self-selected group who are willing to pay a foreign consultant to come and advise them, are already interested. I have a biased view… I could paint this rosy picture of China because we go over there and we are talking to people that share our environmental values. But there are many who don’t share those values and that are in business just like in any country anywhere in the world. They’re just trying to add value and sell that value and profit and move on to the next project.
You take the whole climate issue in China. China’s doing some of the most progressive carbon-capture energy production in the world. For a while, they were the largest producer of solar cells. They’re the largest producer of wind generating equipment. There are all these sort of extremes of what they are doing. Yet in the global sense, they’re producing more carbon dioxide than anybody on a more rapid basis. They’re increasing their carbon and energy footprints. They’re still below us on a per-capita basis, but they’re working very hard to catch up to our own huge footprints. So you will find a really mixed bag in China.
What can we learn from China? We ought to be studying what they are doing right and trying to learn from their successes. To the extent they’re interested in partnering so they can learn from us, we ought to be sharing those solutions with them. It’s a wild ride, like a rollercoaster, and one who’s end we can’t see from our vantage point.
Image credits: (1) Kevin Shanley, FASLA / SWA Group, (2) Hurricane Ike damage at the Bolivar Peninsula / Bryan Carlile, Beck Geodetix, (3) Galveston Texas Galveston Island State Park near the gulf of Mexico / Chris Cornwell. Flickr, (4) ASLA 2009 General Design Award of Excellence. Buffalo Bayou Promenade. SWA Group / Bill Tatham, (5) Fuyang Waterfront Park / SWA Group
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