New Poll Finds Widespread Support for Reforming National Flood Insurance

Residential flooding in Wisconsin / FEMA Photo, Walt Jennings

In a national survey of likely voters, there was widespread support for reforming the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), which some 22,000 communities, covering more than 5 million homes, rely on for basic flood insurance. Of those polled by the Pew Charitable Trusts, some 53 percent said they had been impacted by flooding — either their home or a family member’s, or their place of work, or their community’s infrastructure had been damaged.

In a briefing, Laura Lightbody, project director for flood prepared communities at the Pew Charitable Trusts, said flooding is the “most common and costly natural disaster.” She explained how since 1980, the number of major flood events per year has only increased, and more now cause $1 billion in damages. In total since 1980, flooding has caused more than $260 billion in damages to homes and infrastructure.

Furthermore, according to the U.S. National Climate Assessment, “the risks from future floods are significant, given expanded development in coastal areas and floodplains, unabated urbanization, land-use changes, and human-induced climate change.”

In return for agreeing to regulate land-use in a flood-prone community, NFIP cover the homeowners in that community up to $250,000 for property and $100,000 for personal possessions. Private flood protection is often used to supplement this basic insurance, which is subsidized and costs far less than would comparable baseline private insurance.

After Hurricane Katrina and then later Sandy, NFIP fell into $25 billion in debt. NFIP, which is run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), is up for re-authorization on Capitol Hill. There are new calls to reform the program, as flooding damages will only increase with climate change.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) considers NFIP a “high-risk program” because it’s essentially financially unsustainable. While Congress passed the Biggert-Waters Act in 2011 to “help strengthen the financial solvency of the program, including phasing out almost all discounted insurance premiums (for example, subsidized premiums),” just three years later, it enacted the Homeowner Flood Insurance Affordability Act of 2014 (HFIAA), which reinstated “certain premium subsidies and slowed down certain premium rate increases that had been included in the Biggert-Waters Act.”

The GAO writes: “Aspects of HFIAA were intended to address affordability concerns for certain property owners, but may also increase NFIP’s long-term financial burden on taxpayers.” As NFIP subsidizes communities at high risk of flooding and, in turn, incurs losses, it then borrows from the U.S. Treasury, passing the costs elsewhere.

Some critics of the current subsidized approach argues it encourages development in vulnerable areas. Others argue homes affected by continuous flooding are more often those of the poor and elderly, so raising federal insurance rates too high could mean forcing out whole swaths of communities. And still others argue FEMA, which designates the flood maps that NFIP bases its rates on, has re-mapped higher-risk areas as low-risk to avoid community backlash, but has in turn created more risk because people think they are living in a low-risk area.

Pew Charitable Trusts commissioned Bill McInturff and Lori Weigel with Public Opinion Strategies to poll a representative sample of some 1,000 voters, and found support for the following reforms:

81 percent of likely voters support a “single, national standard to ensure that potential home buyers are aware of whether or not a property has flooded repeatedly, which could mean being required to purchase flood insurance.” Currently, there is no such national standard. But Weigel indicated there is precedent for one: homeowners are now required to let potential home buyers know about higher risks of lead paint in older homes.

82 percent are for requiring the federal government to only build resilient infrastructure in flood-prone areas. Any new or rebuilt infrastructure located in a flood zone should be constructed to better withstand damage. Some 86 percent of those in coastal communities “supported building to a higher, more resilient standard,” said Weigel. Overall, there is widespread support for “flood-ready infrastructure,” which “makes sense to people.”

75 percent would like to relocate homeowners in homes that continuously flood from high-risk areas in order to restore those areas as natural buffers, such as wildlife preserves, beaches, or recreation areas. FEMA would offer these homeowners in those high-risk areas the value of their home at pre-flood rates, so they could purchase a new home in a safer area. FEMA then would work with states and localities to play a role in designating areas for green infrastructure.

64 percent back the idea of requiring communities with more than 50 homes that have continuously flooded to “improve drainage, protect wetlands,” or otherwise prevent flood damage. If they don’t make these improvements, the amount the whole community would pay for insurance would go up. This proposal seems to support using landscape-based solutions to reduce the impacts of persistent flooding, where possible.

Meanwhile, President Trump’s budget blueprint calls for reducing funds for FEMA, which oversees NFIP, by 11 percent. The New York Times reports: “At FEMA, potential cuts would target for reduction an array of grants to state and local governments that have helped fund the development of emergency preparedness and response plans for natural disasters and terrorism-related events.” No word in the blueprint for resilient design funds distributed by the department of housing and urban development (HUD).

Showing Communities How to Live with Floods

DesignWeek Greenville winning team / NCSU master’s of landscape architecture student Rouqing Ke

Inland flooding caused by Hurricane Mathew wreaked havoc in many of eastern North Carolina’s communities. To bring attention to the issue and find new solutions, North Carolina State University (NCSU)’s landscape architecture program created a design competition focused on three towns most affected. Alongside town representatives and students and faculty from the University of North Carolina (UNC) department of city and regional planning and NCSU school of architecture, we worked with professionals from around the region, including leadership from North Carolina emergency management and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Our interdisciplinary teams sought to address the impacts.

During the design competition, DesignWeek: Living with Floods, our team visited Greenville, where Hurricane Matthew brought the Tar River 11 feet higher than safe flood levels, the highest the river has been since Hurricane Floyd in 1999.

We spent the day with the Pitt County planning department learning about their methods for assisting impacted residents. We heard about families who purchased lots inside the 100-year floodplain, only to find themselves in turmoil when they learned the cost to elevate their new home is nearly half the price of the house itself. For families in our study area, the cost to elevate their home consumes 10-12 months of their household income, which averaged $23,500 in 2015. We heard stories about renters and owners without insurance who are left swimming in debt. We listened as county officials put the responsibility on their own shoulders.

We left Greenville understanding that dealing with floods has both social and environmental dimensions, and so the means for change are rooted in the physical and human landscape. We learned that what seemed from the outside like a wholly-environmental problem had layers of complexity related to social equity, historic demographics, land-use patterns, and community perceptions.

A few short days after visiting, teams had concrete ideas at hand. The winners for Greenville looked at how the current policy framework surrounding flood prevention and response could be improved to serve the public at a community scale. The team proposed a collaborative, bottom-up approach to help preserve community cohesion through the process of migration away from risk-prone areas. The new program framework called Community Scale Assisted Migration (CSAM) would build community unity (see image above).

The winning team for the Kinston effort put forward a town master plan that bundled different scales of interventions into a cohesive approach. Their solutions would boost flood prevention, help Kinston’s citizens better understand the causes of flooding, and increase economic development through improvements in livability and recreation.

DesignWeek Kingston winning team/ NCSU master’s of architecture student Giti Kazerooni

In Windsor, the Cashie River runs through the center of town and recurrently floods the main streets and shops, causing structural damage and blocking the main road. Town leaders have considered an option to relocate the entire downtown away from the river, but the winning team’s design solution scaled out to the larger region of eastern North Carolina, offering an approach for upstream retention using “leaking dams” downstream that would create a windrow effect. Also, constructed islands would combat storm surge and multi-functional levees would protect the highest-risk areas.

Each of the design teams created interdisciplinary and innovative solutions that inspired local, state, and federal representatives to see their challenges through new lenses and look at different scales.

Although DesignWeek is over for the students, the ideas now serve as the beginning of a larger response to inland flooding in eastern North Carolina. Faculty from NCSU college of design will continue to work with Windsor, Kinston, Greenville, and state and federal representatives to marshal the power of design in large-scale problem solving.

Increasingly, landscape architects are taking flight far above our traditional scale of practice, and approaching sites as pieces of larger, interconnected systems where the needs and desires of our clients must be weighted against potential impacts to surrounding networks of humans and nature. More than ever, landscape architects are employing principles and tools from landscape ecology, urban planning, social sciences, systems engineering, and data visualization. This transformation in the role of the landscape architect, however real, has not yet captured the public eye and, thus, the value of our profession is more misunderstood than ever.

This guest post is by Adam Walters, Student ASLA, master’s of landscape architecture candidate, North Carolina State University.

Chandigarh: Where Modernism Met India

Chandigarh Revealed / Princeton Architectural Press

Chandigarh, the capital city of the Indian states of Haryana and Punjab, was planned and designed in the 1950s and 60s by French-Swiss master architect Le Corbusier, along with architects Jane Drew, Pierre Jeanneret, and Maxwell Fry, and a host of Indian modernists. Envisioned by India’s founding prime minister Jawahar Lal Nehru, the planned city represented a break with India’s colonial past and embodied a distinctly-Indian form of modernism, rooted in post-independence values of democracy, socialism, secularism, and non-alignment. The city, and other planned modernist cities of the era, told the world India was on its way.

First planned and designed to accommodate some 500,000 people, today, more than a million people live in Chandigarh, as the city has expanded, and slums have taken over areas where the plan was never fully realized. Some 50 years later, Le Corbusier and Nehru’s city appears both glorious and derelict, visionary and an anachronism in Chandigarh Revealed, a fascinating new book by photographer and designer Shaun Flynn.

Chandigarh has been likened to Brasilia, the modernist capital city of Brazil planned and designed by architect Oscar Niemeyer. But whereas Brasilia hosts workers during the day and expels them at night, Chandigarh was designed to be a more livable city full-time, with a primary Capitol complex, and its Legislative Assembly as the focus; commercial districts; parks and plazas; educational, medical, and research institutions; and housing for tens of thousands of government workers.

Chandigarh legislative assembly / Images © Shaun Fynn, from Candigarh Revealed: Le Corbusier’s City Today by Shaun Fynn published by Princeton Architectural Press (2017)
Chandigarh legislative assembly interior / Images © Shaun Fynn, from Candigarh Revealed: Le Corbusier’s City Today by Shaun Fynn published by Princeton Architectural Press (2017)

Chandigarh’s plan is divided into 47 sectors, each 800 by 1,200 meters. Sectors 1-30 were created from 1951-1976, and sectors 31-57 were created from the 1960-1985. Until his death in 1965, Le Corbusier was still designing elements of the site. Flynn’s well-designed infographics really help explain his vision.

Flynn describes in his introduction how government housing is further broken into fourteen categories, each with variations, and “all built according to a hierarchy based on socioeconomic status.”

“The most desirable and lowest-density area are sectors 2-9, which are adjacent to the Capitol complex, while population density increases as the sectors recede from the mountains, the Capitol complex, and Sukhna Lake.” Even in the planned city, it’s all about location — in this case, the proximity to power.

But all buildings were made to a consistent level of quality and with the same attention to detail. Constructed out of concrete and brick, the most cost-effective and freely available local material, the buildings were designed to nest together into a broader plan. And even the smallest apartments — the minimum being 100 square meters — were designed by an architect with care, writes M.N. Sharma, an associate of Le Corbusier and chief architect of Chandigarh from 1965-1979.

According to numerous reports and surveys, the city today has one of the happiest and wealthiest populations in all of India, and the city itself is one of the cleanest. These achievements may be seen as a testament to the legacy of Nehru, Le Corbusier, and his colleagues.

But the state of ruin of many of the buildings can also be seen as a commentary on the lack of progress towards Nehru’s vision of a fully-modern India, with strong, centralized, and efficient government.

Architect Vikramaditya Prakash, who grew up in Chandigarh, writes in his essay about the complexities found in Chandigarh. By the 1970s, the vision of efficient government as embodied in the Capitol complex had died amid “the daily disintegration of the failing Nehruvian nation-state,” and “as endemic corruption, unemployment, and the bloated lethargy of the public sector slowly drained the lifeblood of the nation.”

Chandigarh / Images © Shaun Fynn, from Candigarh Revealed: Le Corbusier’s City Today by Shaun Fynn published by Princeton Architectural Press (2017)

However, in the midst of this national deterioration, “Chandigarh paradoxically prospered.” He writes: “As the rest of the cities of northern India descended into urban miasma, Chandigarh became a haven for the Punjabi elite because the city, particularly as its tree cover matured, offered an unparalleled quality of life.”

Flynn argues there is another narrative on Chandigarh worth exploring: planning, architecture, and nature. Le Corbusier focused on the “care of the mind and body,” which is reflected in not only the buildings, which are rich with Le Corbusier’s symbols and native religious forms, but also in the landscape.

Le Corbusier’s hand symbol on a building / Images © Shaun Fynn, from Candigarh Revealed: Le Corbusier’s City Today by Shaun Fynn published by Princeton Architectural Press (2017)

In his edict, Le Corbusier writes: “The city of Chandigarh is planned to human scale. It puts us in touch with the infinite cosmos and nature. It provides us with places and buildings for all human activities by which the citizens can live a full and harmonious life. Here the radiance of nature and heart are within our reach.”

Nature and architecture intermingle at Chandigarh / Images © Shaun Fynn, from Candigarh Revealed: Le Corbusier’s City Today by Shaun Fynn published by Princeton Architectural Press (2017)

In a transcript of an interview, Sharma concurs, arguing that “to take care of your mind and body, you need recreation so this is a city with open spaces. Old people can walk, children can run around, and then there are paths that are very peaceful. There are also large-scale gardens that many people thought were for the rich, and I told them, no, the Rose Garden is meant for poor people.”

Modernist planning and architecture comes together with parks and tree-lined streets to create a livable Modernism, a garden city for Indians.

From the book, however, it’s unclear how much of Chandigarh’s interesting landscape came from the original designers and how much accrued as new layers later.

Also, while Flynn shoots the buildings designed by Le Corbusier, Jeanneret, Drew, and Fry in a compelling way — giving us a real sense of what it’s like to be in these buildings, walk around them, or even be on top of them — he only gives us glimpses of civic and green spaces, and offers no photographs of people out enjoying the community’s tree-covered streets, parks, the celebrated Zakir Hussein Rose Garden, or the Rock Garden, which is estimated to have received some 12 million visitors.

Chandigarh rose garden / Wikipedia

Examining Flynn’s photographs, one must often look around the corners of buildings and imagine what these landscapes are like in totality.

View of Le Corbusier’s museum / Images © Shaun Fynn, from Candigarh Revealed: Le Corbusier’s City Today by Shaun Fynn published by Princeton Architectural Press (2017)

Le Corbusier was very focused on how buildings and nature must relate. In this book, one hopes for a clearer view of that central relationship.

A Joint Call to Action to Promote Healthy Communities

ASLA 2015 Professional General Design Honor Award. Mill River Park and Greenway. OLIN / Olivier Kpognon

Where we live, work and play can directly impact our physical and mental health. To more aggressively combat negative health factors such as obesity, diabetes, asthma, and anxiety, leaders of the nation’s built environment and public health organizations today pledged their support to promote greater collaboration to advance healthier, more walkable communities.

The “Joint Call to Action to Promote Healthy Communities,” brings together 450,000 professionals who recognize that the built environment — the way a community is designed and built from its buildings and public spaces to how we travel between communities — is a key determinant of health. Working together will create new momentum towards the common objective of creating and sustaining healthy buildings and spaces.

Providing options for how residents want to move around as well as encouraging physical activity can be achieved through a variety of ways. Solutions may include multi-use pathways for walking and biking, Complete Streets policies, equitable and affordable transportation and transit-oriented communities, implementation of green infrastructure, more efficient land, water and resource use, expanded tree canopies, and access to buildings with health-promoting indoor environments.

Improving community health also has a direct economic benefit. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report 86 percent of health care spending in 2010 was for people with one or more chronic medical conditions.

“Public health is at the very heart of the landscape architecture profession,” said Nancy Somerville, Hon. ASLA, executive vice president and CEO of the American Society of Landscape Architects. “ASLA salutes this collaborative call to action and has committed to working with our partners to inspire positive change in the design of the built environment that can yield greater health benefits.”

The “Joint Call to Action to Promote Healthy Communities” specifically addresses four key points:

  • Creating and fostering partnerships that advance health;
  • Building an understanding of health data and establishing measurable health objectives for plans and projects;
  • Advancing policies, programs, and systems that promote community health, well-being and equity; and
  • Communicating the importance of health.

Read the full Joint Call to Action.

Organizations supporting today’s call to action include:

  • American Institute of Architects
  • American Planning Association
  • American Public Health Association
  • American Society of Civil Engineers
  • American Society of Landscape Architects
  • National Recreation and Park Association
  • U.S. Green Building Council
  • Urban Land Institute