Why Smart Urban Design May Save Us from Natural Disasters and Address Social Justice


The stories of loss and destruction that have emerged from extreme weather events and natural disasters illustrate the catastrophic damage that American families are dealing with today.

The numbers are staggering. Last summer, Hurricane Harvey alone caused an estimated 32,000 to lose their homes in the metropolitan Houston area and as many as 82 deaths. Damages are expected to cost between $70 and $108 billion.

Yet not all families suffer equally from these calamities. In Louisiana, those seeking affordable living spaces find them in lower elevations. Low-lying areas are seen as less desirable and, therefore, less expensive. A prime example is New Orleans, which is almost entirely below sea level. When Hurricane Katrina pummeled the city in 2005, the lowest elevations received the most damage. And—no surprise—lower-income minorities lived there and saw the most damage.

Cities like Seattle and Atlanta are becoming more popular places to live, and the price of living there continues to increase. Poorer families, by necessity, get pushed to the outskirts of such cities — outskirts that happen to be located in vulnerable areas often close to industrial lands and cut off from the rest of the community. Physical barriers, which include highways and buildings, create a divide between the wealthier city areas and the poorer areas on the outskirts.

Smart urban design policies can help bring people together as one community—and protect their communities during times of calamity.

Relocating families to safer areas is one option. But it isn’t always the optimal choice. We must respect the deep and historic ties people have with their communities. Relocation would mean taking them away from their established homes.

One of the best solutions is rebuilding neighborhoods through sustainable design. We can use landscape architecture and creative urban design to adapt vulnerable areas to the natural habitat and changing climate conditions.

A great example are the 100 houses built in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. These homes were built by the nonprofit Make It Right in the Lower Ninth Ward, which was hit the worst by Katrina due to its geographic location. Through innovative, resilient design, families were able to return to live in safe housing in their already established communities.

Make It Right Foundation home / MusicforGood.tv

Areas not redeveloped for housing can be turned into parks or natural areas that also protect against natural disasters. To make either of these changes happen, communities need to call on their legislators and members of Congress. They can work with landscape architects to turn these locations into a bridge to bring together wealthy and low-income residents. This kind of unification will help us create a sustainable population.

Over the long term, something called “transactive design thinking” needs to take place—when citizen scientists, or community members who know the area the best, work with lawmakers to get an outcome that is appealing to everyone. Lawmakers must enact laws to create more sustainable areas. To come full circle, citizen scientists must be receptive to these changes and provide feedback to ensure their voice is being heard. They and their fellow community members must also agree with the reconstruction of their green spaces in order for it to be successful.

Recently, I had the pleasure of collaborating on a project to rebuild and transform land damaged during Hurricane Katrina and never restored. I worked with the Sankofa Community Development Corporation (SCDC), a local nonproject, to build the Sankofa Wetland Park.

Sankofa Wetland Trail and Nature Park / Sankofa CDC

SCDC founder Rashida Ferdinand, who is committed to creating an environmentally sustainable community, received a grant from New Orleans to transform two acres of a deteriorated natural area in the Lower Ninth Ward into an educational assimilated wetland park. This site provides the area with many environmental benefits, including restoring habitat for plants and animals as well as cleaning stormwater runoff. In time, we hope that the city sees the benefits of creating this wetland and will allow Ferdinand to expand her project into the intended full 40 acres of vacant land.

As the landscape architect, I visited the proposed site as the first step of our project. A citizen scientist from the neighborhood accompanied me–John Taylor, who has lived in the area his entire life. He not only helped me navigate through the land, but also showed me an underground water channel that I would have never known existed had he not been there.

This is a prime example of why landscape architects need to work with the local residents, who share their extensive knowledge of the area. Their voices ensure we build and rebuild in a way that’s not only right from an environmental and social equity perspective, but that’s also respectful of longstanding local communities.

Natural disasters may be increasing in frequency, but it’s not the number of disasters we should worry about. Instead we should focus on how each disaster continues to get more costly. Families are facing life-changing disasters and despite contrary belief, there are actions we can take to mitigate some of the damages that they face. We must call on policy makers, landscape architects, and communities that are affected the most to enact change.

To this end, the American Society of Landscape Architects has convened a Blue Ribbon Panel to get a jump start on making these changes a reality. In the first quarter of 2018, the panel will release comprehensive public policy recommendations for using resilient design to combat social injustices that occur when natural disasters hit. These recommendations are just the first step with many more to go. Learn more about how we’re developing policy recommendations to safeguard our cities and natural resources for the future.

This guest post is by Diane Jones Allen, ASLA, who has 30-plus years of experience in professional practice focusing on land planning and varied scales of open space and park design, including community development work. Jones Allen is currently the program director for landscape architecture at the college of architecture planning and public affairs at the University of Texas at Arlington. She participated in the American Society of Landscape Architects’ Blue Ribbon Panel on Climate Change and Resilience held September 21-22, 2017.

One thought on “Why Smart Urban Design May Save Us from Natural Disasters and Address Social Justice

  1. R. Gus Drum 04/25/2018 / 3:28 pm

    The catastrophic flooding in New Orleans was due mainly to poorly designed and poorly maintained levees and interior drainage pumping systems. Had the levees held and the pump stations operated correctly, there would have been little damage in the city due to Katrina. All of of the houses in the Ninth Ward should have been raised when first constructed given the risks of levee overtopping due to storm surge, the picture in the article is a good example of what new residential construction in that city should look like. If you want to see real storm-related damages from Katrina take a drive from Waveland, MS to Pascagoula, MS along the coast road (Route 90) and look at the number of very large expensive homes that were built according to NFIP regulations that were swept off their raised foundations. Most of those haven’t been rebuilt thanks to the more stringent regulations put in place by FEMA after Katrina. Hurricanes do not discriminate, but our land development practices do place some segments of our society at a higher level of risk. Harvey’s rainfall was so severe that NOAA officials didn’t want to certify the forecast of 50 inches of rainfall…….beyond the realm of reason. We need to do a better job of designing our coastal communities in the face of potential sea level rise and future storm surges, no one should be made to suffer for where they can afford to live.

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