With Resilient Design, We Can Better Protect Our Communities from Wildfires

Washington state wildfire / Wikipedia

This year, the Pacific Northwest saw an extraordinary fire season, with approximately 35 fires raging in Washington, Oregon, and Northern California by mid-September. While there is an immediate knee-jerk reaction to fires as entirely negative, wildfires are in fact a very natural part of the life cycle of forests. In addition to removing undergrowth so sunlight can reach the forest floor and new plants can grow, some plants, such as the lodgepole pine, even require fire to germinate and sprout.

What is so unusual about this year’s season is how long it has lasted: a full seven months. An unusually dry summer in a region known for rain, combined with a strong ridge high pressure that settled over the Pacific Northwest heating air and blocking storms from entering, resulted in dried-out plants and created the perfect environment for fires. In 2017, we have already spent more in national funds to combat the fires than in any other year on record, and the year isn’t yet over.

Similar to the hurricanes battering the East Coast this season, these events would be considered normal individually, if it were not for the acceleration of their natural cycles, creating increased numbers that are larger in scope. Looking at the total picture, the acceleration of these cycles is where we can see the inevitable consequences of climate change at work.

Living in Seattle, I have seen the effects of these fires firsthand. Getting up one morning this summer after having left the window open overnight, I went into my dining room and discovered that the wind had covered it entirely with ashes. Despite not being exposed to an active fire, the visible effects continued to blanket our city. And it’s not just the visible effects. Ash and smoke particulates in the air can cause breathing problems, especially for sensitive populations including those with heart and lung diseases such as asthma. Though fires may not be blazing downtown, they are have impacted the lives of everyone living in the Pacific Northwest and beyond.

Even if you don’t live in the Pacific Northwest, the fires are affecting you too, though you may not know it. The ash and smoke from the fires are not just settling on our cities, but also being lofted into the atmosphere and spreading around the globe. In this map created by NASA, you can see the ash and smoke from the Pacific Northwest fires drifting across the earth, reaching as far as Europe and Northern Africa. And due to their carbon gas emissions, the wildfires themselves contribute to accelerated climate change worldwide. While climate incidents like these can be “out of sight, out of mind” for those not actively experiencing them, the earth is a closed system: climate incidents that impact some of us, impact all of us.

So with climate change here to stay, how can we mitigate its impact to make our cities and dwellings safer? Landscape architecture can provide solutions to some of the problems posed by climate change. For example, better urban design can help reduce the sprawl at the intersection of urban and natural space, which is now in the most in danger of devastation from wildfires. For those already living at these intersections, landscape management of individual properties can help mitigate those hazards.

One such solution is to create a “defensible space” around homes at these intersections. These spaces create a barrier to impede wildfires from reaching homes, room for firefighters to maneuver if needed, and prevent fires in the home from spreading into the wild. Defensible space tactics can include reducing plant fuels around the home, incorporating fuel breaks such as gravel, and ensuring that all trees are cleared to 6-10 feet off the ground.

Careful selection of plants, too, can have an impact at these intersections. Plants that shed minimal amounts of leaves and needles provide less fuel for fires. Trees with low resin and sap content are also considered less likely to burn. Finally, native plants may be more fire-resistant or fire-adapted than non-native species. Over the last 30-40 years, we have gained an increased understanding of the environmental importance of using native plants in landscapes. But with climate change, we must also plan for a “different kind of native,” selecting plants with an eye towards the future, as current native species may not thrive in the environment as it changes.

This is where research and forward-thinking are most critical. Greater focus and funds towards researching the anticipated effects of climate change on an area allows us to plan for “new native” species that will thrive in their changing environment.

We must call on national agencies managing resources to do so with an eye towards the future, conducting research and careful planning to ensure that our natural resources and our built environments are protected. While the effects of climate change are inevitable, what matters now is finding ways to adapt to these new circumstances. You can see great work being done by the National Park Service in this area, preparing our natural treasures to survive and thrive in a world of accelerated natural cycles.

Tackling the problems posed by climate change can be overwhelming, but humans are highly adaptable species, and there are measures we can and should take to protect our future. That’s why the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) has convened a blue ribbon panel of multidisciplinary experts to create innovative solutions that will make our cities and inhabited spaces climate resilient. The report will provide comprehensive public-policy recommendations for using resilient design to combat climate change. Learn more about how we’re developing policy recommendations to safeguard our cities and natural resources for the future.

This post is by Vaughn Rinner, FASLA, immediate past president of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) and a landscape architect with 40 years of experience.

Life after Harvey and Irma: How Will We Rebuild Our Cities?

ASLA 2014 Professional General Design Honor Award. Hunter’s Point South, Queens, New York. Thomas Balsley Associates and Weiss/Manfredi / © Albert Večerka

Hurricanes Harvey and Irma might have passed by, but their consequences haven’t. Vast areas of Texas and Florida were devastated, and we’re only starting to assess the damage they left in their paths. Not only are natural disasters becoming more frequent, but they are hitting us with greater force. If you turned on the news in the past two weeks to view the coverage, you’ve seen firsthand that our nation’s cities have not been built with an eye to for resilience in the face of extreme climate events; the scale of the damages and displaced are evidence of that.

Now that tragedy has hit Texas and Florida, we can either dwell on the past and play the blame-game, or we can look to the future and decide to rebuild the affected cities in a way that will minimize the damage when another natural disaster hits – because it will.

Infrastructure and foresight are central to rebuilding efforts. As communities rebuild from disasters such as Harvey and Irma, they have an opportunity to invest in and adapt their landscapes to meet the changing climate conditions. This includes transportation and land planning that integrates green infrastructure to provide critical services for communities, protect against flooding and excessive heat, and help to improve air and water quality.

Taking action now and rebuilding our nation’s cities the right way can reduce damage resulting from future natural disasters.

We know how to do this. An excellent example of resilient design is Hunter’s Point South Waterfront Park. Built in Queens, New York, it addresses urban resilience and sustainability. The City of New York commissioned the designers, Thomas Balsley Associates and Weiss/Manfredi, to create a park with an infrastructure ready to withstand rising water levels during storm surges and 100-year flood conditions.

The park quickly proved why planning meant everything. Even before it was publicly open, Hurricane Sandy hit New York and the park in 2012. While the Big Apple suffered the consequences of Sandy, Hunter’s Point South drained as planned and completion of the project continued with little setback. Landscape architecture projects such as Hunter’s Point South demonstrate how innovative design can create sustainable and resilient urban environments.

The consequences of climate change are inevitable. We urge federal, state, and local policy makers to invest in thoughtful and climate-resilient solutions to systemic infrastructure issues. That’s why ASLA is convening a multidisciplinary blue ribbon panel of experts to create actionable recommendations. The 11 experts will meet on Thursday, September 21, through Friday, September 22, 2017, and publicly present their findings and policy recommendations in the form of a report in January 2018.

Our hope is that the findings and recommendations of this report will inspire our decision makers to take action as we rebuild our cities and prepare for intensifying natural disasters.

This post is by Nancy Somerville, Hon. ASLA, Executive Vice President and CEO, American Society of Landscape Architects