Time for Change
- Dec 26, 2012
In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, we are once again facing the fallout from what we haven’t done, what we haven’t learned, how we haven’t prepared—and how vulnerable we are when the unexpected occurs. The implications reach into every corner of the built environment: How we construct homes, commercial buildings and infrastructure; where we locate them; how we respond to emergencies; who responds; how we determine which areas of the country merit specific types of attention.
In the coming months, CPE will be examining these questions more closely, but right now one weighs especially heavily on my mind: Do we learn from past mistakes, and are we adequately considering where to apply that knowledge? Sometimes the answer is indeed “yes,” but just as often it seems to be “no.” At times, the issue comes down to a legitimate expense-risk evaluation: What geographic areas and types of buildings are most at risk, and warrant a premium investment? Even when the question is answered in good faith, time sometimes proves the choice to be wrong.
In all too many cases, however, decisions emerge from less admirable reasons: politics, stinginess or plain old human inertia. I’ll plead guilty to the last of those three shortcomings. Since Hurricane Irene hit in August 2011, I’ve been meaning to purchase a generator to provide backup power for my sump pump. Ordinarily I don’t lose power, even during bad storms, so I didn’t make that purchase a priority. But Sandy knocked out my electricity for nine days. Thanks to the low water table, I didn’t have to worry about the sump pump. I got lucky—this time.
Depending on luck, though, is a dangerous game, all the more so when enormous numbers of lives and businesses are at stake. And given the vast body of knowledge about risk mitigation, much more must be done to reduce the terrible price paid in lives, property, time and treasure. Sandy’s impact on the New York and New Jersey coastlines made me think of the way that Hilo, Hawaii, retooled its urban planning after a devastating 1960 tsunami, its second such disaster in just 14 years. The city embraced inward expansion, limiting the coastline to green space and memorials. Meanwhile, in the 50 years since, development has proliferated along the eastern coastline of the U.S. mainland, especially in the Northeast. Granted, we may not be prone to tsunamis, but hurricanes are widely expected to become stronger and more frequent in the coming years.
As Hilo can attest, wholesale alterations to city planning and infrastructure are easier to achieve after serious damage. But waiting for such “opportunities” comes at a high cost. In his keynote address at the Urban Land Institute’s Fall Meeting in October, Enrique Penalosa, president of the board of the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy of New York, argued convincingly that most cities have evolved in the wrong direction. Sandy should be our cue to heed history and take steps toward genuine change.
Suzann D. Silverman, Editorial Director