Nation & World

Up from the ruins, slowly

4 min read

GSD’s Rosenthal on post-disaster rebuilding, ‘resilient cities’

Joyce Klein Rosenthal, an assistant professor at the Graduate School of Design and an instructor in the School’s Risk and Resilience Master in Design concentration, spoke to the Gazette about lessons from past disasters and possible first steps toward rebuilding following the devastation of last Monday’s massive tornado in Moore, Okla.

GAZETTE: After a natural disaster like the tornado that hit Moore, how soon should officials start planning for rebuilding?

ROSENTHAL: It’s hard to pin down, it can be weeks or months, but you have this recovery period where people lost homes and are finding a place to live or are just trying to get in touch with loved ones and let everybody know they’re OK.

After Katrina, there were some urban planners who came in a week or two afterward, saying, “OK, let’s talk about rebuilding,” and it was really too early.

When you do come into this recovery phase, though, there are some precedents that are outstanding. You may remember a couple of years ago, Greensburg, Kan., was virtually wiped off the map by a devastating EF5 tornado. It destroyed homes and businesses, but the whole community came back together and worked with a creative architect, Bob Berkebile, who’s been one of the pioneers of green design. He worked with Greensburg to design better, “to build back better.”

I’m an urban planner who’s really interested in process and that’s why I’m interested in Greensburg. Because it was very much community-based, with multiple charrettes and residents deciding, “OK we have the opportunity to rebuild our whole town, how should we do it?”

GAZETTE: What was good from a planning standpoint about what happened in Greensburg?

ROSENTHAL: When it was the right time — and certainly the week after may not be the right time — but when it was the right time they sat down and had community-based meetings and charrettes and asked, “OK, how are we going to rebuild?” There were a lot of different types of buildings destroyed — schools, businesses, and homes. They did a very green design, but you can also ask questions like, “Will we require that every home have an above-ground, concrete-lined, very heavy-duty shelter?” They really went through an intensive process of public deliberation.

GAZETTE: You teach courses in the risk and resilience concentration. Can you talk a bit about what a resilient city is?

ROSENTHAL: Resilience is a concept with a long history in ecology. Its specific meaning is when an ecosystem is disturbed, it can reach equilibrium again, though perhaps a different equilibrium.

A community might encounter shocks, whether through social conflict, or economic or natural disaster, like the Oklahoma tornado, but they find a way to provide basic services and come back to some level of functioning and stability. Flexibility and redundancy of urban systems are characteristics of resilient cities.

We find that social isolation is a real risk factor in many disasters and social networks are particularly important [in building resilience]. I’m doing research in the Rockaways [in Queens, N.Y., post-Sandy] and you can see where these informal social networks were important, where people had to rely on their neighbors for the first weeks to feed themselves, to meet basic needs.

GAZETTE: Can resilience be planned or designed for?

ROSENTHAL: A lot of designers will say yes, because we know how not to plan for it. If you said, “How can we alienate people or make it more difficult to visit your neighbors?” you might invent an automobile-based, low-density city. You’d make it difficult to cross the street and walk through your neighborhood, especially for senior citizens who might not be able to drive anymore.

If you design small-scale street grids, clusters and mixed uses, urban greens and pedestrian ways, you’ll get more social connections between neighbors. We need to collect more empirical data, but I don’t think there’s any doubt that making it hard to walk makes it difficult to visit your neighbors. Design isn’t the only factor in social connectedness, but it is one worth investigation and experimentation.

There is also a substantial role for urban planners in integrating hazard mitigation, or resilient design, into plans and designs for urban redevelopment. We need to work with communities before disasters to prevent as many hazards as possible and to ensure a healthy recovery.