Pratt Opinion: Urban Planning Is Like a Game Show

By Duke University Civil and Environmental Engineering Professors Ana Barros, Miguel Medina, Henri Gavin and Karl Linden, and Duke Lecturer Leta Huntsinger, Program Manager, Institute for Transportation Research and Education, North Carolina State University.

This opinion piece was compiled from a panel discussion held Oct. 4 titled "Engineering Paradigms for Natural Hazards." View the panel discussion online.

Panelists, from l to r: Dean Kristina Johnson, Josh Sommer, Ana Barros, Leta Huntsinger, Roni Avissar (at podium), Miguel Medina, Henri Gavin, Karl Linden

The essence of the American Dream is that we can live where we want, pursue our own interests, and spin the wheel of chance to try to make it big. But our highly individualistic, risk-tolerant approach to life falls short when it comes to urban planning.

We the “public” are just not so great at championing the greater good when faced with real expenses that impact us today as individuals. Too ready to gamble that the worst won’t happen, we invest as little as possible in public works projects.

Need some convincing? The American Society of Civil Engineers rates the quality and health of the nation’s infrastructure–— our roads, energy and water supplies, waste treatment, schools, security, etc.–— with a dismal grade of “D.” Such systems are surprisingly fragile–— a single failure can cascade and affect other systems. ASCE estimates the price tag to provide the nation with “A” quality infrastructure is a staggering $1.6 trillion investment.

What needs to change? We need to stop believing that the most recent disaster is the LAST disaster. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastated us. The storms battered and overwhelmed the engineering infrastructure that makes our lifestyles possible–— roads, power, clean water, sewage and waste treatment. What’s more, meteorologists predict we will have a decade of strong hurricanes. Are we prepared? Clearly not.

New Course
“Natural Catastrophes: Rebuilding”

Next semester, Pratt will offer an interdisciplinary, service-learning seminar course for undergraduate, graduate and professional engineering students titled “Natural Catastrophes: Rebuilding.”

The course will conduct a life cycle analysis of natural disasters. Invited experts will discuss the meteorological and hydrogeological forces that cause the disaster, how societies respond to the immediate and long-term physical, social, emotional and spiritual issues associated with surviving the event, and actual respondents will present case studies of response, recovery and reconstruction efforts.

We need to become less cavalier about risk and work towards urban development that is sustainable. We’ve got to ask ourselves: does it make sense to build in places that are persistently vulnerable to natural hazards? And if we’re stubbornly determined to build, are we willing to pony up the price to build an infrastructure resilient enough to withstand the worst that can happen, waiving standard engineering design practices in the presence of probable loss of life scenarios?

Risk is a difficult concept to understand, and researchers, engineers, urban planners and city council members need to work harder to explain risk in terms that the public can relate to. For example, it might seem appropriate to build a storm water runoff drainage system in high-risk locations capable of handling peak predicted flooding based on a 50-year historical record. But the situation looks different if the 200-year climate cycle indicates we’re about due for catastrophic flooding.

We “the public” need to do our part by participating in our government. That means attending public meetings, doing the hard work to understand and digest the recommendations of technical experts, and choosing the most responsible and appropriate course of action–— not just the cheapest.

Another part of the problem is how we use risk assessment in urban planning. It’s not enough to do a risk assessment at the start of a public works project, check it off the list of project requirements and move on. We change our urban environments constantly–— putting new, different and just more strain on engineered systems that weren’t designed to handle the load. Our wastewater treatment systems are commonly overwhelmed by stormwater inflow during heavy rain events, yet no one wants to pay for a treatment system designed for this occasional load or one that is sized for a population of 100,000 when they live in a town of 50,000. We need to better plan for future growth and the realities of the climate.

And we absolutely must start factoring the environment into our disaster planning. Although “tree-hugger environmentalists” are often ignored in the midst of a crisis, look at this issue from a different perspective: If bioterrorists attacked New Orleans, would we just move the toxic chemicals to a more convenient location? Yet we pumped unknown contaminants into Lake Pontchartrain without even considering containment, isolation of toxic substances, or bringing wastewater treatment plants back into service first.

And finally, we need to factor in our own very unpredictable human nature into our risk assessments. People do unexpected things when they are under stress, as evidenced by the unprecedented exodus from Houston of over 2 million people, and our disaster recovery plans need to take this into account.

For many of us, the tragedy of the 9/11 terrorist attacks forever changed our sense of security. This year’s hurricane disasters need to motivate us and our lawmakers to change how we invest in our country’s basic infrastructure, each other and our collective sustainable future.