Cities as Sitting Ducks

09/07/2017 10:16 am ET

Two major world cities – Houston and Mumbai – have suffered catastrophic flooding and both face the question: what next? While many people will return to their homes and businesses and repair the damage that the floodwaters caused, many others – renters who do not have property of their own, homeowners who lacked flood insurance – will not have a place to return to or the means to pay for repairs of the property they do own. A substantial number of Houstonians will find themselves in a situation all too common in Mumbai: living in temporary quarters or occupying informal settlements, unable to afford more permanent shelter.

Permanent shelter, though, may be part of the problem. For most of human history, we did not seek permanent shelter; people lived nomadic lives and carried their shelter with them, as Plains Indians did with their Tipi’s, or constructed new shelter as they went, like the Navajo people with their Hogans. While such structures may seem primitive – although not too different from the camps that will likely emerge in Houston and grow in Mumbai – the ability of people to move their shelter also enabled them to move away from storms and to let the natural defenses of the land, such as dunes and wetlands, buffer the impact of waves and floodwater.

The modern emphasis on permanence – permanent building, permanent infrastructure – has made everyone living in low-lying, flood-prone areas sitting ducks in the face of increasingly frequent and severe storms. Unlike native people, we have carved up the land into fixed structures and fenced-off pieces of property, inhibiting our ability to disperse across the landscape; we have paved over wetlands, destroying their capacity to absorb flood water; and we have created acres and acres of impervious surfaces, heightening flood levels and speeding up water currents. And when we do try to move away from storms, as happened in Houston in the face of Hurricane Rita a dozen years ago, we funnel cars onto limited access highways, whose subsequent congestion slows the evacuation to a crawl.

Cities like Houston and Mumbai occupy their low-lying, water-front locations for strategic, commercial reasons, and people will continue to want to live and work in those locations, regardless of the threat of severe storms and coastal flooding. But the residents of these cities do not need to be such sitting ducks, repairing buildings only to watch them flood again when the next 100-year or 500-year storm comes in a decade or two. We might learn from native people – and the native wildlife – and begin to build and rebuild in ways more adaptable to the conditions such places will face in the years ahead.

Instead of sitting ducks, for example, what about living more like real ducks and float with the rising water? Other water-challenged cities have begun to construct settlements, like the IJburg neighborhood in Amsterdam, with floating houses, moored to docks and able to rise and fall with the water level. In warm places like Houston and Mumbai, such structures might spend most of their time on the ground, but their ability to float rather than flood makes them a better long-term investment, and since many homes and businesses will have to be completely rebuild anyway, why not begin to reconstruct these cities on a whole new, floatable foundation?

Or, we might think of ourselves like the mighty ducks and measure our strength according to how well we move. In an era of mobile devices, in which our “address” refers as much to our e-mail or internet protocol as it does to our home or office location, we increasingly live in a portable world, able to work almost anywhere. Digital connections and social media enabled the people of Houston and Mumbai to respond to the flooding in a more distributed way than in past storms, with rescues happening by private boat-owners as much as by public servants. And the repairing of these cities gives us an opportunity to explore what the new nomadism of a digitally based economy means in terms of how we may all be living and working in the future.

What if, for example, the communities of RV’s and Tiny Homes that will invariably arise to house the many people rendered homeless in a city like Houston become a new norm, in which living on wheels represents not the poor cousin of a “real” house, but a more modern version of one, better able to move away from the coast as storm season approaches. Or what if we recognized the wisdom of the native occupants of this land and evolved an architecture of lightweight, portable enclosures able to be folded up and moved in advance of a coming hurricane and ready for rapid deployment afterward?

The floods of Houston and Mumbai represent a human tragedy in terms of the number of people who died or who have become homeless in their wake. These floods, though, also represent an opportunity to explore smarter and more adaptable ways of living in such flood-prone places, an opportunity that we should not miss. We can continue to make ourselves sitting ducks in the face of future storms, or we can think and act more creatively: more like (mighty) ducks.

Professor Thomas Fisher is the Director of the Minnesota Design Center, at the College of Design, University of Minnesota.

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