Hurricanes Don't Kill Cities ― People Do

Cities that believe in themselves are hard to kill. In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey many pundits have urged Houston to abandon many of the traits that have made it a dynamic, growing metropolis, including key elements of its light-handed, pro-business regulatory regime

Photo: © Depositphotos.com/Ivanchuk

Houston, we are told, should retrench and reduce its sprawl; Slate recommends New Orleans’ post-Katrina shrinkage as a model. This goes against the best of urban tradition. Great cities generally do not shrink themselves.

Many cities have rebounded and even improved after far more lethal devastation, including London, Berlin, Tokyo and New York. After the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, the city ultimately constructed a downtown that may well be the world’s most beautiful. San Francisco famously rebuilt itself after the 1906 earthquake and fire into “a new and improved city” that has evolved into an integral part of the world’s dominant tech hub.

In contrast cities that destroy themselves from within, like Detroit after the 1968 riots, and New Orleans before Katrina, can decline for decades.

Urban resiliency requires two things: an ability to learn from experience and, per Northeastern University’s resiliency expert Daniel Aldrich, a commitment on the part of its residents to improve their city.

Should Houston downsize?

Unlike New York or New Orleans, Houston is not celebrated by the mainstream press or intellectuals; its residents have been portrayed as hypocritical religious fanatics and even neo-Nazis, despite living in what may well be America’s most diverse city.

To many pundits, Houston’s problems are due to a lack of zoning and too much unregulated growth. Days after Hurricane Harvey hit, Quartz opined that "Houston’s flooding shows what happens when you ignore science and let developers run rampant.” The Guardian’s climate columnist George Monbiot even portrayed the event as a kind of payback for being the world capital of planet-destroying climate change.

Few Houstonians are likely to embrace this interpretation of natural forces, or their own culpability. Longtime residents know that the Bayou City always has been prone to serious hurricanes and flooding due to its location along the Gulf, and Houston has shown an ability to deal with it.

1935 flood caused proportionally much more severe damage on a much smaller city. Tropical storm Allison in 2001 led to significant hardening of infrastructure. Unlike New Orleans at the time of Katrina, many services in Houston, including police and fire, were ready for Harvey. Flood control, although clearly not up to the standards required by such a huge weather event, has been much improved. New developments are required to show how they can make up for the absorption lost, often with sophisticated drainage and storage techniques.

Much blame for Harvey has been linked to development on the fringe, a major component of the region’s growth. Over an 18-year period, Houston lost about 25,000 acres of wetlands, which took away about 4 billion gallons of storm water detention capacity. In contrast Harvey dumped about 1 trillion gallons, meaning those wetlands could have only absorbed about 0.4% of Harvey’s deluge. Many flooded roads were consciously designed to hold storm water temporarily when there is nowhere for it to drain.

To succeed, Houston, like any city, must adapt and bolster its defenses, particularly if such events become more common. This does not mean, as many suggest, that the region abandon its development-friendly policies. In contrast to claims of “wild west” regulation, many developments after Allison are required have better systems to handle downpours than older areas closer to the center. One friend notes that his 10 suburban shopping centers employed the most advanced methods for handling excess water and survived.

Most of his projects' first line of defense is made up of catch basins and stormwater lines in the parking lot which flow to a retention pond. The second line of defense is the retention pond. In the event the pond reaches capacity, the third line of defense is storm water backing up into storm drainage lines and ultimately ponding in the parking lot. These three defenses are very typical in newer developments, and many withstood the biblical flooding intact.

Many others, either not up to code or built well before the new regulations, did not do so well. But on the whole, rather than prove the inadequacy of Houston model, as the New York Times Bret Stephens correctly noted, the region managed to survive a crisis with minimal, albeit tragic losses, that in other places would have cost thousands of lives.

In the coming years, Houston surely will have to find ways to grow with less peril. But as both MIT’s Alan Berger and Houston’s Mayor Sylvester Tuner have noted, Harvey did not “punish” Houston for lax development. Houston has a planning system that is not the “wild west” but simply less bureaucratic and politicized. Its suburbs, notes the planning blog Strong towns, “are largely indistinguishable from the suburbs of any American city.” As Mayor Sylvester rejoined, if Houston had zoning, he would be presiding instead over a “flooded zoned city.”

The zoning argument is, simply put, bogus. Cities in the area that were heavily zoned, like West University, or intensely planned like Sugarland, got hit as hard as more haphazard areas. Harvey, it turns out, was an equal opportunity devastator. Similarly, Sandy dropped barely one-third the rain from Harvey, yet overwhelmed a dense and very zoned area. New Orleans before Katrina was dense and zoned; a lot of good it did them.

Nor, as many commentators suggest, can Houston’s supposedly enormous “sprawl” be the prime culprit. As demographer Wendell Cox points out the Houston urban area density at 3,000 per square mile, is 20 percent above metropolitan Boston (2,200), and Philadelphia (2,700) and not much less dense than that mecca of smart growth, Portland. Overall Houston ranks 18th in urban population density among the 53 metropolitan areas with more than a million residents, according to Census date.

In contrast to its image as a paved over dystopia, Houston has more parkland and green space than most any other large city in America and ranks third overall to San Diego and Dallas in park acreage per capita. Rather than focus on urban form, Berger, himself a landscape architect who is co-director MIT’s Center for Advanced Urbanism, says this region really needs better and stricter building codes, such as the ones that saved my friend’s shopping centers. Others, like Rich Campanella at Tulane, suggests the best strategy for the Gulf cities should be to focus on building barrier islands along the coast, and improving often aged drainage systems.

In the end, it’s the civic culture

As we know from experience, storms, violent conquest and, in the case of Hiroshima, even nuclear weapons, cannot kill a city -- only residents can do that. I saw this in Los Angeles, which in the early 1990s suffered a Pharaonic series of disasters -- riots, fires, floods and a huge earthquake in 1994. The city rebuilt smartly after all of them, but only one, the 1992 riots, left a residual toll on the civic spirit, or led to an exodus of residents. Los Angeles may look spiffier than it did before the riots, but its enterprising spirit, and its allure to newcomers, never recovered fully.

Internal collapse, the lack of a civic spirit, occurs most often when a city’s elite and its population no longer see a common future. Detroit’s 1967 riots created a morass that devastated the city for the next half century. Earlier on conflict between Boston Brahmins and the Irish under Mayor James Curley ushered in a period of stagnation that went from the 1920s to the late 1950s.

More recently, Katrina revealed how a collapsed civic culture can make a disaster worse. Corrupt politicians, an ineffective business community and poor emergency services turned a Harvey-like natural disaster into a massive human one, with much greater loss of life. Some blame the city’s entrenched, often multi-generational lower-income population but perhaps more critical to failure was the city’s often elegantly appointed and comfortable upper echelon.

In the decades before Katrina, as southern cities like Houston and Atlanta were burgeoning, New Orleans stagnated. Joel Garreau in his Nine Nations of North America described the Crescent City as a “marvelous collection of sleaziness and peeling paint.” The aristocracy enjoyed the city’s unparalleled culture while many ambitious people from its neighborhoods migrated elsewhere. Without a strong, engaged business community and middle class, there was little attempt to fix the infrastructure. This weak civic culture has left a city with huge economic challenges that a regenerated local business community is now gamely trying to address.

Houston performed very differently during Harvey. Mayor Turner and the Harris County Judge, Ed Emmett, epitomized level-headed leadership. Gov. Abbot, unlike Louisiana’s dithering Gov. Kathleen Blanco, swung immediately to action. Local volunteers pitched in, so much so, notes Houston-based analyst Tory Gattis, that many found themselves unable to participate because each Facebook call for help spurred more volunteers than could be accommodated. Houston can also count on something New Orleans lacked: a strong, and philanthropically inclined business establishment who are pouring millions into recovery efforts.

Houston will come back, albeit with some modifications, not because it’s a charity case, but because its people want to stay and rebuild their neighborhoods. They have been putting their shoulders to the wheel personally, with special emphasis on those most in need; rather than rugged individualists they are, in the words of one prominent Houston businessperson “rugged communitarians.”

In the coming months, Houstonians will seek aid from Washington, as all hard-hit areas do, but most understand that the challenge is basically for them to solve, whether through mutual self-help, or new infrastructure; their city is an engineering marvel that needs a new upgrade.

Ultimately, the power of human agency at the grassroots level remains the “secret sauce” overcoming almost any disaster, whether it’s London, New York or Houston. Great cities are not about buildings but great people. By that standard, Houston will likely come back better than before, a testament to the greatness of the urban ideal.

Joel Kotkin, Contributor

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