This story was originally published on OffCite.
With the upcoming post-Harvey bond election, many people throughout the region are scrutinizing lists of potential flood mitigation projects and wondering if the published list would protect them from the next flooding event we all know is coming. Yet given the wide variety of challenges our region faces – such as issues related to economic development, affordable housing, public space access, equity, congestion, and threatened ecosystems – as well as limited public funding for addressing any and all of these challenges, it is crucial that we think of ways to leverage future public investment to address multiple challenges simultaneously to create a more resilient urban environment. Additionally, as I have argued before, the flood mitigation benefits these projects have on our region should not come at the expense of the livability. A highly engineered drainage channel might help reduce localized flooding, but its benefits could be overshadowed if it further divides already disconnected neighborhoods. It is therefore imperative that local decision makers move forward with projects that not only protect us from the next storm but address many of the other challenges our region faces at the same time to further improve the livability of the Houston area.
As they seek ideas for how to achieve these broader goals, local leaders might look to a design challenge that communities across the San Francisco Bay Area recently carried out. Modeled on the post-Sandy design competition, nine globally recognized, multidisciplinary design teams participated in the Resilient by Design challenge to develop long-term urban design strategies for nine communities across the Bay Area. Over an intense five-month period, the teams undertook deep-dive analyses of the fundamental challenges each community faced and developed long-term design solutions that addressed not only looming flooding threats but also many of the other fundamental challenges similar to the ones communities across our region face. Over a two-day period in mid-May, the teams presented their solutions and participated in roundtable discussions to engage with community stakeholders on how to continue the work of implementing the plans.
A stunning number of projects have been proposed by various government agencies since Harvey for the Houston region and we must ask how they will add up. Will the parts form a greater whole? The Resilient by Design challenge offers compelling lessons for producing comprehensive projects in resiliency that can simultaneously address environmental crises as well as challenges in socioeconomic and racial inequity.
Some proposals actually include solutions that closely mimic efforts that we are already implementing across the Houston region. A number of teams recommended enhancing creeks, streams, and other waterways to better deal with flood mitigation while simultaneously transforming them into attractions and amenities for local residents, much like Buffalo Bayou Park and the Bayou Greenways initiative do in the Houston region. For example, as one of their key projects for South San Francisco, a team led by the design group Hassell proposed transforming Colma Creek into a linear greenway lined with continuous trails, playgrounds, outdoor theaters, and athletic fields, as well as a series of detention ponds. Their proposal not only aimed to solve key flooding issues, but also proposed a way to weave disconnected neighborhoods back together. As we imagine how to transform our bayous to further protect our city, it would prove useful to analyze the specific tactics the various teams proposed for adapting their waterways to both mitigate flooding and enhance the neighborhoods and communities.
Other proposals provide good models for how we can address very particular issues that certain parts of the Houston region face. For example, a team lead by TLS Landscape Architecture focused on what they dubbed the Grand Bayway, a large marshland area adjacent to San Pablo Bay in the northern part of San Francisco Bay. Situated between Vallejo and a number of small agricultural communities, the Grand Bayway plays a vital role as a flood protection buffer for the area and a natural habitat for countless species. It is also the location of a vital transportation corridor that links between eastern and western Bay Area communities. However, because of years of encroaching development and mismanagement of the resources that protect it, the marshland is under great threat as are the adjacent communities, farmland, and transportation links. Because of issues of subsidence and rising sea levels, there is a strong possibility that the marshlands as well as the key transportation links that cross it, could disappear forever.
For other teams, creating a strategy for where and when to engage the public was as important as how to engage it. In order to get feedback from residents of South San Francisco, the Hassell team used an unoccupied lobby of a former bank building at one of its downtown’s main intersections as their workspace during the challenge. The South City Shopfront was open to the public Monday through Friday to allow residents to provide feedback to the design team at their convenience. And by allowing the residents to hold their own community meetings in the space while the team was working there, team members could listen in on community conversations to identify the issues that mattered most to locals.
Following a contrasting strategy, the Field Operations team decided to go to the community members where they were. With their project solutions focused on a series of wetlands, marshes, soft-shouldered creeks, and inter-tidal zones, they named their project the South Bay Sponge. In order to engage with the community, they created the Sponge Hub, a small Airstream trailer wrapped in environmental graphics to make it look like a giant sponge. By bringing their eye-catching Sponge Hub to festivals, sporting events, outdoor markets, and even busy urban corridors (and enticing people with edible cotton candy “sponges” once they were there), the design team was able to draw in a broad cross section of stakeholders and solicit a diverse set of ideas and opinions. Ultimately, looking beyond the default public engagement meeting for where and when to interact with the community allowed teams to collect more meaningful feedback. Such flexibility and resourcefulness would be just as beneficial as we look to develop resiliency solutions for our region.
But by far the most compelling public engagement strategy implemented by any team was to essentially flip the entire design process on its head. Rather than assuming the typical role of expert professionals who develop a plan for the community, the P+SET team actually empowered the community to develop the plan itself. As the foundational component of their process, they created an eight-week crash course for members of the community on the principles and strategies of permaculture, a design philosophy rooted in adapting patterns and systems observed in nature. Upon completing the course, community members took the tools they learned to assess their own community. Since they knew the needs and challenges their community faced far better than any group of outside professionals ever could, they were much better equipped to map out the locations of critical problems and then pinpoint the factors leading to those problems. They then worked hand in hand with the design team and local agencies to develop the “People’s Plan” which identified the low-impact development solutions that would address the problems they themselves had identified. Whether proposing restoring an existing orchard adjacent to a housing complex to help prevent erosion, locating key detention ponds and rain gardens to mitigate flooding on a critical street, or installing a diversion drain to reroute water around a frequently flooded community church, the community itself was at the center of analyzing the challenges threatening it and devising the solutions that would help solve those problems. Giving residents of the Houston region similar tools to become more active participants in solving the challenges we face would not only lead to much better conceived solutions, it would motivate community members to push civic leaders to carry out the plans that they themselves helped craft.