Protecting vulnerable populations in the face of climate change

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Flooding after Hurricane Katrina.

Climate change will have the biggest impact on those who are already the most vulnerable. What can architects do about it?

After Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans in 2005, 70 percent of displaced white residents were able to return to their homes within a year. In comparison, only 42 percent of displaced African-American residents could do the same.

These statistics lay bare just one slice of the larger social justice implications of extreme weather events. At “Mitigating the Socioeconomic Impacts of Climate Change”, an hour-long session at AIA 2018 Conference on Architecture, architects Angela O’Byrne, FAIA, of Perez APC in New Orleans, and Emily Zimmer, AIA, of consulting firm APTIM, in Brooklyn, as well as Brian Swett, the director of cities and sustainable real estate at Arup in Boston, weighed the impacts of flooding and other extreme weather on the most vulnerable populations in each of their respective cities, while asking themselves and the other architects in the room: “What is the role of architects in all this?”

Zimmer is involved with New York’s post-Hurricane Sandy Build It Back program for homeowners, which has ambitious goals and a $2.2 billion budget, and supports the Mayor’s Office of Housing Recovery Operations and the city’s Department of Buildings. The hurricane damaged 90,000 buildings, 70,000 of which were units of housing. While the flooding that resulted from Hurricane Sandy did not follow the boundaries of the city’s established flood maps, the fact remains that a higher percentage of low- and moderate-income people currently live within New York’s floodplains. Zimmer pointed out that the demographics can sometimes hide even more acute vulnerabilities: for example, in the process of her work with Build It Back, she spoke with victims of domestic violence who were starting over as single-earner households, and encountered different generations of the same family occupying the upper and lower levels of houses.

Zimmer, O’Byrne, and Swett all see the opportunity inherent in working to fortify vulnerable neighborhoods. “This is not a new topic for us, although climate change is exacerbating it,” O’Byrne said during the presentation. New Orleans still hasn’t reached pre-Katrina levels of population, and as a board member of AIA New Orleans, she has been involved in a number of interventions designed to reduce the impact of extreme weather events in the future, including coastal restoration efforts, educational programs that “create a culture of environmental awareness at every stage of life,” an emergency savings account program that will help city residents save money in the event of a disaster, expanding access to safe and affordable housing, and plans for a redesign of the regional transit system to connect people, employment, and essential services.

“What is the role of architects? To be activists.” - Angela O’Byrne, FAIA

“Louisiana is the most rooted state in America. People do not leave,” O’Byrne said. This is a positive because it means that communities are strong, but it also means people may not be as upwardly mobile as in some other areas of the country.

Swett, who formerly worked for the City of Boston and was instrumental in implementing the Climate Ready Boston initiative, deals with sea level rise-related vulnerabilities in his current role at Arup. Much of Boston’s public housing and lower-income neighborhoods is more likely to be located in areas that are prone to flooding, and he emphasized the importance of assessing social vulnerability indicators when considering a new project in a potentially flood- or heatwave-prone area. As a preventative measure, connecting people to jobs through strong public transportation infrastructure is one way to strengthen communities before a disaster even hits.

O’Byrne, who was the president of AIA New Orleans during and after Hurricane Katrina, stressed the pivotal role that architects can play in being advocates for underserved communities. “What is the role of architects? To be activists,” she said. City projects in New Orleans like the Gentilly Resilience District, which is rooted in “the knowledge that one type of solution is not enough,” takes a multi-pronged approach to problems such as crumbling streets, overburdened drainage systems, and sinking soil by “creating spaces to capture rainwater in the urban landscape.” When flood-prone areas with vulnerable populations are supported in this way, it can become a value proposition for the city as a whole.

O’Byrne and her colleagues emphasized how difficult it can sometimes be to get elected officials, and even city residents, to seriously engage with the very real threats posed by climate change. However, O’Byrne is hopeful that through education, advocacy and policies that encourage cities to build in higher density on higher ground, incremental change can occur. Cities are already beginning to consider the wisdom of continuing to let people develop and build new projects in vulnerable areas. By letting the community drive the process, she hopes, architects can implement practical and impactful solutions.  

“We have the opportunity to do something really meaningful,” O’Byrne said, “but we have to engage with people.”

For more on how architects are combating climate change, visit aia.org/resilience or read AIA's climate change statement.

Katherine Flynn is a writer/editor at AIA focusing on industry trends and emerging ideas.

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