Urban Planning

Student Forum Explores Disaster Resilience and Reconstruction

Student Forum Explores Disaster Resilience and Reconstruction

Makeshift store in earthquake-devastated area of Haiti. [Photo by Kylie Davis.]

According to data collected by NYU Wagner Professor Rae Zimmerman, the rate of natural disasters has been on the rise since the early 1970s. Causing the highest fatalities are earthquakes, storms and droughts, and intense heat spells (in that order).

This trend line shows the urgent need for vastly increased attention to disaster planning and preparedness across sectors. But Wagner urban planning students found indications of planning gaps during trips to scenes of devastation in Haiti and Chile, where they participated in reconstruction work. Lack of public-safety preparedness and infrastructure fortification added tragic dimensions, while arduous and complex rebuilding efforts by the state, international aid groups, and local agencies were sometimes found halting or, at times, loosely coordinated.

On March 29, 2011, with the world watching recovery efforts in the wake of the Japan tsunami and nuclear power catastrophe, NYU Wagner's Urban Planning Student Association and International Public Service Association brought together students, faculty and practitioners for a forum entitled "Disaster Resilience and Reconstruction Events."

The first panel was composed of students whose recent visits to Haiti and Chile arose from their enrollment in "Post Catastrophe Reconstruction" (co-taught by James P. Stuckey, division dean, NYU Schack Institute of Real Estate) or "Preparing for Emergencies" (with Professor Zimmerman). These students -- including Kylie Davis, Sapna Bhatt, Amy Southworth, Mat Sanders, and Iria Touzon, who said she was visiting Japan when the tsunami hit --offered observations of what worked well, where relief and rebuilding fell short, and why.

In the wake of any natural disaster, such as t Hurricane Katrina in Sanders' hometown of New Orleans, "What you see is survivors adapt to the new reality," he said. "But when you adapt, you're not ‘building back better.' The role of government is to see the big picture and rebuild in a resilient way. If you leave it to individuals, you get haphazard development."

Kylie said, "In reality, people really know how to take care of themselves in certain ways," and the goal of reconstruction participants from the public and private sectors should be to help them to do so, and learn from it.

Problems can actually begin, said Bhatt, when displaced persons are separated from their devastated communities by necessity. While transitional housing is provided on an urgent basis, the urgency wanes, and temporary housing becomes virtually permanent.

A second panel focused on the importance of building pre-disaster resilience and the many forms that it should assume but  rarely does; in the U.S, for instance, some of the largest population growth has occurred in coastal areas threatened by rising sea levels due to global warming.

"Resilience," said Zimmerman, "starts before disasters as well as afterward - that is, building that resilience into the community and the infrastructure."

Magarita Pajaro (MUP '05), who has worked at the World Bank and is now with CB Emmanual Partners, moderated the panel. Participants also included Amy Stroud of Build.Found, and Donald Watson of EarthRise design. A former professor of architecture at Rensselaer, Watson said: "The next disaster is the one we failed to plan for." We can't rely on disaster response, he added - for by then "it's already too late.

"Designing for resilience is about reducing the cost of disasters. It is so important - you need to engage yourself, family, community in this discussion," he said.

The event at Wagner was put together principally by urban planning graduate students Amy Faust and Angel Chen, who was moderator for the student panel.


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