Rebuilding in a changing world

This week, several news items have focused on rebuilding and relocation. There are many areas that have experienced devastating disasters where people still rebuild, often because they do not necessarily have a choice.

Others are willing to take more risks and assess for example living in a flood prone area as a gamble that they are willing to take if they can benefit from lower property prices.

In some cities, planners are looking at ways that the city can accommodate increasing flooding and higher water levels by making structural changes that also reshape the way areas are planned.

All of this again tells us relevant stories about coping with change and exposes the diversity of factors at play that need consideration when deciding how to restructure or rebuild in a risk prone area.

Norfolk: making space for water

One such example is Norfolk city in the state of Virginia that is now looking at their infrastructure and city planning through different view than before.

Given that increasing floods have began to impact on the city, there is an increasing awareness for the need to re-think how city has been built and planned, which areas are protected from rising waters, and how do you transition to living with water.

The city plans to become a showcase how you can integrate climate adaptation with economic development.

The zoning is made in 4 different categories as to what to do with the land:

“The vision divides the city into four color-coded zones. Green and purple represent relatively safe areas where the city should focus future development and improve existing neighborhoods. The red zone—mostly downtown and the Naval base, and including Tidewater Gardens—are areas of dense development that need protection. The yellow zone represents the boldest move: areas where the city can’t afford to build expensive flood protection but must instead rely on some combination of adaptation and retreat”

So far so good. But the reality is as well that the city has many areas that are lower in socio-economic development and it is often these areas that flood.

So any solution that is being put forward how to live with flooding needs to also consider who is asked to move or make changes.

Rebuilding is not always an option

But in some areas rebuilding does not make financial sense anymore. In West Haven, Connecticut, some people have decided not to rebuild their homes after the super storms Irene and Sandy.

 Yale Climate Connections shortly covered what happens when people decide against rebuilding.

The Federal government’s flood-plain easement program has made it possible for some homeowners to get financial assistance to buy somewhere else at higher ground:

“The houses are removed, and the property gets put into an easement so it can never be developed. Then, the city and federal partners restore the land to marshland habitat, which can absorb floodwater”

The idea is that these areas can then help the city to withstand future storms and thus contribute to the overall resilience of the area and community.

But not everyone moves away from risk prone areas. Some people are actually taking advantage of lower property prices in flood areas, even when knowing that this option might be a risk in the future.

In Brisbane, the devastating floods of 2011 have left some suburbs highly desirable for first home owners because the drop in property prices in the flooded suburbs. This is sending a signal to those who did not have afford before to buy in these areas that there is now an opportunity to do so.

Yet, risk and insurance analysts are warning that this is a gamble that should not be taken lightly. Given the predictions of heavier outpours, there is also potential that such flooding will reoccur.

Finding proper risk assessments for floods should be on people’s agenda but most often people focus on the price of the property. I can understand why as most first home owners often do not have other assets and have saved hard to get the cash deposit that is required for a loan.

Cultural adaptation to changing climate

But these issues are also highly emotional. One of the key cultural constraints on climate adaptation is people’s preferences to what particular landscapes look like, and that often drives decision-making as to which land uses and strategies are preferred.

We all attach some level of security in knowing that places look like they do, and we expect to be able to live our lives in familiar environments.

This is an interesting space in particular for research when new innovative thinking is emerging and city planners are starting to question some of the old assumptions how a city or town should be built, and how do you rebuild after disaster.

But it is also the nature of disasters that is changing.

A study published in Nature this week has found that hurricanes are starting to move more slowly, which means that they will inflict more damage.

There are also questions around what we mean by “normal” weather and this is also part of a changing mindscape as to what we call normal, and what “new normal” could potentially look like.

Responding to these challenges will require new innovative thinking, leadership and really fostering a collective discussion about what climate change adaptation could and should look like in a particular community, state and nation, and what we want to preserve and change.

 

 

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