Communities build toolkits for planning and preparation.
Sarah Hanson Communities build toolkits for planning and preparation.

In August, when Tropical Storm Iselle hit Hawaii, the islands were ready. Although the storm (weakened from hurricane status) downed power lines, closed offices, and sent tourists packing, the state weathered the storm fairly well, thanks at least partly to its sophisticated community resilience plans.

In recent years, the term “resilience” has begun to supplant “sustainability” as the primary way communities, governments, and building professionals are approaching environmentally appropriate design. Resilience implies holistic, long-term thinking about the built and natural environments that acknowledges the threats posed by climate change and rapid urbanization. The concept is both forward- and backward-looking: Communities must work to prevent disasters and other public health incidents, limit the impacts of events, recover well, and learn from and improve upon the past.

Numerous municipalities and organizations are now developing community toolkits and checklists to improve their resilience. Architects, increasingly, have either participated in or led such community-building efforts, and this appears to be a potential growth area for the profession.

Last fall, for example, the AIA Foundation announced a partnership with Architecture for Humanity and other organizations to establish a series of Regional Resilient Design Studios to help develop resilience strategies. And the AIA National Convention this year hosted a workshop on HURRIPLAN, a program for community planning and building design in hurricane-prone regions, led by Dean Sakamoto, FAIA, and the National Disaster Preparedness Training Center at the University of Hawaii. Hawaii already has a community plan, the Hawaii Hazards Awareness & Resilience Program, that includes training modules and informational materials.

Janice Olshesky, AIA, president of Olshesky Design Group in Alexandria, Va., and a member of the advisory council for the National Building Museum’s recent Designing for Disaster exhibit, says architects are working “hand in hand” with planners, environmentalists, engineers, and others on resilience strategies. Olshesky has served on a multidisciplinary team to develop disaster resilience tools for housing on the Resilient Home Program, which is part of the Southeastern Region Research Initiative, and has been invited to join the new California-based U.S. Resiliency Council, whose initial efforts will be to adopt technical standards for the evaluation of buildings by which their resilience, along the dimensions of safety, repairability, and functionality, can be measured.

“Architects can promote the need for community resiliency toolkits and begin to use those that are currently available,” she says. “Toolkits come in a variety of types. Hawaii is very advanced in this regard, as they need to be.”

The toolkits get at resilience in different ways, but tend to unify around planning and emergency management. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, for example, has developed a Flood Resilience Checklist as part of its Smart Growth Implementation Assistance program, which, to date, the EPA has implemented in 33 U.S. communities. Checklist questions include:

  • Does the community’s comprehensive plan have a hazard element or flood planning section?
  • Does the community have a Hazard Mitigation Plan approved by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the state emergency management agency?
  • Has the community implemented non-regulatory strategies to conserve land in river corridors? (Such strategies might involve land acquisition to allow for stormwater absorption and tax incentives for conserving vulnerable land.)

In Los Angeles, the city’s Department of Public Health, partnering with local universities and private corporations, has developed a resilience toolkit that is adaptable for that city’s many widespread neighborhoods. The kit includes components on community mapping, leadership development, and a concept called “psychological first aid,” which helps laypersons to provide social support during a crisis.
In New York City, the devastation caused by Superstorm Sandy led to the creation of an interagency team to examine the storm’s impacts. This resulted in the 2013 NYC Special Initiative for Rebuilding and Resiliency (SIRR), which included specific recommendations for five neighborhoods that were based on community meetings, city agency input, and professional involvement.

“The more than 250 initiatives outlined in the report could provide a toolkit for New York City,” says Margaret Newman, FAIA, executive director of the Municipal Art Society of New York, which focuses on preservation and sustainability as part of its mission and is a regular consultant on disaster and resilience matters. “The Municipal Art Society provided a summary of the report as an online tool and a link to the excellent work of Rebuild by Design, which followed the SIRR report.” Newman also points to toolkits that have been developed in coastal areas such as New Jersey and Boston, and by other organizations such as Siemens and NOAA.

A potential danger with such toolkits, however, is that they may be somewhat superficial or simply feel-good public relations pieces. Getting architects and other building professionals involved can help ensure that the toolkits are rigorous and applicable on the ground.

“Architects are trained to utilize broad problem-solving skills and design thinking to find creative solutions to very complicated situations,” Newman says. “Community toolkits may be a formalization of this process in which the design team, led by the architect, can arrive at creative solutions for resilience work. The toolkit is a great way for communities to understand and interpret actions, and it gives them ownership of the process. It provides a communication link between community and professionals.”