2017 has been a banner year for natural disasters and a brutal one for humanity. Hurricanes, tropical storms, wildfires and earthquakes have evoked devastation on a global scale; this year in the U.S., natural disasters have claimed hundreds of lives, displaced tens of thousands more and have economically crippled entire regions. Tropical storm Harvey alone, which flooded an area around Houston the size of Lake Michigan, caused approximately $180 million in damage and displaced over 30,000 people.
When the water recedes and society begins to look for answers, these events incite the debate of the reality of climate change. Yet, according to Assistant Professor of Urban Planning Dr. Marccus Hendricks, climate change is only scratching the surface of a deeper, more complex narrative; his research on urban built environments point to several economic and social instigators—such as uneven distribution of resources, unregulated growth, urban sprawl and a loss of natural green spaces—as the main catalysts for devastation in urban areas from natural hazards.
“Climate change itself is not the singular cause of what we’re seeing,” explains Hendricks, who based his dissertation and current research on the link between physical inequities of the built environment—often in disadvantaged communities—and the impact of disasters in Houston. “The climate has been changing since the beginning of time. There is no doubt that we have exacerbated and expedited that change, but it’s the uncontrolled growth and development colliding with a consistently changing climate that places us in situations that are hazardous. Climate change just increases the frequency and intensity of that hazard. With 150 years of industry based on fossil fuels, a lot of damage has been done. We now have to look towards minimizing our future footprint, mitigation and adaptation.”
How does a city like Houston safeguard itself against the next disaster? According to Hendricks, city planners should start with the fundamentals: good comprehensive planning that includes growth management and capital improvement, good land use planning and hazard mitigation planning; and, just as importantly, the effective implementation of these plans.
“I think what we’ve seen in Houston is a cautionary tale,” says Hendricks, “a matter of unchecked, unmanaged and unbalanced growth. The Houston metropolitan area is a sprawling growth machine. If you look at the land cover change over the last 100 years, the city was building out into areas that were unoccupied and into environmental conditions that they didn’t know much about. And some of these environmental conditions had a purpose; natural green spaces and buffer zones that are supposed to help with flood control were being developed into grey space. There’s no place for the water to go.”
The pre-emptive measure for other cities, Hendricks says, is to build up, not out. This means putting a cap on new development and concentrate on re-purposing existing spaces, a practice known as infill.
“Cities should be working to eliminate urban sprawl and manage growth,” said Hendricks. “The time is right for this kind of smart, infill development. We need to preserve our natural green spaces and that ecological integrity, finding that balance between the natural environment and the human built environment.”
Hendricks’ research also looks at the link between social vulnerability and physical infrastructure, explaining that one can understand the vulnerability of physical and built environments by looking at who occupies those spaces. Communities in low-lying areas—where real estate is cheaper—and neighborhoods occupied by low-income and minority populations—where there is often disinvestment in housing and infrastructure—feel the impact of disasters more acutely, as the devastation amplifies already existing problems.
“It’s a chicken and egg debate. Do city planning processes corner these folks into these hazard-prone areas systematically, by income or racial biases built into the process, or is it that, because of the economic structure, that these populations don’t typically make enough money to live elsewhere?” asked Hendricks. “I think it’s a combination of both. If you don’t earn a livable wage, people are structurally cornered into these low-quality areas. These are the everyday things we see—the quality of life and quality and structure of these urban spaces; but these things are illuminated in a devastating way when you intersect these situations with a natural hazard. And it doesn’t end there because, most often, these same groups are also at a disadvantage in recovery and rebuilding. In Houston, we saw the expansion of vulnerability and exposure across race and class groups that may have never experienced flooding. This is mostly due to the untapped growth, which I explained earlier. Nevertheless, white and affluent groups will still recover, on average, at a much faster rate than the historically disenfranchised.”
Hendricks discusses this novel theory in a recent piece he wrote for the National Hazards Center at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He explains that, not only do disadvantaged communities suffer in their ability to react, adapt and recover from natural hazards, their racial and class composition is also a strong predictor for the quality of infrastructure; neighborhoods with predominately black and Hispanic populations have a disproportionate number of outdated infrastructure systems in comparison to white-majority communities. In some Houston-area neighborhoods—where Hendricks continues to work alongside his peers at Texas A&M, as part of the Institute for Sustainable Communities—the infrastructure systems[Office1] are four iterations behind current development code.
“Even if we hire outside contractors and engineers to design the infrastructure and they design it based off current existing conditions, by the time it is put into place, it’s obsolete because the environment is changing at a must faster rate than our bureaucratic process. Cities must design in a way to anticipate future climate impact.”
Hendricks, who joined the University of Maryland’s Urban Studies and Planning Program this fall, will bring some of his research into the classroom this spring, offering a new course in disaster resiliency. He is also providing social science expertise for the A. James Clark School’s Center for Disaster Resiliency.
Read more about Hendricks’ work here. Read his article for the National Hazards Center, here.