Recent events have got me thinking about how cities can be more resilient in the face of disasters such as mega typhoon Haiyan and what can be done about slowing down and eventually reversing climate change.
I think the first solution cities would turn to would be to beef up infrastructural resilience by improving building codes, using stronger materials, designing for a larger factor of safety, and maybe doing major reinforcement or upgrading of existing buildings. This is what we do for flood protection in Singapore - in 2011, PUB raised minimum platform levels of new developments by 1 meter in anticipation of higher sea levels. Fair solution, but this is causing problems during implementation when roads have to be raised while the adjacent buildings can’t, or when new buildings sit on high platforms that require ramps and stairs that impede pedestrian accessibility. What else would we do? Build a high sea wall all around our island? I’m not sure.
While I do not doubt modern engineering and architecture, I do know everything we build has a threshold beyond which it will fail, and if we take on nature head on with our hard protection measures, nature may throw us a curveball and show us really how weak and insignificant humans and cities are in the larger scale of things. Haiyan brought an unexpected 6m storm surge to the Philippines and winds of more than 300km/h. Singapore is a fairly flat and low lying country, and our buildings are not designed to withstand that kind of wind speeds. I fear what would happen to us should we be in the path of a similar typhoon. But of course, this is hypothetical. Singapore is not the Philippines and we are lucky to be geographically sheltered, and perhaps 6m storm surges and 300km/h winds will be extremely unlikely events. I do hope our climate scientists have some good reliable models.
But my point is that our hard solutions that resist the force of nature may not be the best ones. They are definitely not the only ones. At urban planning course today the lecturer showed us examples of how traditional villages in Melaka would allow annual flood waters to fill the first floor of their homes, and they would just move temporarily to the second floor of their hut and travel around in sampans, going about their life as usual. The Dutch, who have always been the forerunners in flood protection like building dikes and pumping systems and such, are now looking at setting aside spaces that are meant to be flooded when need be, and can be used for other purposes when they are dry. The difference lies in our mentality on how we approach the problem. Do we fight against nature or work around it? Is it alright if some things are damaged or destroyed or temporarily unusable during a disaster? Are we comfortable with cleaning up or rebuilding what has been lost afterwards?
Buddhists believe in reincarnation and that tangible things like buildings are impermanent, while intangible things like culture or the human spirit are permanent. Perhaps then we should design for more temporary structures? Things that are meant to decay over time and be renewed when they get old. That reminded me of a talk by Japanese architect Shigeru Ban: http://www.ted.com/talks/shigeru_ban_emergency_shelters_made_from_paper.html I don’t know many architects but he’s one of my favourite because of his very simple and elegant style. In this talk he mentions that natural disasters don’t kill people, it is the falling structures that kill people. If you lived in an attap hut in the middle of a pineapple plantation and an earthquake hit you, it would probably be fairly safe and uneventful. Even if your hut was destroyed it wouldn’t take you much effort to rebuild it. What is resilience then? Is it to be so prepared that you are minimally affected when disaster strikes, or is it to accept that disaster happens and move on afterwards?
Anyway, what else is interesting about Ban’s talk is that he uses recycled cardboard tubes to build temporary structures for refugees in disaster-stricken areas. (Tacloban could use some of them.) I am inspired by how such a simple material can be so long lasting and durable, to the extent that its permanence is dependent on how much people like it. And that is really a product of good design. Good design in fields that matter - like designing for the poor, for disaster refugees, for reducing carbon footprint - is really underfunded and therefore not enough attention is paid to it. Those were wise words from Prof Monroe from one of his many inspirational talks to the AguaClara project team back in Cornell, which does research on and builds low cost water treatment plants for developing countries. These plants produce water that meet WHO standards and use no fancy technology, simply because they run completely without the use of electricity. It is just good design.
So can good design and a different mentality change the world? Maybe it can, starting with lowering our carbon footprint. The urban planning lecturer mentioned “pseudo-sustainability” as an issue facing planners today, stuff like a green building with great water and energy saving features, but from the start failed to consider the carbon footprint of using tons on concrete and steel as building materials. See this talk on how we could build skyscrapers out of wood by Michael Green: http://www.ted.com/talks/michael_green_why_we_should_build_wooden_skyscrapers.html Maybe this will become a game changer if it is successful. Will you fear living in a 30-storey HDB flat that is made out of wood or maybe even bamboo? I think that will go very well with our tagline of City in a Garden, but changing mentalities will take some time.
— Enrique Penalosa, former mayor of Colombian capital Bogota