Architects Paving the Way for the Resilient Cities of the Future

In August 2005, Hurricane Katrina swept across Mississippi and Louisiana, killing more than 1,800 people and leaving a trail of damage estimated at $108 billion. Not only was this one of the costliest natural disasters in U.S. history, it was also one of the deadliest. My hometown, New Orleans, became a symbol of the destruction and our nation's failure to prepare for disasters and mitigate their damage.

While a devastating lesson to learn the hard way, less than a decade later there has been great progress in preparing for future disasters. Much of that work has been done by the architecture community. Since Katrina, the Architects Foundation (formerly the American Institute of Architects Foundation) has worked to take a lead role in disaster recovery efforts around the country. What's still needed, though, is more of this coordinated expertise, counsel and planning in many cities before disaster strikes. But how?

Earlier this year, the Rockefeller Foundation hosted the first 100 Resilient Cities initiative, which brought together 33 Chief Resilience Officers in New Orleans to share resources and start creating a collaboration platform to help cities become less vulnerable to natural disasters and other risks.

The first idea we came up with, and which Architects Foundation has led in executing, is the National Resilience Initiative (NRI).

The centerpiece of the initiative is a network of Regional Resilience Design Studios that share information and educate local stakeholders about resilient building and planning practices and provide direct design and building services when possible. Effective preparedness and mitigation activities are delivered through the training, technical expertise, and networks that equip local architects to strengthen their communities before disaster strikes.

Leveraging the work of existing higher education architectural schools and institutions specializing in resilience, three of these Regional Resilience Design Studios have already been established -- at the New Jersey Institute of Technology's Center for Resilient Design; at Arkansas University's Community Design Center at the Fay Jones School of Architecture; and at Mississippi State University's Gulf Coast Community Design Studio, located in Biloxi, Mississippi.

The University of Arkansas Community Design Center addresses core challenges in the built environment by emphasizing transit-oriented development, watershed urbanism, low impact development, context-sensitive street design, agricultural urbanism, and smart growth urbanism. The school's top three project types are (1) smart growth urbanism (particularly related to our tornado recovery planning projects); (2) context-sensitive street design related to revitalization of walkable downtowns; (3) and low impact development work associated with new practices in the ecological management of urban storm water runoff.

Mississippi State University's Gulf Coast Community Design Studio was created in response to Hurricane Katrina and has evolved from disaster recovery to long-term efforts of resilience. The design studio has a full-time staff of planners, architects and landscape architects, and works in collaboration with many municipal and community organizations on projects that address mitigation and adaption of households and communities facing hurricane risks, the economic challenges of living in expanded flood zones, and coastal environments threatened by increased development and sea level rise.

And in Newark, N.J., a studio will be housed at the New Jersey Institute of Technology's Center for Resilient Design, based in Newark, N.J. The studio was the first to be launched as part of the AIA Foundation's National Resilience Program.

Collaboration with other groups will be instrumental to achieving the aims of the National Resilience Initiative, which can be a model for preparing for disasters anywhere in the world.

As we see tragedies like Katrina continue to occur -- look no further than Nepal for a current example -- linking with other global organizations will grow our body of knowledge in disaster preparedness, resilience training and reconstruction. Such a network of architectural, engineering and builder communities will be indispensable to recovery.