Australian councils share disaster smarts with United States

By Professor Edward Blakely*

The United States has dealt with more disasters in the last four years than any period in nearly a century.

This path of destruction has been underlined by the numerous floods, tornadoes, cyclones and other man-made disasters like the horrible fertiliser plant explosion in Texas.

While these disasters make the headlines, the efforts of US communities to create resilient sustainable communities is not well known.

To get a firm grasp of how US municipalities are trying to cope with climate change, extreme weather and the myriad of increasingly dangerous issues, the United States Studies Centre (USSC) took six New South Wales mayors and staff on a study tour to the US in June 2013 to find out more.

These included mayors and staff from Woollahra, Blacktown, Liverpool, Parramatta, Waverly and Botany Bay.

Resilience means something to US cities that face potential disasters, but Australia is just beginning to cope with similar catastrophes.

Lasting just over two weeks for most participants, the major part of the US study tour covered the West Coast, Los Angeles, Portland, Denver, Boulder and Ft. Collins, Colorado with extended tours to New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Washington DC.

These communities were selected because they are dealing with issues similar those of many New South Wales municipalities.

The principal objectives of the tour were to see how some US cities deal with resilience and sustainability problems and what ideas could be shared with US counterparts.

As anticipated, there were many areas where Australian cities and New South Wales communities are doing as well or better than the places visited.

This article focuses on highlights that offer lessons in resilience from several perspectives for New South Wales communities.

Water wasting to harvesting

Los Angeles is among the driest big cities in the world. It imports over 70 per cent of its water from other parts of California and neighbouring states.

LA has to become water independent as its primary resilience and sustainability target. To do this LA has to harvest the water that falls on it and runs through and under it. It also has to make all of its neighbourhoods better water users and preservers.

During our visit we saw massive works in the City of LA to harvest water at the neighbourhood community level.

The improvements in water preservation and harvesting in LA are funded by the water provider in the neighbourhoods. They include grants and landscape design assistance for individual home owners and include landscaping that are tailored to the neighbourhoods and local water catchment – not one size fits all.

The lesson here is that saving, storing and harvesting water saves energy. It increases resilience from the neighbourhood level and has to be the way to the future.

Certainly, individual home rain water collection is a help but the bigger bang-for-the buck is at the community and neighbourhood level. This is where neighbours forge collective solutions and assist in maintaining them because it lowers their water costs, reduces stormwater flooding and beautifies the community.

We can and should base our water harvesting at the community level by providing incentives from the water provider to build decentralised systems for water harvesting and management. This approach will guarantee a resilient and water secure future for our communities.

Car Free Portland

Portland has achieved what most municipalities desire. Residents can get where they need to go on well-designed, integrated transportation with single fare system.

Owning a car is nice, but not required in Portland because the regional land use system is organised so that the entire city has adequate population densities matched with public transit to free most Portlanders from the automobile.

Portlanders can and do use cars — but they don’t have to own them to get around. They choose housing in the central city – or the suburbs – to meet their needs with all communities well served by cheap public transit.

Inexpensive and well-designed transit is the answer—not big hard to manage systems. Portland’s medium and light rail program is not expensive, but it is extensive.

One of the reasons for this is that Portland has integrated its land use and transportation system through long term planning.

Densities are not big bulky buildings, but smart, integrated housing catering to all families from individual homes to multiple dwellings. Housing is well positioned across the land to create neighbourhoods of mixed housing types that give intimacy and accessibility.

Portland has few high-rises; yet its many mid-rises attain remarkable densities. As the Mayor of Portland pointed out, “Resilience and liveability are integral to resilience so the communities preserve themselves as good places to live and work”.

Portland attracts people who create jobs. The city is the home of Intel, the world’s largest semiconductor manufacturer. Intel is expanding so fast that the City has placed several dozen planners on site for the next several years to work with the firm to increase its buildings and build communities to house its workforce.

It is hard to be more economically resilient than this and at the same time reduce carbon emissions.

We have to think about building transit with community, jobs and housing mixes that attract people who generate the jobs of the future in our communities and not merely approving individual development agreements. Strategic planning requires integrated development and not one building or one transit system at a time.

Energy Freedom

We visited Boulder, Colorado before its most recent floods. Planners in the city told us of the water dangers the city faced. An equally important danger in Boulder is control of its energy future.

Boulder intends to decentralise its energy supply by owning and controlling its electricity supply.

Boulder indicated, prior to the floods, a clear intention to take over the current energy provider and commence operating a municipally controlled energy supply organisation.

It is a bold move. In fact, the costs of municipalisation of energy will be high but the opportunity to control their future is the resilience Boulder seeks.

The Mayor and Council want to advance new forms of energy supply by reducing coal power dependence and using wind, solar and other forms of supply as well as improvements in building systems.

The recent floods in September 2013 may create the ideal opportunity for Boulder. After the storm, many structures will have to be rebuilt. This will create the opportunity to construct smarter buildings as well as using US federal rebuilding funds for new approaches to power generation.

Boulder will meet the challenges of rebuilding to higher standards of resilience in energy, land use and disaster prevention is still being formulated. But as senior staff told me, “Boulder will be bold” no matter what direction they take.

Boldness is the big lesson. This is not a play on words. Resilience will require bold actions. As Boulder demonstrated to us, the Council is taking a pro-active strategy of educating and leading the community.

Energy independence is not easy to understand or achieve. But the Boulder Council believes in deep long term consultation processes that lead to improved physical, social and economic outcomes which build a stronger and smarter resilient future.

Reading or hearing is not the same as seeing. The six NSW councils that went to the United States not only learned from US mayors and councils, but offered advice to their counterparts.

Learning more is one of the mantles of leadership. The Australian councils that invested in learning more are now in a better position to meet the many resilience challenges will face as well as harnessing the opportunities.

Moreover, they now have US professional and elected colleagues who are lifetime partners seeking the same goals.

*Professor Edward Blakely is an Honorary Professor at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney. He leads a number of programs from the USSC which aim to enhance the capacity of city leaders and elected officials to build resilient cities and communities.

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