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Resilient Communities

The path to resilience is far easier with cohesive communities that plan wisely

Posted on Feb 9 2012 by Alex Wilson

In this ninth installment of my ten-part series on resilient design, I'm focusing beyond individual buildings to the community scale. Following a natural disaster or other problem that results in widespread power outages or interruptions in vehicle access or fuel supplies, people need to work together. We saw that throughout Vermont with tropical storm Irene last year, when some communities were cut off for a week or more.

Where there were cohesive communities in place — where people knew their neighbors and worked cooperatively on issues of common concern — dealing with the crisis was a lot easier.

Community resilience also relates to how well we could get along without our cars. In some future crisis, gasoline might become unavailable for an extended period of time, or a political upheaval somewhere could result in a quadrupling of the price of gasoline, which could price it out of reach for many. Additionally, without power, gasoline pumps at service stations don't work, so unless a service station has back-up power, its gasoline pumps won't work. How would we function without cars?

Resilient communities, in these situations, will be communities that can function without the automobile. Indeed, in certain respects, improving the resilience of our homes is the easy part — not cheap, certainly, but relatively straightforward. Making our communities more resilient is a very difficult, long-term challenge. Here are some strategies.

Create pedestrian-friendly communities
Places where it's more convenient to walk around — and less convenient to drive — will inherently be less dependent on cars. Traffic calming measures that slow down vehicles and make walking safer are key. Some of these measures, such as bump-outs on traveled streets and closely spaced crosswalks, are a bane to drivers, but they make a difference in safety and walkability.

Wide sidewalks are key to pedestrian access. And in cold climates, it's important for municipalities to keep those sidewalks clear in the winter months.

Provide bicycle lanes and pathways
I spent a couple weeks in Lund, Sweden, a few years ago. I arrived in the late afternoon on a rainy December day and was astounded by the number of people getting around by bicycle. The city has an entire network of bicycle paths, divided with directional lanes. On a busy Saturday in Lund, with the streets bustling with people and commerce, the bicycle parking lots were packed, and about the only open pavement I saw in the city was a large parking lot for cars in the center of town. The few lonely Volvos and Saabs provided stark contrast to our packed parking lots here in America.

Bicycling is certainly easier in relatively flat places that don't have a lot of snow — like Lund, Sweden; Copenhagen, Denmark; and most of Holland. But significant progress is being made here at home in some surprising places. Minneapolis, for example, recently pulled ahead of Portland, Oregon as the most bicycle-friendly city in the nation, according to Bicycling magazine. Despite the cold weather, more than 120 miles of bicycle paths, indoor bicycle parking, and other features helped Minneapolis gain that recognition.

Encourage mixed-use development
Standard zoning in the U.S. separates commercial and residential development. When this zoning was created, industry was pretty dirty, noisy, and smelly, so separating uses usually made sense. But today, that same zoning often makes things worse by increasing our dependence on cars. In most recently built communities, you can't walk to a corner café, bookstore, or food market, let alone workplaces.

That can change. More progressive communities today are modifying zoning to encourage mixed-use development. The is leading that charge. The starting point in these newer, more pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use developments is often to look back at older cities like Charleston, South Carolina, and towns built up around railroad stops outside such cities as Washington, DC, Philadelphia, and Chicago.

Encourage density and public transit
Density is key to creating less car-dependent communities. Without adequate density it's very hard to make public transit work, because there isn't a critical mass. And without effective public transit, people have to drive. This is the primary reason public transit works so much better in most of Europe than it does in the U.S. — significantly higher density in the cities and towns.

One solution is to make in-town, infill development easier by providing incentives for denser development while raising hurdles for sprawling, car-dependent, "greenfield" development. Whether we push it or not, there is already a shift toward higher-density, transit-accessible development, because that's where people want to live. Over the past ten years, even as real estate values have declined generally, they have continued increasing in places like the neighborhoods within a half-mile of Metro stops in the Washington, DC area.

Support locally owned businesses
Resilience at the community scale is also a function of strong local economies. With locally owned businesses, more of the profits are recycled within the community and region. Those businesses are more likely to reach out during a natural disaster, helping neighbors and donating to recovery efforts than are large national companies owned by distant stockholders whose motivation is simply maximizing profits. Local businesses are also more likely to source materials locally — something I'll address next week.

Build strong communities
Whether or not there are bike pathways or enough density to allow public transit, a high degree of resilience can be achieved in communities through community-building. Potluck suppers, local cultural events, farmers' markets, apple pie festivals, strawberry suppers, Sunday concerts, town meetings, and community walks can all help to create communities where people get to know each other and will work together when needed. That's the most important aspect of community resilience.

About this series
Throughout this resilient design series, I'm covering how our homes and communities can continue to function in the event of extended power outages, interruptions in heating fuel, or shortages of water. Resilient design is a life-safety issue that is critical for the security and wellbeing of families in a future of climate uncertainty.

Alex is founder of and executive editor of . To keep up with his latest articles and musings, you can .

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Image Credits:

  1. Dan Burden
  2. Alex Wilson

Feb 12, 2012 10:52 PM ET

Taking it home
by TJ Elder

These guidelines make perfect sense and they address real and crucial needs for just about every city and town in the US. I think the reason there's not more discussion of the issues raised here is that not many urban planners follow GBA--or the urban planners out there already live in places like Portland, Oregon, where these ideas are being implemented effectively. It's hard to feel empowered to make any of this happen, if you live in a more typical suburban area and are not in charge of creating bike lanes or drafting zoning that supports independent shops or mixed-use development.

I've been wondering lately if there's a correlation between the inevitable end of growth and the lifestyle changes that will accompany energy decline in coming decades. Maybe instead of growth there will be places that grow as others shrink, a zero-sum process. People will gravitate to places where there there are bike lanes and sidewalks and rows of closely spaced shops along comfortable streets. At the same time, the car-dependent places will either revert to a pre-automobile agrarian character or be abandoned.

Feb 13, 2012 10:42 AM ET

Interesting question...
by Lucas Durand - 7A

Maybe instead of growth there will be places that grow as others shrink, a zero-sum process. People will gravitate to places where there there are bike lanes and sidewalks and rows of closely spaced shops along comfortable streets.

You pose an interesting question...
I think the "zero-sum" process is a good way of looking at the begining of the end of growth.
Also, I think it is probably wise to consider the possiblity that as net-energy decline really sets in, the "sum" in "zero-sum" will get smaller and smaller as time passes...
So that eventually it is not growth in one area at the expense of another, it will be a lesser rate of decline in one area at the expense of a greater rate of decline in another.

As you indicate, it seems highly probable that without radical rehabilitation many suburbs and the exurbs in particular will have to be abandoned or become some kind of post-industrial slums.

It does seem likely that many people will try to migrate to places that still "function" despite decling net-energy.
This scenario begs the question of whether "resilient communities" will be able to accomodate an influx of large numbers of people without straining or overwhelming the systems that allow these places to "function".

Feb 14, 2012 12:55 AM ET

Edited Feb 14, 2012 12:56 AM ET.

Technology doubles every 18
by aj builder, Upstate NY Zone 6a

Technology doubles every 18 months. 40% growth rate. Fossil fuels used at 7% rate and will decline from that over time. Population growth rate is close to 1% and declining.

Modern tech is moving toward net zero energy needs. My first cell phone had a two pound battery. There are cell phones in research that no longer need to be plug charged.

The exponential of tech is flying past the coming decline of fossil.

The future will will not be a parking lot of rusting cars all out of gas.

We built pyramids and the Brooklyn bridge without computers and nano tech. I think we can figure a way past peak fossil fuel.

Feb 15, 2012 9:16 PM ET

Edited Feb 15, 2012 9:18 PM ET.

Hard to feel empowered? Or just not interested?
by James Morgan

It's hard to feel empowered to make any of this happen, if you live in a more typical suburban area and are not in charge of creating bike lanes or drafting zoning that supports independent shops or mixed-use development.

In many communities it's really not that hard to get involved in local government at the policy level by joining an advisory board or lobbying your elected representatives, but I think the independent, contrarian back-to-the-land thinking of the 1960's still runs deep in the green building community and for many GBA readers the motivation to pursue that involvement is weak. That's a shame, because arguably there's far more environmental benefit to be gained by designing good urban infrastructure and development policy going forward than from building any number of one-at-a-time super-insulated passive houses. More than sixty comments on the question of whether it's more correct to say 'warm air rises' or 'less dense air is pushed up by more dense air', but only three (now four) on this excellent blog post? That's kinda sad.

Feb 16, 2012 1:21 PM ET

Brave New World
by Jan Olsen

I think we have mistaken" progress" or maybe a more accurate term would be adaption, for what it really is-decline. We are being forced to accept as the "new normal": power outages,increased fuel prices,over -regulation,inept and ineffiecient municipalities, budget busting taxes,people resorting and forced to employ back up systems such as generator systems, fuel heaters, sump pumps w/ alternate assist systems to handle flood waters etc. Possibly if towns made some sort of attempt to control the amount of trees and branches along the roadways(its like driving through a tunnel or canopy of branches these days,) that we wouldn't have so many wires down -a big reason for outages.I think its all part of the "dumbing down" and mediocre attitudes that seem to be so prevalent today. There are many reasons for this "situation" and I don't need to go into it at this juncture. If this is the future that we have worked so hard towards, I think we are missing the mark! We really don't have to go down this road,if we would pay more attention to what is going on around us. We need to ask more questions about the this and many other issues that concern each and everyone of us in our daily lives. I think energy efficiency is just smart, cost effective, and the responsible thing to do in general and its up to all of us to do our part and contribute to our own futures! I always say: Its not a job its an adventure!

Feb 16, 2012 4:24 PM ET

One of a kind Passivhaus vs. urban infrastructure
by TJ Elder

James, you have a point about the usefulness of individual one-of-a-kind projects in the scheme of things. Still, it's possible to address big picture issues with smaller scale projects. A unique super-insulated building can support a pedestrian friendly community, it can be mixed-use, or it can support walkable density and transit use by taking an infill site. Density and walkability develop one building at a time. The message here is: superinsulation is a good idea, but a Passivhaus on the Prairie may be a poor solution for people who don't intend to live off the land.

Feb 19, 2012 1:20 AM ET

Edited Feb 21, 2012 12:50 AM ET.

Expanding the brand without diluting the brand
by David Gregory

@James Morgan and some thoughts of my own:

This blog post pushes the boundaries of the GBA brand; so no need to be sad that more folks aren't commenting on 'designing good urban infrastructure and development policy'* ... out of scope and out of expertise. There's ample discussion of these things elsewhere, though, and probably many GBA readers reading and commenting there (see end).

One question is to what extent the 'B' stands for the noun, or the verb. What might be interesting is for the GBA community to think about what issues this blog raises that could be part of expanding coverage (and perhaps audience), without diluting the brand or alienating the readership.

My suggestion: Focus on density, then mixed-use; start small and expand...(much of this is already seeing coverage; so just suggesting seeking out / covering more, or highlighting in a particular blog / topic heading):
1. Infill construction or multi-building developments (co-housing, etc): not really a stretch from the core brand, just might be a few things about siting and site infrastructure, or opportunities (tri-gen, anyone?) that are different from more isolated buildings
2. Remodels / additions that allow more people to live in the same building only with modest increases in built space. Attic conversions, new wings, or just changing access/circulation; and then all the details that come along with this complexity: codes, sound transmission, sub-metering, etc...
3. True multi-family construction: issues and details dealing with vertical or horizontal party walls/floors, mechanical systems issues, etc.
4. Commercial construction (mixed-use): different materials (concrete, steel), codes, etc.
5. International coverage (overlapping the above): European examples most likely, as have been shown here already; though lower-cost options from other countries may be useful as well...

Beyond that (or even within, at some point), linking to outside sources for related issues rather than trying to bring it 'in-house' makes sense. I love chasing the links I find here!

To tie some things together: The story of the Hartfords (Maine/NYTimes/EnergyCircle) can be seen many ways:
- an income problem [or health + global economy, etc]
- a fuel-cost problem
- a government budget-cut problem
- an building science / air-sealing / insulation (etc). problem
- an architectural problem [no room to take on a tenant]
- a building form / urban form problem [isolated house, vs. row-houses sharing heat]
- a location problem [limited fuel options; distance from services, jobs, tenants]
(...and we could go on...)

Point is, it's all of these; like with most issues, what's needed is to build connections between disciplines and work together to learn from each other come up with solutions.

* for those interested in some of the non-'building' (noun) issues raised in the blog, among many other great sources, see [Institute for Transportation and Development Policy], in particular a recent report on European Low-Car(bon) Communities:

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