Friday, October 27, 2017

Good Plans

I happened upon a great collection of quotes related to planning the other day and have since added many to my own listing of quotes.  One of the first to catch my eye was by author and systems theory proponent Lester Robert Bittel, who is quoted as saying,

“Good plans shape good decisions. That's why good planning helps to make elusive dreams come true.” 

The value of planning is usually not disputed. What makes good plans so elusive and, at times, can be the source of much contention, is the nature of the plan and its implementation.  Couple the inherently complex process of developing a “good” plan with the acute necessity to address urgent problems like the impact of natural hazards on our human civilization, and the critical need for a “good” result grows exponentially.  And yet planning remains the first step toward doing something about any situation we need to change.

Another great quote in my newly-found collection is attributed to Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, who supposedly said:

Observe always that everything is the result of change, and get used to thinking that there is nothing Nature loves so well as to change existing forms and make new ones of them.

When it comes to resilience planning, the late emperor hit the proverbial nail on the head.  Nature loves to change our plans. And so plans to address Nature’s impact must include sufficient flexibility and contingencies to make them relevant in spite of the changes that may come our way.

The nature of planning—particularly land-use planning—hasn’t changed much in the decades since I started studying the subject. And, as old as I feel sometimes, I was not a pioneer in the field.  An article in the journal Natural Hazards Review from May of 2000 (pp. 99-106) does an excellent job of applying the traditional land-use planning process, based on the “Rational Planning Model” familiar to all students of urban and regional planning, to this notion of hazard mitigation.  Nearly 17 years have passed since the article was written, and yet the lessons therein are timeless. 

The premise made by the authors argues the high value of the land-use planning process in addressing hazard mitigation.  The article states:

“According to the National Research Council’s Board on Natural Disasters, ‘Communities can often achieve significant reductions in losses from natural disasters by adopting land-use plans.’ In fact, the Second National Assessment on Natural and Related Technological Hazards concluded, ‘No single approach to bringing sustainable hazard mitigation into existence shows more promise at this time than increased use of sound and equitable land-use management.”

The article goes on to review features of the land-use planning process that, as they say, enables “communities to actually realize this promise.”  For instance:

Land-use planning combines technical analysis and community participation to make wise choices among alternative strategies for managing changes in land use. Integrating natural hazards mitigation into land-use planning can help a community become more resilient through:

·       Intelligence about long-term threats posed by natural hazards to the safety and viability of human development and environmental resources

·       Problem solving to cope with imminent threats prior to, during, and after a disaster

·       Advance planning to avoid or mitigate harm from a future disaster and to recover afterwards
·       Management strategies to implement plans through policies, regulations, capital improvements, acquisition, and taxation
Land-use plans state community goals, principles, and actions.... Formulated through a participatory process, plans commit communities to action to achieve community goals, e.g., to reduce losses to private property or to reduce vulnerability of ‘lifeline’ facilities.

The article then outlines the primary purposes served by the plan (and the process by which it is developed), listing them as:

First, the plan-making process is a practical way to facilitate consensus building. For example, hazard assessment informs the community about the type and location of hazards it faces, and then the review of alternative mitigation strategies helps resolve conflicts and build commitment to adopted policies.  

Second, the plan coordinates community agendas. For example, hazard mitigation can be integrated with economic development, environmental quality, community development, housing, and infrastructure programming. This avoids uncoordinated and possibly conflicting policies and actions, strengthens the likelihood of effective mitigation, and overcomes the persistent problem of lack of political saliency for natural hazards.

Third, the plan establishes the rational nexus between public interest and implementation activities, necessary for both political and legal defensibility. For example, the plan can document the likelihood of property damage if development is permitted in high-hazard zones, thus defending against constitutional challenges based on claims of a ‘taking.’

Finally, the plan articulates land-use policy, guiding public officials in deciding on development ordinances, capital improvement allocations, and permit review. It encourages private developers to follow the adopted hazard mitigation policy to expedite their permit applications. It is a guide toward coordinating the community’s actions along consistent lines.

"There is no single model for a hazard-mitigation plan. Instead, the planner and the community must choose the stakeholder participation approach, plan type, and mitigation strategy that best serve their needs.”

And yet therein lies the value of a truly “good plan.”

Along those lines, here’s another very inspirational statement from the web page I found, this one by Williams Jennings Bryan, a three-time nominee for US president:

“Destiny is not a matter of chance; but a matter of choice.
  It is not a thing to be waited for, it is a thing to be achieved.”

I have only these words to add: 

We have the tools. We can—and should—change our destiny.


Two more great references include:

Thursday, October 26, 2017

It's a Small World Indeed

About 25 years ago (doesn't seem that long), I lived in Madison, a lovely little Connecticut town of about 18,000 people on Long Island sound.  In recent years, Madison, like many towns and cities along the East Coast of the US, has suffered the ever-increasing ravages of climate-driven events.  Storms like “Sandy” and “Irene” damaged coastal structures, flooded low-lying areas, and wrought havoc on power and transportation systems.  Yet those stalwart New Englanders bounced back and the town reclaimed its charm.

Madison, CT
Fast forward to today and I received a link from a co-worker (thanks, Ray!) to a wonderful web page called the Community Resilience Building Workshop, sponsored by the Nature Conservancy.  The site includes information about developing a community resilience plan, including tools for a resilience building workshop and sample plans for communities that have worked through their program.  They add:

“Over the last decade the Community Resilience Building Workshop has been tried, tested, and is trusted by over one hundred communities across 6 states now on the right path to resilience. Community Resilience Building provides a friendly “anywhere at any scale” approach for developing community resilience action plans for municipalities, academia, agencies, corporations, organizations, and institutions. Community Resilience Building employs a unique community-driven process, rich with information, experience, and dialogue, where participants identify top hazards, current challenges, strengths, and priority actions to improve their community’s resilience to all natural and climate-related hazards today, and in the future.”

Imagine my surprise when the first community plan featured on the page was for “Madison, CT.”  According to the document on the web page: 
"Recent events... have compelled leading communities like the Town of Madison to proactively plan and mitigate potential risks through a community-driven process. Ultimately, this type of leadership... will reduce the exposure of Madison's citizens, infrastructure and ecosystems and serve as a model for communities across Connecticut, the Atlantic Seaboard, and the Nation."

In 2013, the town partnered with the Nature Conservancy to increase "awareness of risks associated with extreme weather and natural and climate-related hazards and to assess the risks, strengths and vulnerabilities within the Town of Madison.  This focus was actualized through a series of initial presentations, individual interviews and outreach to build stakeholder willingness and engagement followed by a series of Community Resilience Building Workshops in May of 2014. The core directive of this effort was the engagement with and between community stakeholders in order to facilitate the education, planning and ultimately implementation of priority adaptations actions."

The document says the primary objectives of this effort were to:

  • "Define extreme weather and local natural and climate-related hazards;
  • "Identify existing and future vulnerabilities and strengths;
  • "Develop and prioritize actions for the Town and broader stakeholder network;
  • "Identify opportunities for the community to advance actions to reduce risk and increase resilience."

According to an article written by Dr. Adam Welchel, Director of Science at the Nature Conservancy and project lead for the Madison team, the top recommendations from the Workshops held at the Town of Madison included the following excellent examples of activities intended to build resilience:

  • Install highly visible evacuation route signage and develop/implement supportive communication program to ensure residents are aware of routes and expectations.
  • For nursing homes and elderly care facilities, improve power supply with individual generators, and identify facilities in flood zones currently and under future scenarios.
  • Engage neighborhood associations and faith-based organizations to develop cooperative response plans with the town via a “Neighbor Helping Neighbor Program” and develop neighborhood-based preparedness and mitigation plans.
  • Maintain existing salt marsh resources and increase the sustainability of future wetlands by considering additional regulatory protection (increased setback requirements) and acquisition of advancement zones to prevent impacts to resources.
  • Identify planning and zoning best management practices to ensure risk to property, structures, and natural infrastructure (beaches/dunes, wetlands, floodplains) is minimized during the recovery phase of future events.

In his article, Dr. Welchel also confirmed that, “since the finalization of the Summary of Findings report, the Town of Madison has received funding through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery Program to advance resilience recommendations identified in the project.”

Your town or organization can participate in a program like Madison’s.  If you haven’t begun developing a resilience plan—or even if your effort is well underway—this is another great resource for you!  In my opinion, the group organizational ideas and decision-making tools are exemplary and well worth the visit to the site.


Wednesday, October 18, 2017

A Call to Action

What more will it take? The death toll in this year’s wildfires in California has exceeded 40 persons, including a woman a news report said was killed simply trying to save her beloved dogs.  The tragic stories go on and on, as the fires continue to burn. And where blazes are waning, others are erupting to take their place.   An NBCnews interactive photo (shown below) depicts the same neighborhood before and after the fire passed through.

The events of the past few weeks beg the question:  How many must die and how many homes and livelihoods must be lost before our society embraces their responsibility to adapt and plan to prevent it?

In an earlier post, I mentioned the work the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) is doing to help improve the future prospects for wildfire safety.  In 2013, NFPA announced a new guide for planners called Community Wildfire Safety Through Regulation.   The guide can be accessed, free of charge, from their web page here.  On their web page, NFPA says:

“The guide is designed to help planners and regulators considering wildfire regulations to understand their options and implement a successful public process for adoption effective wildland/urban interface (WUI) tools that match local needs.

"Wildfire hazard is a growing threat to communities around the United States. According to the National Association of State Foresters (NASF), more than 72,000 communities are at risk. While living closer to nature offers many benefits, the risk of brush, grass or forest fires often gets overlooked. Recent research on global climate change indicates that losses as a result of wildfire will only increase in the coming decades.

NFPA’s publication reviews a number of planning tools that can be used to protect communities from wildfires, including land use planning, subdivision design and zoning.  The guide also discusses:

  • Sound technical and legal justifications for adoption of wildfire regulations for planners and public officials
  • Tips on what planners should do before the community embarks on a formal wildfire safety regulation adoption process
  • Guidance for communities to evaluate their wildfire safety needs and choose tools that fit those needs
  • A summary of best practices used around the country to address wildfire risk in the WUI

 The answers seem simple enough.  NFPA's guide (page 1) argues that

“…wildfire is a hazard that we can address through a variety of tools, including regulations. By modifying the “fuels” available to a wildfire during an event – that is, ensuring that buildings are flame- and ember-resistant and reducing the amount of vegetation in a flame’s path, there is a tremendous amount of risk we can reduce within our communities.”

So why does it seem that these tools and regulations aren’t being applied as broadly or as quickly as they should to save lives and property?  NFPA says that part of the problem may be a lack of a sense of urgency on the part of planners. Or perhaps the key role of planners is sometimes overlooked, in deference to first responders (e.g., fire officials).  The perennial loss of life in places like California, however, should be a clear signal to all that, as NFPA's guide (page 2) puts it,

“Planners… can and should have a more significant role in protecting communities from wildfire. Planners are uniquely qualified to assist their communities in creating a more comprehensive approach to wildfire risk — one that goes beyond structure and site design to fundamentally change the location, design, and type of development in high wildfire risk zones. The rising toll of fire losses in the wildland/urban interface reflects not just a wildfire problem but a problem of poorly planned development, and planners can change that.

“To make matters worse, research on global climate change indicates that losses due to wildfire are going to get worse in coming decades, with some models predicting that the total number of trees and other vegetation consumed by wildfire will at least double in the western United States over this century. To reduce those losses we need to expand our understanding of fire risk to include site, subdivision, and even community design – and that is what planners are uniquely trained to do.”

Which brings me back to my original question:  How many must die and how many homes and livelihoods must be lost before our society embraces their responsibility to adapt and plan to prevent it?  Or, as NFPA put it, “Why don’t more communities have wildfire regulations?”  The 2013 community guide (page 2) says there are a number of reasons communities are still at risk—none of which, in my opinion, excuse the inaction.

“First, the seriousness of these threats is not always clear and present to the average citizen. Wildfires may affect a community only once every decade — or even less — so the threat seems remote. It can be hard to convince residents that the cherished forest in their backyard may someday threaten their homes and lives.

“Second, discussions about regulations to address future wildfire risk can quickly become politicized and controversial. For example, requirements to cut or thin trees and other vegetation can generate considerable opposition from full-time and second-homeowners who want to preserve the greenery and privacy on their property. Some landowners also worry that their property’s value will be reduced by the loss of trees or that the costs for compliance will be burdensome. These concerns create fertile ground for the spread of misinformation regarding the true cost of proposed wildfire regulations and erode support for those new regulations.

“It is important to remind skeptics that wildfire regulations are similar to other hazard-related land use requirements. For example, many communities restrict the size and location of structures in floodplains and strictly limit modifications to the floodplain itself, but the public has generally come to accept such restrictions as reasonable and necessary. Wildfire regulations based on accurate mapping and risk assessment should gain a similar level of credibility and acceptance in communities that adopt them…”

In the perceptual hierarchy of natural hazards, wildfires tend to fall to the bottom.  As NFPA so eloquently put it, development restrictions to mitigate flooding and, I might add, seismic hazards—particularly in California—are easily defended.  So why not wildfires?   

It’s possible that the sheer magnitude of the devastation of 2017 may finally be the impetus for communities and the state to take action.  Sadly, however, I don’t know if even what we’ve seen this year will be enough. I hope it is.

Friday, October 13, 2017

"Look in the mirror..."

A number of years ago, I completed a course in “Fire Safe Building Design” by the The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA).  The certificate I was awarded labeled me a “fire safe building designer.”  But as I read about the devastating loss of life and structures in California and other areas of the country that have suffered the ravages of wildfires the last few months, I wondered again about what it means to be “fire safe.” 

The training we received in the coursework (protecting egress corridors, suppression systems, materials, fire separation, etc.) was focused on occupants of a building getting out alive.  But what if the real danger isn’t within, but on the outside; and what if existing the building is only the first step to safety? What can be done to protect a structure and its occupants from a wildfire? More importantly, what can be done to prevent fires and structures (and humans) from forced interaction in the first place? 

Photo from NFPA web page, online link below
 As it turns out, my friends at NFPA have suggestions for that as well.  Their Wildfire Safety Tips(here) include a variety of ideas on three major topics:

  1. What to do before a wildfire threatens your area, including ideas for preparing your family, your home and your community;
  2. What to do when an active wildfire is in your area, including protecting your home and family, and evacuating, if necessary; and
  3. What to do after the danger has passed.  

NFPA's resources include both online checklists and printable publications, as well as links to other resources.
The US Forest Service (here) has a number of suggestions for planners, including ways to use zoning and building code regulations to guide fire-safe development of residential communities.  I’ll let the web page speak for itself, but the preface to the list of techniques on the page is telling.  It says:

“Land-use planning and zoning are governmental functions critical to public safety-including fire protection. But because these functions are political as well, they are subject to intense differences of opinion and to public controversy. Therefore, they tend to lag behind development until the problem becomes aggravated, much in the fashion of the traffic light that is installed only after eight or ten deaths have occurred at the intersection.

“Being political they are also subject, even after enactment into law, to pressures for variances and modifications. Therefore, they are seldom as effective as fire protection personnel would like to see them. With few exceptions, they cannot be made retroactive and, consequently, older developments are not much affected by them. 

“Where land-use planning and zoning have been enforced, however, they have achieved significant degrees of fire safety.”

The irony here is that the statement above dates from the 1970s.  That was 40 years ago.  Sadly, little seems to have changed in terms of adopting fire-safe development practices; and there are thousands of homes and likely millions more people at risk today because of it.

Finally, an excellent piece published yesterday (link and source of photo here) by Michelle Steinberg, manager of NFPA’s Wildfire Division, includes a sobering lesson on this very topic.  She writes:

“Watching this horrific disaster unfold is devastating and depressing. Knowing all the good that so many residents, firefighters, and agencies have done over so many years in California to prepare for wildfire makes it harder to accept that at last count 3,500 structures have been destroyed and that the region is experiencing a tragic loss of life. (Note: news sources on Thursday morning, October 12, cite the rising death toll at 23 people killed). This outcome is what NFPA staff and so many other safety advocates dread and spend our careers trying to avert.

“Fielding media inquiries this week has been difficult - but of course nowhere near on the scale of difficulty of fighting the fire, carrying out evacuation orders, or watching one's home and neighborhood go up in flames. The unfortunate trend of the media is to play the blame game. I can't and won't play that game, by calling out any single entity to say it is their fault the fires happened, or homes burned, or people died. What I can do is to point out the tremendous and humbling complexity of the wildfire problem when it comes to the disastrous loss of homes and lives. 

“What I can do is call on everyone in our society to look in the mirror and to think - whether in your personal or professional lives - what must I do to stop this happening over and over again?”

Indeed. What can be done to stop this from happening?  We must change our habits or we’re destined to continue this nightmare season after season.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Yelling "Fire" in a Crowded Neighborhood

The headline in the Washington Post today says it all:

The catastrophic toll of California's wildfires: 26 dead, hundreds missing, thousands displaced
The article (link here) goes on to say that, “collectively, the infernos that have erupted across the region since Sunday are the state’s deadliest wildfires since World War II…. For Capt. Greg McCollum of the Santa Rosa Fire Department, the sheer size and power of the Tubbs Fire has humbled him after 24 years on the job. This is a once-in-a-career fire,’ he said. ‘One of the other guys said it’s a once-in-two-careers fire. Well, I’m no historian, but I know a damn big fire when I see one.’”

The sheer magnitude of need is unprecedented.  “’The fires have put a strain on federal resources, too. Coming on the heels of a string of catastrophic hurricanes, the California wildfires in total represent just one of 22 disasters that the Federal Emergency Management Agency is managing across the nation. Eighty-five percent of FEMA’s 9,900 full-time employees are working ‘in the field,’ away from their assigned offices, agency spokesman Mike Cappannari said.”

An article in Newsweek, (also the source of the photo above) published just two days ago in the midst of the California conflagration, tries to answer the question I immediately asked aloud when I saw the horrendous images of devastation on television, namely:  How do we prevent this kind of destruction in the future?

The answer is not preventing fires.  In fact, suppressing wildfires leads to more growth and potentially more damaging fires in the future.  Fires are a natural part of the evolutionary life of a forest.  As with many of the natural events discussed in this blog, the destruction follows poor decisions on the part of human beings in how they develop their communities beside and within natural areas.  The article concludes:

"Albert Simeoni, a professor at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, says that we can minimize the damage through science.  Simeoni was once a firefighter and assistant fire chief in Corsica, France, and had been caught in a dangerous wildfire. Now he researches fire protection engineering, which is the study of how to protect people, property, and the environment from unwanted fire damage.

"Part of the problem is with how houses have been built. Simeoni could see that the areas of California that were burned were not built in an ideal way for preventing fire damage. “If you look at the photos, you see that the houses are very close to each other and basically there is a domino effect where if one house is burning it spreads to another,” he said.

"To build in a way that reduces fire damage, you should build houses farther apart, Simeoni said. Keeping vegetation from touching a house, pruning dry leaves and considering the flammability of housing materials like ductwork can all reduce the damage.

"Other factors can help predict the flammability of an area. The topography, dominant winds and plant life can all determine the chances of an area facing “extreme fire behavior,” which is when flames advance faster than you can control them.

"California is a fairly risky place for fires, and increasingly so… Fire seasons are becoming longer and longer. The change of weather and climate are making it even worse in California.  However, the state doesn’t even have the most extensive fires right now. Simeoni says that Brazil and Canada have more intense blazes occurring, but there is less at stake in those inflamed areas: fewer people and less property."

Therein lies the key to addressing fire safety in the future.  Development must consider human lives as the highest priority.