Neighborhood Passive Survivability

(A piece I wrote back in 2006 that seems newly relevant in the wake of Sandy.)

The theory of passive survivability holds that buildings ought to be designed to promote the survival of their users during disasters and emergencies, and that quite often the steps needed to promote survivability are those needed to increase sustainability. In terms of buildings and disasters, the theory goes, safe is green, and green is safe.

I’m increasingly wondering if the same isn’t true for neighborhoods as well.

Hurricane SandyDisasters, including big, system-disrupting disasters, are likely to become more common over the coming decades. Whether they are caused by “ordinary” system failures (like the North American blackout of 2003), terrorismpandemic,climate change or global instabilities, we should all be prepared to live through times of shortages, service interruptions and danger.

Conventional thinking about disasters in the developed world revolves around seeing that people are prepared as individuals to survive for the short time it takes the authorities to respond to the emergency situation and restore normality. Almost no thought is given to changing the models for systems to make them substantially less brittle and more resilient.

But our planet is getting more dangerous (even uninsurable) and, as New Orleans has shown, recovery is not always rapid, even in wealthy countries. While individual preparedness and government response continue to be vital, perhaps we need to be putting a lot more thought into how we make the neighborhoods in which we live less vulnerable to disasters in the first place. Working with our neighbors and local government to increase the resilience of our communities might be one of the smartest moves we can make.

And while a few of the steps in that process might be particular to disaster preparedness (such as making sure the neighborhood has adequate medical supplies and training, or a couple working water filters, or that you have analternate method for communicating), most of the steps needed to guarantee livability in a time of crisis have other sustainability benefits. Certainly, well-designed green buildings can maintain their comfort even when the grid goes down, but so to can good alternative energy systems keep the lights on within in community (and power cell phones and other needed tools). Rainwater harvesting can mean that there’s a source of fairly clean water close at hand. Gardens can help provide food. Communities which have been designed to be walked and biked rather than driven can better withstand a disruption in the supply of gas.

The list could go on, but the point is made. If the passive survivability benefits of green building practices are an added incentive to use them, so too should we be thinking about the resilience benefits of bright green urban systems when we’re thinking of using them to replace the aging infrastructure we currently use.

[Photo credit]