Transit Planning and Resident Behavior: New Research

I caught up with Manuel Santana Palacios last week to discuss his recent research as a PhD candidate at UC Berkeley at the Department of City and Regional Planning with Dan Chatman. His research looks at equity within the bus rapid transit and private transportation networks in Barranquilla, Colombia and Cape Town, South Africa. His interviews with residents shed light on the tension between what planners and policy makers think will best serve residents and the factors that drive transportation behavior among residents. A few takeaways:

  1. Planners arrive with an assumption that large-scale transportation infrastructure project solves vexing challenges that are most pressing for residents such as a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and safety when in fact, what residents really need are shorter travel times and affordability.
  2. BRT only works in cities with a certain urban form (ie long versus wide or dispersed) where a trunk system serves the most users. As a result, Barranquila’s urban form was better suited for BRT than Cape Town.
  3. We need to seize this moment to really deliver transportation that meets the needs of residents. Otherwise, getting them to return to public transit after Covid-19 is over will be really difficult.

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Planning for Arts and Culture in San Diego

The role of government, and the planning community, is perhaps to facilitate these kinds of partnerships and make it easier for serendipity to occur. While many cities mandate a portion of the development budget toward art, this will not necessarily result in an ongoing benefit to the arts community as in most cases the budget is used for public art projects versus creating opportunities for cultural programming.  

Rather than relying solely on this mandate, planners might want to consider educating developers with examples and case studies about the myriad ways that artists can participate in the development process. Likewise, outreach and education for the arts community about what role they can play in projects may stimulate a dialogue that can yield great results. In this sense, the planning community can be an invaluable translator in helping all parties to discover a richer, more inspiring, common language.

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Heat Action Planning is Tackling Urban Heat at the Hyper-Local Level

A participatory heat action planning process, Nature’s Cooling Systems, identified urban heat mitigation and adaptation strategies that focus specifically at the neighborhood scale. The framework is called the NCS Heat Action Planning Guide. The core team, consisting of The Nature Conservancy, Arizona State University, and Maricopa County Department of Health, selected three heat vulnerable communities based upon heat intensity, strong community identity, health risk factors, the presence of development projects planned or underway, and other factors. The three neighborhoods involved in heat action planning are Edison-Eastlake and Lindo-Roesley in Phoenix, and the Mesa Care neighborhood in Mesa.

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Pandemics Are Also an Urban Planning Problem

Disease shapes cities. Some of the most iconic developments in urban planning and management, such as London’s Metropolitan Board of Works and mid-19th century sanitation systems, developed in response to public health crises such as cholera outbreaks. Now COVID-19 is joining a long list of infectious diseases, like the Spanish flu of 1918 in New York and Mexico City or the Ebola Virus Disease in West Africa in 2014, likely to leave enduring marks on urban spaces.

For Michele Acuto, professor of global urban politics in the School of Design at the University of Melbourne, the intersection of urban design and public health is an increasingly critical territory. He’s the director of the Connected Cities Lab, a leading center for advancing urban policy development; he’s worked on urban health in a number of capacities, including with the European Commission and the World Health Organization’s Western Pacific Regional Office. While the University of Melbourne scrambles to accelerate a COVID-19 vaccine, the Lab is working to understand the urban planning dimensions of pandemic preparedness.  

CityLab spoke to Acuto about why COVID-19 could change how we study cities — and how we live in them.

Much of the coverage of the new coronavirus feels unprecedented, as if this is the first time urban spaces and global movement of goods and people have given rise to the threat of pandemic. But the stories of cities have always also been those of infectious disease.

Anyone you talk to on the urban or medical side would tell you this is not new. You can do parallels between COVID-19 and many other epi- and pandemics, from the plague to SARS and Ebola. The line of caution we need here is not to draw too many parallels or rushed conclusions without evidence. COVID-19 is not as deadly as Ebola, which had a mortality rate of 60%, or SARS and MERS at 30%.

But if the risk of death is lower, transmission is much higher, and that makes it challenging globally. Quarantines only work insofar as you can identify all dangerous cases, and with COVID-19’s symptoms and delayed onset, you can’t spot it that easily. In that way this is much more similar to the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic, or a swine flu like the one that inflected 500 million and killed up to 50 million in 2009. The question is whether we are prepared to avoid that.

Looking back, did we miss something in the way we were thinking about the intersection of urbanization and infectious disease? Were we looking in the wrong places?

Yes, to a degree. We have perhaps been a bit too biased toward global cities. COVID-19 is really a story of peri-urban and rural-to-urban connections, in places that are often not on the global map. Roger Keil, Creighton Connolly and Harris Ali recently argued for this suburban view. They tell the story of how the spread to Germany starts with a car [parts] factory in the outskirts in Wuhan. A person travels from Wuhan to Germany to help with training. This is a story of peri-urban Wuhan to semi-suburban, tertiary-city Bavaria. So sure, you have some of the global connections at airports, but it’s a much more complex urban system.

This is a rich point. It’s easy to look at these major cities and global supply chains, and say of course we have an epidemic — this is how globalization plays itself out. But you’re telling a different story — one about non-global cities, tertiary cities and peri-urban areas.

Yes, it’s actually about a much wider set of urban areas. This is the story in Washington state [where COVID-19 first emerged in Snohomish County], or the Italian story, which is still largely suburban.

Part of the history of urbanization is building and managing your way out of infectious diseases, such as cholera outbreaks in the middle of the 19th century. Here’s Richard Sennett on how Joseph Bazalgette and his colleagues went about developing London’s response: “They were not practising an exact science. They did not apply established principles in particular cases, there were no general policies that dictated best practices.” They experimented and learned as they went along, he argues. How do you conceive of the design approach to managing outbreaks in everything from global to tertiary cities?

It’s a bit early to take on lessons learned from COVID-19, but you’d probably have a big conversation about the value versus the risks of densification. Clearly densification is and has been the problem with some of this. COVID-19 puts a fundamental challenge to how we manage urbanization. Hong Kong has 17,311 people per square mile. Rethinking density management is a key for long-term survival in a pandemic world, really.

Part of this means thinking about decentralization of essential services. Singapore had to shut down its main hospitals during SARS. Many countries such as Italy are considering door-to-door testing. But we need to also rethink the ways, perhaps digital ones, we test and contain. How would we manage to do door-to-door testing even just in Melbourne alone, with 5 million residents, and in giants like Shanghai and London with upwards of 10 million dwellers? Bubbling up are some core questions about what we’ve been told is desirable urbanization versus what makes sense from an infectious disease perspective.

Here’s a difficult question. Even Le Corbusier, who prized efficiency and movement, understood the value of people bumping into each other. It gives cities their energy and cosmopolitanism its effect. I wonder if you think this decentralized city — a London of villages, Mayor Hidalgo’s 15-minute Paris — will be part of our response in urban form?

Here’s a way to think about it. SARS got some people to think about cities and their connectivity as a fundamental factor. Fast-forward to Ebola and that got people to think about the coexistence of cities in the Global North and South, and the ferocity of the city itself — the impossibility of just cordoning it off. The city is not a thing: it’s an amorphous blob.

Fast forward to now, and we’ve moved beyond Global North-Global South thinking. It’s one very large system, given it’s really about that connection between, for example, [the Italian village of] Codogno and the outskirts of Wuhan. Hopefully this gets us to think about some fundamental principles.

We need to begin with a new imagination of the urban data we rely on. The best thing a professional probably looks at in this moment is Johns Hopkins’s CSSE aggregator of information. It splashes together data sources from WHO, NHS, and so on. Many national governments’ “official” numbers lag, so there’s better information by aggregating different sources of information.

But this also brings into play the current digital revolution and the challenges of evidence that has different levels of legitimacy. Had this happened not, say, in China but in some place like India with very strong informal settlements, you’d potentially be arguing that something like Slum Dwellers International, which uses local mapping and communities to source data, would probably be the best-suited entity to support the collection of information. You’ve gotten something there about the legitimacy of different types of urban knowledge and the need to rethink who are the right sources of it.

Moving from that information to changes within the built environment again, we know the management of water and waste helped remake cities. Can you predict the area where we might see a radical transformation coming out of this?

We must remember you will be weighing such changes in the context of climate change and sustainability as well. If you spread the city rather than densify, that would have to go with much better connectivity of public transport. What should change — the decentralization of services, better managing of supplies, nets of smaller entities in food delivery, for instance — is different from will. Will market forces sway the things we do towards what’s marketable and economically profitable versus saying this clearly is a call for redundancy in public health and public transport?

One thing I’ve barely heard talked about is the digital response here, which didn’t exist at all at the time of most of our historic parallels. It existed a bit during Ebola, but not in the same size as this. Major services like Tencent and AliBaba can tell you who is sick in your neighborhood, and people are making daily decisions based on the whole digital infrastructure. I come from an hour from the “red zone” in Italy, and family and friends make a lot of decisions based on digital connectivity information.

Modern planning and civil engineering were born out of the mid-19th century development of sanitation in response to the spread of malaria and cholera in cities. Digital infrastructure might be the sanitation of our time.

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How Portland’s Earthquake Preppers Are Planning for the Worst

On a chilly Sunday evening this fall, a few dozen people gather in a home in Portland’s Alameda neighborhood. As they chat about the hosts’ landscaping and what they’ve been up to at work over wine and beer, the scene looks like a typical neighborhood cocktail gathering. Then a bell sounds from the living room, and everyone leaves their conversations and heads into the living room to sit on couches and fold-up chairs.

“One of the main elements of disaster preparedness is knowing your neighbors,” Michael Hall says as the meeting begins. He’s the bell-ringer and leader of Alameda’s self-titled “Council of Blockheads,” which represents a two-block, 25-household area. For the last four years, the residents of this leafy neighborhood have convened twice annually over a lofty goal: ensuring the survival of everyone on the block in case of a disaster.

For the next 30 minutes, the group talks about whether to order more stackable emergency water containers and how much extra food to stock up on (the new advice: enough for two weeks). They listen to earthquake survival tips from a guest speaker, Marilyn Bishop, who sells pre-made emergency prep kits full of freeze-dried rations. Four years ago, these neighbors hardly knew each other. But after seven meetings and counting, they now see each other as their lifelines.

Hall is one of the many residents of the Pacific Northwest reckoning with the terrifying potential of the Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake that many experts believe will strike in the next 50 years. The overdue super-quake could trigger devastating coastal tsunamis—waves up to 85 feet high—and deliver potentially massive damage to homes, highways, and water and power infrastructure. Galvanized by Kathryn Schulz’s 2015 New Yorker story “The Really Big One,” Hall was eager to do something. So he gathered a few neighbors at his house over beers to brainstorm. The result was their first disaster-awareness block party, where nearly every household had a representative. The block parties became the way to make catastrophe preparation less overwhelming.

They started holding twice-yearly informational meetups with guest speakers and workshops that covered how to create a family emergency plan, human waste storage systems, and water and food storage. They made a bulk order of water bricks. And they created and continue to update a comprehensive inventory of neighborhood contact information, emergency supplies (such as generators, tools, and camping equipment), and skills (e.g., first-aid, carpentry, childcare). Some neighbors even gained additional training as Neighborhood Emergency Team (NET) volunteers—city-trained residents who deploy in a large-scale emergency.

Hall’s mind is mostly on the earthquake, but the Big One could also be fire, flooding, ice storm, blackouts, or any number of extreme weather events or social disruptions. As a bonus, the group has forged strong new social bonds. “I know folks on the end of the block now that I didn’t know for the first 20 years living here,” says Hall.

The principle behind Alameda’s ad-hoc survival school is well established. While having a store of food and water to withstand days or weeks of service outages is important, research shows that a supply of helpful neighbors might be your most critical emergency preparation. “The number-one thing I always say to community groups, ‘Do you want to survive in a disaster? Well, then you better know your neighbor,’” says Lori Peek, director of the Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado Boulder. “In the immediate life-saving moment of the disaster unfolding, that’s when our communal ties are exceptionally important. If you’re isolated, no one will know to come rescue you.”

This recommendation is backed by studies showing that, in the aftermath of disasters like earthquakes in Southern Italy in 1980 and Kobe, Japan, in 1995, between 60 to 90 percent of victims were rescued by untrained survivors. Those spontaneous rescuers are most likely to be your neighbors.

The “know your neighbors” recommendation, though, goes beyond remembering names or small talk at the mailbox: It’s building connections and laying in a supply of social capital. “People who have those stronger social ties before the disaster or develop them after a disaster, they recover more quickly,” says Peek.

Daniel Aldrich, director of security and resilience studies at Northeastern University, began studying these connections after his own home in New Orleans was destroyed during Hurricane Katrina. In a February 2018 FEMA PrepTalk, Aldrich says that “the core elements of recovery don’t come from outside the community, they come from inside.” Particularly, the social connections and the people around you. “We found from around the world that those individuals, communities, with more social ties and a sense of place, a sense of belonging, those individuals come back,” Aldrich said in the PrepTalk about his research. They found that after Katrina, the level of destruction didn’t correspond with people who returned. Rather, it was the strength of social connections that brought people back.

Additionally, Aldrich found that collective action as essential to resilience: “Many of the challenges that we face with disaster cannot be solved by one individual or one family by themselves.” In the 2010 Haiti earthquake, for example, the government was essentially wiped out: Families relied on their communities to fend off looters and keep themselves safe.

There are both psychological and economic advantages to pursuing emergency preparation as a group. “When we talk to each other about what we need to do and prepare, it can be less overwhelming,” says Regina Ingabire, community resilience outreach coordinator for the Portland Bureau of Emergency Management. “Everyone has something to contribute. If you put together your skills in the community and what you have in your home, you probably don’t need hundreds and hundreds of dollars for a kit.”

Ingabire also recognizes that communities like Alameda—a relatively affluent neighborhood of mostly older, white homeowners—enjoy privileges that lower-income areas lack: residents with money, time, and energy to devote to preparations. In a way, they’re doing the city a favor by boosting their resilience on their own, so emergency workers and city officials can focus on more vulnerable communities.

“People, we are social animals,” Ingabire says. “If we just take that courage and knock on someone’s door, I think someone would be equally excited to see that the neighbor is reaching out.” Those who are anxious about knocking on a stranger’s door or who live in areas less conducive to neighborly bonding can start with bolstering other networks, such as places of worship, parents’ groups, or online neighborhood forums. “It doesn’t have to be a [large-scale] disaster that could happen,” she says. “It could be a fire. If you need a neighbor to watch your kid. Just think of the safety net you have by getting to know your neighbors.”

Indeed, Alameda’s Council of Blockheads is not exactly a cadre of hardcore doomsday preppers—they don’t have an arsenal or an underground survival shelter, and only about 30 minutes of their meeting was actually devoted to disaster preparedness content. The rest was catching up over adult-beverage-drinking and barbecue-eating.

“We’re inventing this as we go along, and still have skills [development] on the back burner, but not so intensely,” says Hall. “I think we’re drifting towards a more social, getting-to-know-you kind of thing.” For that, he brought in Mary Leverette, another neighbor, to help organize the social aspects and keep the meetings going. She already organized a non-disaster-focused knitting group that sprang out of the regular earthquake gatherings.

Leverette said at one point that Hall had suggested moving to one gathering a year, but she pushed back. “You lose too much,” she says. “You lose the connection, you lose the momentum. We’re really trying to keep the momentum of meeting twice a year, because it’s a good reminder. We still have work to do.”

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