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Thursday, 11 December 2014
"Retrofitting is the intelligent solution to built-in problems"
The Financial Times is running a four-part series, where 'correspondents examine the damage caused by extreme weather, the science behind it, the effect on business and politics, and links with climate change': Recovering from Natural Disaster One of the subjects looks at 'resilience': Urban Resilience And here is a piece from that section:
April 7, 2014 9:59 pm
Retrofitting is the intelligent solution to built-in problems
By Edwin Heathcote
In recent years architecture and urbanism have been forcing their way on to government agendas.
The form of buildings, streets and squares used to be left to a mix of municipal regulation, markets, and a varying degree of negotiation between the two – otherwise known as corruption.
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The upheavals of recent years, from Tahrir Square to Maidan, have radically changed those perceptions. Since the protests that led to the Arab Spring and more recently the collapse of the Ukrainian regime, the world’s less democratic regimes have been taking a keen interest in the nature and form of public space.
Then there are the stories of urban apocalypse – the once unimaginable collapse of thriving single-industry cities, such as Detroit, have demonstrated the dangers of urban over-specialisation.
Even as tech-cities are being hyped as the next big thing, urbanists are beginning to understand that the mix is critical to city success. There is an increasing realisation that the more diverse and intense the mix of uses in any city quarter, the more resilient it will be to economic vagaries.
Add to this the effects of an increasingly unpredictable climate, and governments of all shades are taking notice of how, why and where cities are being built.
The tsunamis in the Indian Ocean (2004) and Japan (2011) caused extraordinary devastation, flattening entire settlements, while hurricanes Katrina and Sandy filled New Orleans and New York with water, crippling both cities.
This is not without mentioning man-made challenges: war, terrorism, pollution, nuclear fallout.
But what can be done? The easy answer is: do not build on vulnerable sites. Do not build on flood plains or deserts. Not too close to the sea, nor where there are tornadoes. Also, abandon virtually every city on the planet, as they are all probably built in the wrong place.
Of course, that is not going to happen. So the problem becomes one of retrofitting existing cities, which is where most of the population growth in the next two decades or so is projected to take place.
Buildings can now be built to extraordinary specifications.
In the Tohoku earthquake that triggered the 2011 tsunami in Japan, Sendai city was severely shaken. Yet the Sendai Mediatheque, an exquisitely light and transparent design by architect Toyo Ito (intended as a prototype library for the information age), was scarcely damaged and there were no casualties.
Ito achieved this through an innovative solution that transferred the forces generated by the earthquake to a subterranean structural frame.
London was once held up as an exemplar of resilient design, as its huge parks and network of gardens soaked up rainwater. The densification of the centre, the demolition of modernist housing blocks surrounded by lawns and the building of extensions, decks and paved areas in the suburbs, have led to more flooding.
Reintroducing green areas, as shown by the Philadelphia Green initiative’s focus on community gardens, neighbourhood parks and public spaces, can make a big difference.
Some engineers believe that, had these measures been enacted in London, they might have provided a greener, more sustainable alternative to Thames Water’s £4bn “super sewer”.
At the extreme of this idea is Detroit, with its photogenic but rather overhyped “urban agriculture”, in which empty lots are used to grow food. While this may not present a serious solution to world hunger, it does enhance education, gives residents a bond to the land and, in its way, increases resilience through a level of self-reliance.
More important is the ability to generate power. Extreme weather and floods have damaged the electrical infrastructure and highlighted our reliance on electricity. Solar and wind power are often mocked for their inefficiency but, in an emergency, any power seems a good idea. Recent advances in the materials used to manufacture solar panels will make them cheaper and more efficient.
The biggest problem is on the poorest margins of some of the world’s largest cities. Slums are almost invariably built in places that have been rejected by developers for a reason – steep slopes or unstable land, in flood zones, or beside toxic factories.
These informal shack settlements are the first to suffer in a natural disaster. Yet even if the self-built housing is inadequate, infrastructure such as running water, sewerage or transport can be retrofitted.
The Metro Cable in Caracas, Venezuela, is a striking example. Rather than a new bus network, along with road building and home demolitions, the cable gives the poorest workers access to the city.
Resilience is about intelligence: the application of targeted, retrofitted ideas; the ability to identify weak points and learn. Cities are our most resilient invention.