Sustainability: Extreme Weather and City Infrastructure

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Arizona State University is working on helping cities improve their infrastructure to deal with extreme weather, which is expected to increase because of climate change. The Urban Resilience to Extreme Weather-related Events Sustainability Research Network was funded by a $12 million five-year grant from National Science Foundation. Three Arizona State University researchers will lead the new network, which hopes to change the way officials think about urban infrastructure. They will lead a team of 50 researchers from 15 institutions in nine cities spanning from North to South America. Charles Redman is project director of UREX SRN and founding director of ASU’s School of Sustainability and will talk about the project.

TED SIMONS: Tonight's edition of "Arizona Sustainability" looks at how ASU is working to help cities improve infrastructure to deal with extreme weather. It is expected to increase due to climate change. It's called the Urban Resilience to Extreme Weather Related Events Sustainability Research Network, funded by $12 million 5-year grant from the National Science Foundation. Joining us now is the project's director, Charles Redman, he's also the founding director of the ASU's School of Sustainability. Good to have you here. Thank you for joining us.

CHARLES REDMAN: Thank you for asking me.

TED SIMONS: This program in a nutshell, what are we talking about?

CHARLES REDMAN: There's a need or a challenge we're all facing. That is that you just have to read the newspapers, if there are newspapers, and there are serious climatic events coming up on the 10th anniversary of Katrina in New Orleans, several years ago we had Super Storm Sandy in New York. These were extreme weather events, but they turned into human disasters. What our project is all about is saying that doesn't have to be that way. The weather is changing no matter what you think about climate change, we do have extreme events. We're having mud slides in Colorado, in September here in Phoenix we're having what's called a thousand-year rainstorm. Freeways were closed and some districts lost electricity for a number of days. These things happen, but in themselves they are not life-threatening by and large. Part of the story is we have to design the way we build our things, our infrastructure, so that they are ready to take account, and they don't become disasters but they become something that we can cope with, unpleasant but dealable.

TED SIMONS: ASU leads this research team, 50 researchers from 15 institutions, you've got the $12 million grant from the Science Foundation, what kind of research will be done?

CHARLES REDMAN: The main thing is we developed a beginning network in nine cities, six in the U.S. and three in Latin America. Phoenix is the central city in this network so we have heat problems, drought problems, very occasional urban flooding problems. Cities like New York and Miami that are in our network, they have these coastal problems and heat problems and so forth. And so we're getting researchers in each of these cities together. And the key difference, and I think the reason we were selected, is that we're trying to do this very comprehensively, not in different silos. We're getting engineers and planners to be talking with sociologists and social scientists, ecologists and environmentalists so we don't build an infrastructure, a dam or a levy, that solves one problem but makes us vulnerable to another. That, to me, is the biggest stride. It's not a secret that we should do it this way but it's not easy to get people together.

TED SIMONS: It sounds as though, from what I've read, you're going to try to do this through a novel and more holistic approach, kind of mirroring nature if you will. What is this all about?

CHARLES REDMAN: Well, I don't -- certainly we want to take advantage of the insights that nature provides us from the way it works on the earth. But in a way, it's holistic because we're concerned with how nature operates, but we're also concerned with human equity. Many things in the environment, the pain falls disproportionately on poor people and somehow you and I are able to avoid the pain. We want to address that more directly. We want to say, just because you're not powerful, we'll take your concerns as well as the concerns of more powerful, wealthy people. And when you talk about cities on a big regional level this can make a big difference.

TED SIMONS: I know in Scottsdale its been used as an example here. The Indian Bend Wash, and how there's so much activity along that wash, but when it floods, it becomes a wash and the activity and waits for the waters to recede. That's -- not mirroring, but allowing nature to take its course and for human activity to still enjoy recreation or what have you.

CHARLES REDMAN: Ted, that's a great example, and one I think most of your listeners are acquainted with. I only wonder why we don't have a thousand of those examples. It represents something that's also key to our project, and that is when infrastructure is designed, and Indian bend wash is infrastructure, a flow channel for floodwaters down the Indian Bend Wash. When it's designed it's usually designed to be failsafe, and you want it to be failsafe. You want -- when high waves come to a coastal city, you don't want them washing into the city but as we've learned they sometimes do. Failsafe often means build it out of cement and make it higher, on the assumption you can prevent the problem, and sometimes the problem overwhelms you. Happily the alternative that many planners and designers are thinking a lot more seriously about, and encouraging and working with, is what we're calling safe to fail. We don't want failure but if the levee or the stream channel is overwhelmed, we don't want it to be a disaster. That's exactly what the Indian Bend Wash is about. If it comes, -- the roads work and everything's fine, you can play baseball there and go rollerblading. If it's a really bad flood, they close a few roads, the baseball diamonds are unusable for a week and you have to stop rollerblading for a few days but no one dies. Nothing's destroyed, there's no loss of property and things like that. That's what we want to see on a big scale. That's what Super Storm Sandy should have been, but lots of things got in the way.

TED SIMONS: With that in mind. Who's going to be conducting this research? As far as the study is concerned, are you finding ways to incorporate more Indian Bend Wash type places into urban activities?

CHARLES REDMAN: That's definitely the key. And we have teams in each of the nine cities. As I said, they are comprehensive holistic teams. Matching those teams or paired with them are teams of practitioners, people who work for the City. We have lots of individuals in Phoenix and the surrounding cities engaged with us, and beginning to talk about a different future and what it would take to make a different future here. And obviously we're concerned with drought, water shortage, heat wave and urban heat island, as well as periodic floods from rainstorms.

TED SIMONS: Indeed.

CHARLES REDMAN: And it's working, it's beginning to take hold. I think there's a lot of excitement and interest for it.

TED SIMONS: And last question: Excitement and interest because it does seem as though this extreme weather is occurring with more frequency?

CHARLES REDMAN: I think we have to believe that. I mean, there is continuing and always will be uncertainty about weather and extreme events. But any way you measure it, it's going up. The people who really measure it are the insurance companies. They have done a lot of big studies and we're looking at a seriously escalating cost to insurance companies. This is going to lead to action. They are very excited about projects like ours. They see down the road even in the face of extreme events there's ways not to lose lives and property.

TED SIMONS: Congratulations on leading this research. It's going to be very interesting to find out what comes of it and the results. It's good to have you here, thanks for joining us.

CHARLES REDMAN: Thank you, Ted.

TED SIMONS: Wednesday on "Arizona Horizon" we'll see what's in store for Mesa when the light-rail extension opens later this month. And we'll check out an exhibit that features a skate-boarder turned photographer, at 5:30 on the next "Arizona Horizon." That is it for now, I am Ted Simons. Thank you so much for joining us. You have a great evening.

Charles Redman : Project Director of UREX SRN and founding director of ASU's School of Sustainability

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