Towards resilient regions

by Dave Hampton


Post-Hurricane Sandy damage to older and new homes at the Rockaways. Photos by the author.

In How Density Makes Us Safer During Natural Disasters by Vishaan Chakrabarti, the author uses the example of Hurricane Sandy’s effects within New York City to highlight urban resilience:

…higher-density neighborhoods—from downtown Brooklyn and Battery Park City up to Harlem—were up and running within a week. By contrast, lower density areas like Staten Island and Breezy Point—with their single-family homes, elevated power lines, timber construction, and auto-dependency—took longer to recover.

He begins the article by citing the 1956 Highway Defense Act, a key piece of legislature which not only secured a critical system of infrastructure nearly unprecedented in scope at that time – a national highway system – but contributed to de-urbanization and sprawl. “Policies that support the development of dense urban areas are critical tools in mitigating climate-related risks”, writes Chakrabarti.

As Director of the Center for Urban Real Estate at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning & Preservation, and the author of A Country of Cities: A Manifesto for an Urban America, Chakrabarti is, unsurprisingly, an advocate of cities.

What about the rest of us non-city dwellers?
How will we be expected to weather future disasters?

To be fair, Chakrabarti also writes “critics will assert that to put more New Yorkers in harm’s way is madness, but when coupled with well-conceived land-use plans that incorporate regional resilience considerations, these areas can become integral in providing these newcomers with a more affordable place to live within the city.”

However, policies which focus exclusively on certain areas, or notions of certain areas – cities, for example – without taking into account the wider regions of which they are a part, can be shortsighted and divisive.

Where I End And You Begin

There’s a gap in between
There’s a gap where we meet
Where I end and you begin

I couldn’t put it better than Radiohead above, in a song subtitled ‘The Sky Is Falling In’, but let’s focus on the positive!

Scottish landscape architect Ian McHarg wrote in the 1969’s seminal Design with Nature:

“While the name [‘metropolitan area’] has been coined to describe the enlargement of the older city, it is appropriate to observe that this is more a convenience for cartographers than a social organism.”

Furthermore, McHarg notes that the American dream did not see that:

“…a subdivision is not a community, that the sum of subdivisions that make a suburb is not a community, that the sum of suburbs that compose the metropolitan fringe of the city does not constitute community nor does a metropolitan region.”


A natural transect. Source:

McHarg relied on the notion of a transect, or cut through part of the environment showing a range of different habitats, to highlight the interconnectedness of nature as a positive example for design and planning, but tended to reinforce the dichotomy between nature and cities.

Distinctions between urban and un-urban, dense and un-dense, often set up false dichotomies which belie the true nature of how places, people, and systems are interlinked and flow into – and out of – each other. Understanding how regions currently function and the degrees to which they are robust will lead to better ways of predicting how they will recover after a disaster, leading to greater success in making more distinct areas – cities, towns – ready to weather the next storm.

In 2003, Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company extended the transect idea to include human habitats. The resulting SmartCode, “is a model transect-based planning and zoning document based on environmental analysis. It addresses all scales of planning, from the region to the community to the block and building. The template is intended for local calibration to your town or neighborhood. As a form-based code, the SmartCode keeps settlements compact and rural lands open, literally reforming the sprawling patterns of separated-use zoning.”

Sounds good, but the feasibility, impact, and popular and political acceptance of consciously blurring the distinctions between urban and rural, especially in the United States, is a work in progress.

(for another take on transects, read about Alan Berger’s Drosscapes at Urban Transects Revisited).

What’s in a name?

Fundamentally, the issue could be considered one of naming.

When one thinks of the notion of ‘city’, one usually sets out of mind all things rural, suburban, or ‘country’. Conversely, ‘city’ tends to be, for those living outside of it, something apart, different, and unconnected. Shirley Jackson, one of my favorite short-story authors, highlights this either/or distinction in “The Summer People”, to ominous effect. Political mastermind and urban planner Robert Moses’ focus on New York City amenities, raising the the ire of legislators in Albany, and that of wealthy industrialists, aristocrats, and farmers from Cedar Point to the Catskills, is legendary.

statistical areas usa

Statistical Areas of the Contiguous United States by Laura Guzman. Click the image for an interactive map!

Stephen Metts, a GIS and planning expert and a messy systems contributor, notes the utility of metropolitan statistical areas, or MSAs, in describing clusters of regions spatially. Metts cites Craigslist ZIP code clustering as an example to describe regions, showing “how individuals think spatially of ‘how far’ they are willing to think of their ‘local’ space.”

‘Resilient cities’ may very well turn out to be an oxymoron in the best sense – that cities are inherently resilient – but let’s not rest on our urban laurels just yet, and insure that when  discussing policies and strategies for cities, we don’t do so while ignoring the contributions of, and the interconnectedness to, their supporting regions.


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