Friday, March 18, 2011

Geographic Information Systems Mapping for a Sustainable Future

Mapping is such an important yet overlooked exercise. With Geographic Information Systems (GIS) mapping has the power to share many stories. We have done some in-depth mapping for clients that have informed our Land Capacity Analyses for Comprehensive Plans. Gone are the days for approximating buildable lands. You can get acreage down to the last square yard if you need to. However, the quality of the mapping depends greatly on the quality of data available. It may be costly too. It may take up to 2-3 days just to set up the data to the format in which it makes sense. After that, depending on the speed of your computer system, it may take up 2-3 hours or more to generate and map a query – for instance, how much land is within 1500 feet of the mean high tide and what uses make up that land? It is evident that few have really explored the power of maps to influence good city planning and design. For sustainable planning, we need to make sure that we understand and map all the forces that make up the city’s environmental framework. This goes for activities above ground that have the potential to affect environmental performance – within city limits as well as from surrounding jurisdictions. If I was working in a city at the bottom of the hill, I would definitely want to map the permeability of development further uphill. Every time that land gets paved over, my jurisdiction will be affected. Similarly, I would want to know about functions that are underground. What is happening to the water table? What are the limits to my aquifer? How can I safely infiltrate water to recharge the aquifer at the same rate as consumption? Similarly, I would want to account for social disparities in my community. Is poverty concentrated in my community? Do my community’s investment choices correspond to the location of impoverished areas? Are they persistently deprived of investment? It is easy enough to map public infrastructure and investment to generate a map for social equity. Google Earth Outreach does just that and more. Several great resources for mapping are the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), Federal Emergency Management Agency, (FEMA), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and private companies like Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI) and Google Earth. Nonprofits like the World Resource Institute and the World Wildlife Fund and smaller ones such as the Nutty Birdwatcher, like many others, provide a wealth of information on the natural world, bird migration paths, compromised ecosystems and others. Information has become so sophisticated now that one can click on a parcel can provide you with all the layers of information attached to that parcel. Earlier the cost of servers to process this magnitude of data was exorbitant. Now with cloud computing, this cost can be lowered significantly. Many mapping departments across the country are feeling the brunt of diminishing public funds. However, for a sustainable future, mapping is a critical source for data, decision-making and equity. City, county and State governments have an opportunity to streamline and inform good decision-making by investing in their data and mapping capabilities, can you afford not to if you are seeking a sustainable future?

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Planning for Resilient Communities, Japan Disaster and Recovery

The Japan tsunami is a horrific disaster reminiscent of so many similar events over the past year (remember Haiti, Chile, Christchurch 1, and 2?). It brings up many emotions such that it is hard to be objective about the event and ensuing disaster. Yet, how can one be critical of the population living in coastal areas when most land inhabited by human settlement is prone to some disaster or another on a periodic basis? It is a relief seeing the relatively minor damage in major cities such as Tokyo, though it is of little consolation when contrasted against the pictures of devastated smaller towns. One would like to think that Tokyo was safe more due to its updated building codes than its relative distance from the epicenter. Even within the Miyagi prefecture, though inundated by a muddy river of soil, seawater and debris, many buildings survived. Can building codes and engineering provide the solutions to withstanding natural disasters? Japan showed that in addition, early warning and emergency preparedness played a very important part in reducing the number of calamities caused by the event.
Emergency preparedness, though, is also tied to information. Critical information emerges if we mix environmental science with mathematical probability analysis. The map of the world that could emerge would rate each region by its susceptibility to disaster, perhaps by compiling the information collected by USGS in their 1-pager earthquake summary across geography and time. This susceptibility could be a measure of the frequency as well as the force of occurrence. Maybe then we can come up with sane development policies that first address areas that are most vulnerable, and gradually work their way down the list. Evacuating large populations from the most vulnerable areas could be the first thing that comes to mind, but perhaps it should be the last resort – after shoring, engineering, and emergency preparedness have been fully explored. Is there much inhabitable land left in the world to accommodate such large forced migrations? More importantly, how would that be politically palatable? This recent article discusses how Japan became an expert in Disaster Preparation. There are some good resources that provide information on historic occurrences of disasters at a subcontinent level. The Annual Disaster Statistical Review released by the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED), is a great international overview of disasters. The International Disaster Database (EM-DAT) provides a searchable database of disasters by country. Good policy is driven by reliable and routinely updated data. While it is easy to approach emergency preparedness in a draconian manner and require either relocation of communities or the most stringent building codes, however in real life, codes for emergency preparedness (from tsunamis, earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, and volcanic inundation) must carefully balance affordability and life safety. If focused on life safety rather than reducing property damage, the development costs of stringent codes can be reduced while keeping casualties to the minimum. For a sustainable future, however, we must continuously seek to maximize existing infrastructure and communities and resist the urge to develop the last few remaining natural areas in the world. For a country as conscious about sustainability as Japan, it will be interesting to see how it changes its approach to development in these vulnerable communities to avoid a similar level of disaster in the future, or whether it even thinks that that would be a reasonable goal to strive for.

Monday, March 7, 2011

The Wonderful World of Salvage

In a recent remodeling project, we tried our hands at re-using salvaged materials. I have to say, this did not make the contractor happy. Also, he was right, increased fees for labor overrode the amount we saved in the material, in most cases. In the Puget Sound region there are three large companies that work in this arena. For no cost, they will go to a construction site and remove the salvaged materials that could potentially find a new home at another site. Visiting these stores, Re-Store, Earthwise, and Second Use is a delight. Over time, you will find that each has its unique strengths; one has the best selection of salvaged granite or marble, while the other has a wide variety of windows; one might resell kitchen cabinets in great condition, whereas another may offer the greater variety of bathroom furnishings. It is interesting to note that only one of these establishments is a non-profit: the Re-Store has stores in both Seattle and Bellingham. The other two are set up as for-profits. One thing I learnt in the world of salvage material is that persistence may yield great results. I found the right set of kitchen cabinets for nearly 1/6th of the price I would pay in the market. I found windows and solid wood doors that matched the older style of the home for a ridiculously low price. In the same way, I found inexpensive molding, lights, paint and bathroom fixtures. For a contractor, these stores can be a great find. For the non-handy person, please make sure that you have truck and a great tape measure; for it will be necessary to measure each detail of your purchase to make sure it fits your project. I quickly learnt that buying and installing doors in their frame is the way to go rather than trying to fit a panel into an existing frame; have a way to test electrical fixtures prior to their purchase; when buying tiles, make sure that your set comprises of the same type of tiles whether ceramic, porcelain or glass. Contractors cannot be convinced to mix tiles, since they are known to vary by millimeters in their thickness, beveling and size. If price is a factor, salvaged materials may just get you the look at affordable price. Just make sure that either you are handy or that you have a contractor willing to go the extra mile, like I did.