Collaborate, Weigh Options for What’s Sustainable

For a slightly different version, see Jim Throgmorton. 2008. Des Moines Register (June 22): 1OP.

As the Great Flood of ’08 gradually moves downstream, those of us who live in Cedar Rapids, Iowa City, Des Moines and other parts of central Iowa can begin thinking about how to clean up the mess that remains behind. As we do so, we should also begin considering two key questions. How can we rebuild our cities and towns in the smartest, most sustainable way possible? And by what process should we answer this question?

Although I teach urban planning at The University of Iowa, I do not consider myself an expert in disaster recovery planning. So rather than invent answers out of thin air, I sought advice from some of my more knowledgeable colleagues at other universities around the county. People like Raymond Burby (co-editor of Cooperating with Nature: Confronting Natural Hazards with Land-Use Planning for Sustainable Communities) and Eugenie Birch (co-editor of Rebuilding Urban Places after Disaster: Lessons from Hurricane Katrina).

In brief, what they advise is this. Do not make major decisions too rapidly. Instead, use this time to identify and evaluate alternatives. Involve affected homeowners, businesses, and other affected stakeholders in the process so that they do not feel imposed upon. And do what makes sense for each particular context rather than rigidly apply a “one size fits all” solution.

What alternatives should we begin considering? One would be to build permanent floodwalls along our cities’ riverfronts. My own training and experience tells me that this is a bad idea for at least three reasons. First, it would destroy the greatest asset that many of our cities and towns have: the view of a lovely river winding through their hearts. Second, building floodwalls can lead to even worse flooding in the event of levee failure. (The flooding of the _____ neighborhood in Des Moines exemplifies this adverse effect.) Third, floodwalls only exacerbate the consequences of flooding for people who live downstream. (We all live downstream from somebody else, don’t we?) But, recalling my colleagues’ advice, I would want to investigate each particular context carefully before rejecting this alternative.

The notion that we all live downstream points toward a second alternative: to eliminate existing structures in the floodplain, use the land only in ways that can accommodate future flooding (perhaps as parkland), and relocate residents into more energy-efficient structures on higher ground. For those of us in the Iowa City/Coralville area, this alternative would affect structures in the Coralville strip, the Normandy Drive and Idyllwild neighborhoods, large parts of the University of Iowa campus, the Thatcher Trailer Court, and many other places. Just naming these areas reveals that this alterative would have to be refined. Thus a more pragmatic alternative would include rehabilitating some damaged buildings in the floodplain, but rebuilding them so that they can withstand equivalently severe flooding in the future.

How severe might some future flood be? (I don’t know about you, but I have grown skeptical of concepts like “100-year floodplain.”) Can the risk of equivalent (or worse) flooding in the future be reduced through actions we can take in the present? Other people are better prepared to answer these questions than I am, but I do know that the long-term conversion of tall grass prairie and wetlands into corn and soybean fields has (when coupled with increased coverage of land with concrete and asphalt) had the effect of reducing the soil’s ability to absorb rainfall and slow runoff. These facts point to a fourth alternative: find more ecologically sound ways to accommodate predictable variations in precipitation. More generally, these facts create an opportunity: to construct a watershed-based process by which we who live in cities and towns can plan collaboratively with the farmers who till the fields up- and downstream from our homes.

Other alternatives exist. We should explore them wisely. This kind of wise exploration must be informed by a range of experts, but it will also need to reflect the values of the diverse people who live in our towns, cities, and watersheds. To rebuild in a smarter and more sustainable way, we should plan collaboratively.

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