Recovery and resilience: Creating communities and a built environment that can adapt and thrive

Climate change, natural disasters, and a global pandemic: three enormous problems for the physical places where we live, work, and play. Yet there are design options that can help mitigate their impact on people and communities, giving architects a unique role in recovery and future planning.

“Architects are creative and data driven people,” says Jeff Raser, AIA, owner of Cincinnati Urban Design & Architecture Studio. “We can find innovative solutions to move forward.”

Beyond green design

Buildings are responsible for 40% of carbon emissions. Understandably, conversations about sustainability and resilience often focus on physical spaces. Yet increasingly, design and planning also emphasize the wellness of the people using the building or place.

“It’s amazing the impact a building can have on the climate and on people,” says Jessica Dangelo, AIA, sustainability coordinator with M+A Architects. “We have to start talking to clients about the impact of their buildings, not just on the environment, but also on the occupants.”

Design decisions can impact health and productivity of employees, residents, and users of a space. The choices available to improve occupant wellness — such as low VOC paint and increased access to natural light — are also usually aligned with sustainable design.

“Designing for health and sustainability doesn’t require a high price tag or a certification,” says Dangelo. “The conversation starts at the very beginning of the design process. How can we use the site for optimal solar orientation? Can we include bike storage and showers? Is there back up power? As designers, we need to lead those conversations.”

Features like balconies and window placement can reduce energy costs while improving the occupant experience. Incorporating natural elements in the design process — through views and access to the outside or by bringing sunlight and plants into a building — benefit the people using the space, which can also lead to savings through increased productivity and lower health insurance costs.

As architects work with clients to integrate sustainable design features, they also consider the exterior of the site. Retaining and reusing rainwater from roofs, catching storm water in gardens or landscape features, and using permeable surfaces for walkways and parking reduce the environmental impact of a building. They also help mitigate hazards like flooding, not just for a specific site, but also for the surrounding community.

Designing for disaster

Architects are often involved as communities work to rebuild after natural disasters. As states ease COVID-19 restrictions, architects are helping communities prepare to reopen.

“Architects are not first responders or ambulance chasers,” says Richard S. Posey, AIA, principal with K4 Architecture. “What we do is help rebuild, ideally better than it was before. If we can’t eliminate the danger, we try to minimize its impact.”

AIA’s Disaster Assistance Program sends response teams to help communities assess the damage from a flood, tornado, fire, or earthquake to ensure the remaining structures are safe and viable. Lessons learned from tragedies like Hurricane Katrina, California’s wildfires, and Midwestern tornados are shared to improve response to the next disaster.

“After Katrina, when it was apparent the FEMA trailers were going to be there long term, the question for architects became can we design a better trailer and a better trailer park that will help with the social and mental health needs of the residents?” says Posey.

The Katrina Cottages, developed in response to that need, have been used in subsequent hurricanes and other natural disasters like the California wildfires. Modular construction, tents, and shipping containers have become common in disaster response. As the COVID-19 pandemic spread, cities across the globe converted parking garages, convention centers, parks, and other spaces into temporary testing facilities, hospitals, and morgues using provisional structures.

Adaptable design is critical to meet the immediate needs in a crisis. As communities recover, resilient design focuses on durability and flexibility to minimize the future impact of known hazards such as wildfires and floods. Although building safety is critical in reconstruction, architects also design for the wellbeing of the people who make up a community.

“How can architects use our vision and expertise to think about collective resilience, not just an individual structure?” asks Posey. “How do we provide community access to the resources needed to survive and recover?”

Those resources could be gathering places to provide respite and build community, adequate public storm shelters, or flood barriers that serve other purposes. For example, most of the year, the Public Landing and Smale Park along the Ohio River in Cincinnati are public assets for parking and recreation, but when the river rises, they help prevent the floodwaters from reaching into the city.

Parks with a purpose

Public spaces are essential to improving resiliency around the impact of climate change, natural disasters, and pandemics. Parks and plazas provide flood barriers and firewalls, they reduce heat islands in urban areas, and improve air quality. In addition, they serve as staging areas to provide services and distribution of aid.

Shared community spaces also build the resiliency of the people who use them. In addition to offering recreation opportunities, parks are a resource for creating social interaction and connections. Access to nature also improves mental health, reduces stress, lowers heart rate and blood pressure, and can alleviate anxiety and depression. As the COVID-19 pandemic progresses, the demand on public spaces has demonstrated their importance in communities across the globe.

“Despite all our digital devices, we still long to connect face to face,” says Raser. “Outdoor space is something people want, and now realize that they need.”

In recent decades, municipalities have invested in large regional parks with a variety of centralized services and features: playgrounds, ball fields, swimming pools, hiking trails, picnic pavilions, etc. Now, cities across the country are facing significant financial burdens from the pandemic, limiting the resources for future park projects at a time when they are in great demand. In addition, the large crowds attracted to regional parks are not desirable in light of COVID-19.

“We need to pivot and invest in smaller parks,” says Raser. “Creating more, smaller parks throughout the city will spread people around over a much larger area, making using the parks safer for everyone. There should a park within a ten-minute walk of 80% of front doors in the city.”

Small parks are less expensive to build and maintain, a benefit for municipalities facing scarce resources. More importantly, they are an opportunity for community engagement and can be designed to meet the needs of a specific neighborhood. A park can be a playground or place for reflection, offer room for a pop-up café or business, and be used for educational programs or recreation.

“Because they are highly localized, pocket parks can be very unique, expressing the personality of a particular neighborhood, block, or business district,” says Raser. “What’s good for the neighborhood is often what’s good for the globe. Pocket parks create the opportunity for neighborhoods to change the world through their place.”

Designing for the future

Architects are big-picture thinkers, considering not just the design problem in front of them, but how a potential solution fits into the larger context of a building, a streetscape, a neighborhood, or a city. The design emphasis on resiliency addresses not only the impacts of climate change and natural disasters, but also how architects can contribute to a world adapting to pandemic restrictions.

“With COVID-19 we’ve quickly transitioned from how to expand hospitals to reevaluating office spaces, design for social distancing, and hand washing needs,” says Posey. “We’re seeing in a compressed amount of time how quickly we need to respond and learn to adapt.”

As the largest professional design organization in the world, AIA is working with architects, doctors, employers, teachers, and other professionals a both the national and state level to develop new design strategies that address the pandemic needs of workplaces, schools, hospitals, and other structures where we gather.

“Resilience means being able snap back after a crisis or setback,” says Dangelo. “That can’t be all we do. We can’t just go back to how everything was before. We have to change the weaknesses in our economy and infrastructure that have been front and center during this crisis. As we make the pivot to a new reality, we have to go further than resilience.”

Under COVID-19 restrictions, people have developed a new awareness of the resources, or lack thereof, in their communities that are available to help them weather stay-at-home orders. As the world slowly re-emerges, residents have an opportunity to improve their community assets.

“Architects can help cities consider what happens next time and how to plan in a more sustainable manner,” says Raser.

The architectural design elements that promote resiliency to climate change and natural disasters are often promoted, or discouraged, by local building codes and zoning ordinances. As communities respond to the pandemic, and consider changes to local guidelines, architects and residents have an opportunity to weigh in and help build a more equitable and sustainable future.

The series, Architecture Matters, is supported by AIA Cincinnati. Learn more at aiacincinnati.orgThe views expressed herein do not necessarily represent those of the American Institute of Architects or the members of AIA Cincinnati. 

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Read more articles by Julie Carpenter.

Julie Carpenter has a background in cultural heritage tourism, museums, and nonprofit organizations. She's the Executive Director of AIA Cincinnati.