Editorial: Flood Protection through Resilience Planning

Calgarians watch water levels rise from the newly opened Poppy Plaza, designed by The Marc Boutin Architectural Collaborative and Stantec Consulting. Ray Wong
Calgarians watch water levels rise from the newly opened Poppy Plaza, designed by The Marc Boutin Architectural Collaborative and Stantec Consulting. Ray Wong

In the wake of the June floods that devastated large areas of Calgary and Southern Alberta, communities are rallying in a monumental effort to clean up muck and debris in time to host the annual Stampede and salvage the rest of the summer tourist season. The much larger challenge lies ahead: rebuilding in a way that protects against future storms.

After Superstorm Sandy triggered massive flooding in New York City last November, architects and planners came together to contribute expertise. The New York Chapter of the American Institute of Architects initiated a study of storm-resistant design strategies, in collaboration with regional planning, engineering and landscape organizations. The resulting report looks to national and international best practices for guidance. It explores rebuilding the city’s shoreline with a range of site-specific solutions, ranging from deployable floodwalls to artificial dunes and reinserted wetlands. The authors suggest raising buildings and electrical systems, but also consider the creation of structures that can easily flood and drain.

Architects volunteered as part of a task force set up by Mayor Michael Bloomberg and City Council Speaker Chrisine Quinn, which released its recommendations in mid-June. Rather than mandating potentially expensive retrofits, several of the task force’s proposals focus on removing barriers to improvements of existing buildings. For instance, they suggest regulatory relief for owners who may wish to elevate buildings above the 500-year floodline but are restricted by zoning height limitations, and facilitating the installation of on-site solar and other backup power sources. Code changes, such as mandating the use of wind-resistant windows and strengthened foundations, are recommended for new buildings and renovations. The report also suggests launching a design competition for raised homes, modelled on the successful competitions for sustainable prototype houses held in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina.

The Post-Sandy Initiative report can be viewed at www.postsandyinitiative.org, and the Building Resiliency Task Force report can be viewed at www.urbangreencouncil.org/BuildingResiliency. Both groups refer repeatedly to the idea of resiliency: creating infrastructures, buildings and landforms that can quickly bounce back to full functionality after a weather event. The concept of resiliency acknowledges that it’s impossible to design for full resistance to unpredictable events such as 500-year floods and superstorms, but we can make sure that built structures are better able to cope with these shocks. Resiliency is set to become an increasingly important design imperative as extreme weather events increase in frequency with climate change.

Alberta Premier Alison Redford has warned that the provincial cleanup effort from the Southern Alberta floods could take up to 10 years. While daunting for residents, that long timeline is potentially good news. It implies a rebuilding effort with breathing room to develop resilient infrastructure, smart communities, and buildings that will weather nature’s next major storm.

Elsa Lam elam@canadianarchitect.com