Disaster Preparedness & Recovery

Building 21st-Century Cities Means Taking the Long View

Sustainability is not just intended to mitigate climate change — it’s also about finding ways to be resilient and live alongside the environment.

Greensburg, Kan.
Following the devastating tornado in 2007, Greensburg, Kan., seized the opportunity to not just rebuild infrastructure, but improve it, making the city an example for many other communities that have endured similar disasters. Photo courtesy of Flickr/TravelKS

Sustainability is like dieting. It’s not something you do once and then forget about — it’s a lifestyle change. Like a healthy diet, sustainability is also something that’s good for everyone. The environmental movement is rooted in hippie culture of the 1960s and 1970s and still suffers today from an image that confuses some and stratifies adoption along political lines. But in recent years, government leaders have begun to create programs and institute concrete changes that go beyond rhetoric and align not necessarily with any one political interest, but with universally human ones.

Sustainability seems a nebulous concept because it entails so much at once, and to each community it means something slightly different. Leaders in Vietnam found sustainability in learning to live with nature. Dubuque, Iowa, found sustainability in the human capital of its citizenry. And the inhabitants of rural, tornado-ravaged Greensburg, Kan., found that sustainability was the hope they needed to rebuild and not to give up.

The position of chief innovation officer is a recognition by government that IT is no longer peripheral, but an integral tool meant to assist all business needs. That idea is now giving way to new titles. Governments are hiring officers of performance, innovation and sustainability. Technology remains crucial, but leaders are setting their sights on broader goals and taking a more holistic approach.

Pittsburgh is among the cities undergoing such a change. When Mayor Bill Peduto took office in January, he brought in new cabinet members like Chief Innovation and Performance Officer Debra Lam. Though Pittsburgh is still at the earliest stages of sustainable thinking, it’s starting with people who have experience and know what it takes to position a community for a sustainable future.

Working for consulting and design firm Arup, Lam has managed projects and consulted with communities around the world to show them what sustainability means, how it can enhance lives, and help ensure that life will continue to be enjoyable as the environment presents new challenges.

Sustainability is a controversial word, Lam said, but the one thing that most everyone agrees on is that government should continually strive to improve everyone’s quality of life, and that’s what a sustainable approach does.

And sustainability is not just intended to mitigate climate change, Lam said. Even if civilization meets its most ambitious goals, the effects of climate change will continue to manifest in ways that can’t always be anticipated. Sustainability is also about finding ways to be resilient and live alongside the environment. “It’s really understanding what the risks are climate-wise, and then putting up the necessary measurements to be prepared for that,” she said. “We can’t predict and prevent everything. There’s an inherent underlying unpredictability. But that doesn’t mean we can’t be prepared.”

Lam managed a project in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, where leaders sought guidance on how to handle their water management problems. Alongside the Mekong Delta, Ho Chi Minh City has seen centuries of flooding, but today there are new factors to consider. The growing population and rising affluence means a new class of people will draw more resources, depleting groundwater supplies and increasing soil salinity. Furthermore, climate change and rising sea levels are expected to cause even more soil salinity, not to mention flooding. Some researchers predict that many provinces in the delta region will be flooded as soon as 2030.

After studying the area, Arup issued a report to Ho Chi Minh City that recommended the city work to reduce water leakage and theft, and adopt more effective irrigation methods. The company also recommended infrastructure upgrades to improve water logistics, and encouraged leaders to think about how their infrastructure will need to adapt as conditions in the environment change. Getting all the stakeholders talking with one another, Lam explained, was key to making the other recommendations attainable.

When faced with a specific problem like flooding in Vietnam, the prevailing pragmatic mentality can fall short, Lam said. Typical solutions proposed are walls, ducts or dams. “That only goes so far,” Lam said. “It’s very costly, it’s very resource-intensive, very time-intensive, and it’s not necessarily the most effective way. If you’re assuming a sea level rise of 5 feet, but then sea level rise comes to 6 feet, it’s not going to work.”

Instead, she said, they should be looking at solutions that let the water in, and use green architecture and infrastructure to filter and absorb it. That’s sustainability. “It’s the realization that man can’t just block out or control nature,” Lam said. “There are a lot of good things working with nature.”

After Hurricane Katrina damaged or destroyed more than 200,000 New Orleans homes in 2005, people began rebuilding, although they understood that a similar situation could and probably would happen again. Sustainable architecture has become important in the region, but the concept is far from perfected. While the enthusiasm is there, sufficient knowledge and competent project management doesn’t necessarily follow. Dozens of homes built by actor Brad Pitt’s award-winning charity, the Make It Right Foundation, began rotting soon after construction in 2007 because of faulty wood products. Cities interested in sustainability need competent role models and reliable information.

Dubuque, Iowa, is a city that people look to when they want things done right. For sustainability initiatives to be impactful, they need grass-roots support from the people and leadership from government, said Cori Burbach, sustainability community coordinator for the city.

Colin Wood Colin Wood  |  former staff writer

Colin Wood wrote for Government Technology and Emergency Management from 2010 through most of 2016.

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