Disaster by the books

July 9th 2013: Mary Rowe’s presentation introduced great insights and room for thought for our engagement in urban living. Mary is Vice President and Managing Director of the Municipal Art Society of New York (MAS). At times She sounded as if urban living is still questioned by some populations around the world. But her talk mainly focused on the issues of small scale activities within the urban realm: how individuals and neighbourhoods are key forces to consider when planning for disasters. The list of massive scale incidents since the turn of the 21st century is significant and includes floods, pest infestations, hurricanes, earth quakes and more.


Aftermath of the 2011 tsunami in Japan. (SOURCE)

Following Mary’s research into disaster stricken regions her concerns evolved: rescue and restructuring efforts by the authorities started to look like systemic acts of demolition of whole neighbourhoods. When residents of the destroyed places had noticed these acts, the intentions of authorities became suspect. One of the strongest messages from the talk was the need for awareness and action in all fronts of urban infrastructure. But when using the word infrastructure, social issues such as education and services should be taken as part of it: the residents of a city are also its owners.

A fascinating reality of urban life and management is the seamless ties between the built environment and the life it supports. Our technologies continue to facilitate more and more opportunities to interact with and protect us from the natural environment. However, no tool human kind has built to date has been 100% fail safe. The city is our most complex tool and we are maybe its most important component.

So I listened to the presentation and was intrigued by the discussion that followed. Eventually my thoughts brought me to a few feedback streams. Planning is a result of experience. It is also a trait we tend to employ even without experience. In many cases we plan our solutions to deal with experiences from the past, which are never going to repeat the way they have occurred.


A Street Scene in New Orleans from December 2012. (SOURCE)

Mary Rowe advocates for stronger reliance on local communities in determining their fate. A few arguments were raised in favour of seemingly contradictory policies: large scale systems were proposed as the better investment. In any society on our globe a varied set of balances are always waiting to be explored. The process of debate results in the story we eventually live. This is why the question ‘What is your story?’ is a compelling one.

Whatever we call disaster we always try to avoid, mostly by planning. We learn from the past and try to anticipate the future. We always wake up to the realization that disasters don’t happen by the book.

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I’ve heard about this presentation, ‘Community Based Resilience: Frontline Stories from the United States and Canada’ when only a few seats were left to grab on the sign up page. The talk was presented at Robson Square by Bing Thom Architects and the University of British Columbia’s School of Community and Regional Planning. It was led by Mary Rowe and discussed with Moura QuayleJoji Kumagai and Gordon Price

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