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September 7, 2017

In the wake of Harvey and Irma, ASU's Charles Redman talks about how to make cities more able to weather calamities

The flooding in Houston was exacerbated by how the city was built. Like many cities, Houston basically paved over the existing landscape, a grassy plain that evolved to handle large rainfalls by acting like a sponge.

New ideas on how to build more resilient cities focus on working with nature, rather than trying to master it, says Arizona State University Professor Charles Redman, the founding director of ASU’s School of Sustainability and a distinguished scientist in ASU’s Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability.

What this means, Redman says, is building infrastructure systems that are safe-to-fail, rather than fail-safe, and recognizing that the city should be able to take advantage of natural features of the land rather than to solidify it with concrete.

Redman leads a group of researchers from 15 institutions in a National Science Foundation-sponsored project called the Urban Resilience to Extreme Weather Related Events Sustainability Research Network (UREx SRN), which focuses on ways to make cities more resilient to natural calamities.

Here, he talks about how cities can be better prepared to withstand natural calamities.

Question: What can cities do to be better prepared for events like Harvey and Irma?

Answer: There are two areas of improvement, the first being altering the nature of the “hard” infrastructure, and second to enrich and make more effective the “soft” infrastructure of organization, cooperation, information flow, etc.

The overarching problem with cities like Houston is that they have built over the natural landscape with impervious surfaces, and with impediments to the natural flow of surface runoff. A more effective approach may be to implement infrastructure systems that work with the land to facilitate runoff rather than try to control it, but acknowledge and plan that if a specific threshold is exceeded and the system “fails” in some sense there are backup plans in place that minimize the adverse impacts.

Q: How does a safe-to-fail system operate vs. a fail-safe system?

A: This is about managing risk in an increasingly uncertain world. The fail-safe system assumes you know what is coming and that it can be handled if we build a big enough dam, levee, pipe, sea wall, etc., for protection. The problem is that many extreme events such as Katrina, Fukushima, Sandy and now Harvey go beyond the expected and result in disaster. A fail-safe approach seeks to totally prevent harm related to the weather event; however, if the event does exceed the design of the infrastructure there is little back up protection and disaster ensues.

In each case, much of the disaster might have been avoided or at least minimized through more effective awareness of the threats, better planning and well-thought-out responses. This is at the heart of the safe-to-fail approach that accepts the possibility that the hard infrastructure might be insufficient and has multiple back-up plans to ameliorate the impact. Using green infrastructure with secondary benefits, relying on multiple approaches, and moving people out of harm’s way are among the approaches to minimize negative impacts.

Q: What are some of the “soft” infrastructure approaches to becoming more resilient?

A: Short of changing the physical structure of the city, “safe-to-fail” strategies would focus on how the city prepares and responds to weather-related extreme events. The first is to map the relative vulnerability of people in different locations of the city, and as the event approaches the rescue teams don’t have to wait for 911 calls but can focus on the most likely areas to flood before the disaster develops. 

The second is to develop a system of refuge centers that are appropriate to the scale of the potential dislocation and pre-plan strategies for getting people there. In Houston planned shelters were a fraction of the size needed. A separate issue is that two of the Houston’s reservoirs threatened to overtop their embankments. It is a common mismanagement problem that reservoirs are kept too full in order to maximize available water when they should be kept lower during hurricane season.

Q: What are some of the tools being developed in the UREx SRN program?

A: We are focusing on a variety of tools, and more, to build a method of bringing together the diverse elements of city government with relevant citizen groups to plan for future hard and soft infrastructure. Primary among the tools are a variety of green infrastructure constructions that take advantage of natural ecosystem services to ameliorate the impact of extreme weather events and then, in between events, to provide desired amenities like greenbelts and recreation fields. We are also constructing maps of populations most vulnerable to various types of extreme events and systems to minimize the impact on these populations.

Q: How does the program make cities more resilient?

A: We believe there are basic steps in gathering information, planning for the scale and intensity of events that were not common in the past, but are expected more today and in the future. We want to create planning templates that will ensure that cities are more “resilient-ready” to floods, heatwaves, droughts and other weather-related extreme events.

Another category of action that will enhance the capacity of a city to handle extreme events is to build the cooperative attitude of helping each other and working together to face the challenge rather than relying totally on outside interventions. Community members working together is the best line of defense to extreme events and can leverage and fill in with the outside interventions.


Top photo: Soldiers with the Texas Army National Guard move through flooded Houston streets as floodwaters from Hurricane Harvey continued to rise Aug. 28. More than 12,000 members of the Texas National Guard were been called out to support local authorities in response to the storm. Photo by U.S. Army photo by 1st Lt. Zachary West [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Associate Director , Media Relations & Strategic Communications


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See what these ASU students carry in their backpacks to help them with their day
September 7, 2017

From biology to photography, 4 ASU students share what they carry around campus to get through their day and their classwork done

Polluted beach samples from Japan, whale poop stickers and bamboo cutlery. No, this isn’t something out of a marine biology trip; these are just some of the items biology doctoral student Charles Rolsky carries around campus to help him with his day.

We peeked into the backpacks of four Arizona State University students to uncover the tools of their trades. From camera lenses to rubber molds, the contents of each bag are as unique as their owner and provide a glimpse into what it's like to study their particular major.

Charles Rolsky, doctoral student, biology

Top row, left to right: Reusable straw, reusable cutlery, red reusable shopping bag, Plastic Pollution Coalition pamphlet, wallet, earbuds, beach sand sample, tweezers, keys. Middle row, left to right: Whale poop stickers, binoculars, notebooks, pens, beach sand sample, business cards, plastic samples, bottle and vial for lab testing, water bottle. Bottom row, left to right: Sun Card, Tums. 

A doctoral student and teaching assistant in biology in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Charles Rolsky works with the help of the public to collect beach sand saturated with microplastics from around the world (the samples pictured here are from Japan and San Francisco).

“I enlist the help of the public to collect beach sand saturated with microplastics around the world,” Rolsky said. “I then analyze these better to understand the impact plastic pollution has on humans and the environment.”

Because he researches plastics, he makes a point to be as sustainable as possible, using a reusable water bootle, cutlery and shopping bags. His mini binoculars have been with him since age 6, a gift from his grandmother.

Anya Manguson, sophomore, journalism

First column, top to bottom: Camera, wallet, carrying bag for flash drives, charger, memory cards and sticks. Second column, top to bottom: Extra shirt, notebooks, laptop, pens and scissors. Third column, top to bottom: Media badge, two camera lenses. Fourth column, top to bottom: Makeup bag, sunglasses, flashcard reader, UPass, Sun Card and keys.

Anya Magnuson, a journalism sophomore in the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, also works at ASU as a photographer. In her backpack she carries an athletics press badge, Canon 5D Mark iii, Canon 24-70 f2.8, Canon 70-200 f2.8, SD cards, compact flash cards, a compact flash card reader, a bag of flash drives and of course her U-pass and a "life bag" that includes a toothbrush, makeup and deodorant. Forgetting her Upass, camera or the card reader would make the day pretty bad, Manguson said. 

Makayla Menges, senior, digital culture

Top row: Pencils, colored pencils, pens, Sharpies and a Pokemon bag. Middle row: Chargers, lotions, keys, notebooks. Bottom row: charger, earbuds, keys, water bottle, textbook, wallet.

Makayla Menges, a digital culture media processing senior in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, keeps it simple in her bag. She carries a variety of colored pencils and pens for drawing.

“I actually don’t know why I enjoy drawing. It’s actually really frustrating to me,” Menges said. “It’s almost like a challenge, I like challenges and it's something for my brain to do.” 

She also carries lotion, a spare phone charger, water bottle, her LSAT book as she prepares for the test on Dec. 2 and finally her blue notebook, in which she draws, takes notes in class and writes down her thoughts on the different video games she plays. 

Alvin Huff, graduate student, art 

First column, top to bottom: Rasps and utility knives for sculpting, wrist cuff, laptop. Second column, top to bottom: VGA adaptor, X-Acto knife blades, sunglasses holder. Third column: Flash drives, pens, tokens from a brewery conference. Fourth column, top to bottom: Charger, receipts. 

Graduate metal sculptor Alvin Huff, from the Herbeger Institute for Design and the Arts, keeps small tools to file plaster mold edges and razors to separate the rubber molds he’ll use for lost wax casting.  

“I’ll turn that around and put that in another ceramic shell and then melt out the wax and then fill the void with aluminum," Huff said.

He also has receipts from Home Depot and machine shops, and tokens from a brewery conference in Las Vegas, as he is a part-time beer brewer. Huff also works in IT at ASU, so he carries around items such as a VGA adapter and flash drives. 

Deanna Dent

Photographer , ASU Now