Out Of The Mud

Sustainable re-development
of flood-damaged towns

One of the articles in Good Medicine (IC#39)
Originally published in Fall 1994 on page 6
Copyright (c)1994 by Context Institute

An unusual opportunity emerged out of the mud of last year’s Mississippi floods.

More than 200 communities began to seriously question whether to rebuild their towns on flood plains that are almost certain to flood again. Maybe not next year. Maybe not in ten years. But certainly again. After all, they don’t call them flood plains for nothing.

With the assistance of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Department of Energy (DOE) and other agencies, many of these towns are grappling with how to keep their community together while planning and building at new and hopefully safer locations. For example, the town of Valmeyer, Illinois, all but wiped out by the flood, quickly decided to break ground for a new Valmeyer safely perched on a bluff 400 feet above the river.

But there was a new element. Chicago business consultant Nancy Skinner heard the news, and thought, "As long as these communities are rebuilding from scratch, wouldn’t it be great if they could rebuild better than before – with land use planning that works with nature, and with state-of-the-art energy efficiency for homes and businesses?"

Fortunately, she didn’t just muse. She picked up the phone … One year later, 40 architects, scientists, and bureaucrats from across the US gathered at the Johnson Foundation’s Wingspread Conference Center to build a toolkit for sustainable re-development — not only for the flooded Midwestern communities, but also for other communities faced with the challenge of rebuilding after a disaster.

Why was such an esoteric issue appealing to people eager to get out of "FEMA-ville" mobile homes as quickly as possible?

  • Because "eco-efficiency" is a good investment, according to Wes Birdsall, a participant at Wingspread. Birdsall, former General Manager of the Osage (Iowa) Municipal Utility, should know. A pioneer in energy efficiency for 20 years, Osage parlayed a $350,000 investment in their customers’ energy efficiency into a million dollar a year savings for the town’s economy.
  • Because sustainable development provides a practical way for people who love where they live to care for it and leave it in better shape for their children – and for their grandchildren’s grandchildren.
  • And because intelligent siting, building the strength of local economies, pre-disaster contingency planning, and quick and effective response in the event of disaster can improve the chances that the community will survive in the event of another disaster, natural or otherwise.

The proposed toolkit for sustainable re-development addresses everything from siting and infrastructure to building design and community process. The "economic development" component, for example, supplements the classic development approach by including:

  • the development of eco-efficiency;
  • revised procurement strategies — both for at-risk communities and for crisis response agencies like FEMA — that consider environmental quality and eco-efficiency (to both save money, and provide markets);
  • support for emerging environmental industry, where appropriate; and
  • adoption of "life-cycle costing" in the planning and redevelopment process to minimize the short-sighted "cheap now but expensive later" decisions that are all-too-common in crisis response.

The Wingspread conference has generated at least two important results. First, with DOE funding and the help of the American Institute of Architects, the people of Valmeyer held a series of community meetings this spring to lay the ground work for the new Valmeyer. The resulting plans may turn out to be a model for sustainable design efforts in other communities.

Second, many of the ideas put forward at Wingsread are making their way into Federal disaster policy. For example, the final report of the federal team charged with evaluating response to the Great Flood of ’93, talks about the Valmeyer model of helping communities learn about and adopt sustainable development, and proposes that federal agencies actively sponsor this approach.

Sustainable development programs may be difficult or impossible to put into place when a community is in the disarray of a flood, hurricane, fire, or earthquake. But disaster preparedness can include a much richer array of options, which are readied before they’re needed, and which can help communities emerge from crisis stronger than before. Federal agencies seem to be getting the message.

Communities that engage in this sort of pre-disaster preparedness might even discover that eco-efficiency and design with nature make such good sense that they don’t need to wait for a disaster to try them.

Today Valmeyer; tomorrow LA?

Gil Friend, a systems ecologist and business strategist, is president of Gil Friend and Associates, a consulting group specializing in strategic environmental management.

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