Increasingly unequal cities are building housing on flood plains, and it’s a terrible idea

Houses in Long Beach, New York, during Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Image: Getty.

Many cities around the world face a lack of affordable housing in and around expensive central business districts. Employers want cheaper labourers, who need more affordable housing in accordance with their lower salaries, to live nearby. So developers are invited to build on flood plains, without consequences. And often there is no public involvement in the decision.

Flood plains are easy to build on because they are flat and, in cities, they tend to be close to amenities. Yet all parties involved in housing know that cities are facing more rainfall and flooding due to climate change. Cities are now starting to prepare for catastrophic floods. and research has estimated flooding losses in countries like the United States to be increasing dramatically.

Irresponsible and autocratic choices made by elites, at Waterfront Toronto for example, leave unsuspecting, lower-paid professionals in dangerous circumstances with rising insurance costs and potentially bad investments. That’s because, in the future, flood insurance may become prohibitively expensive or insurers may decide not to cover such high-risk properties, making them difficult to sell.

Flood risks worldwide

Difficult housing choices are reflective of a broader loss of worker power and associated income inequality. Research shows that densely populated areas are more vulnerable to disasters — the same disaster affects more people in dense environments. And where there is income inequality, there are more victims of natural catastrophes.

Cities dominated by appointed, un-elected officials, such as the board members of Waterfront Toronto, are helping to generate this inequality.

In the U.K., where there’s an ongoing housing crisis, government has approved building on flood plains as long as the new homeowners are made aware of the risks in advance. At least the British are having an honest conversation about it. In Toronto, we are not.

New Orleans has long relegated its poorer populations to lower elevations by the Mississippi River, where floods and subsequent disease have devastated the city. The terrible treatment of Hurricane Katrina’s victims in New Orleans is a continuation of an enduring history of racism.

Research also describes how in the flood plains of Bangladesh, income inequality is related to a higher risk of flooding and lower preparedness to deal with floods.

In South China, increasing rainfall has left millions of the poor living in such dangerous low-lying areas that China’s president has called in the army.


Public space can be climate-adaptive

Today, most North American coastal cities are in danger of climate-related sea level elevations and storm surges. Hurricane Sandy caught New York’s elite off guard because they became victims too. It didn’t matter whether you were in the Upper East Side or in Harlem.

In wealthy south Florida, saltwater rises not only directly from the sea, but also up through porous limestone, so Miami cannot use the same climate adaptation approaches as in some other cities, like adding green space. Miami is working to add pumps and other infrastructure instead.

Toronto could turn its remaining waterfront space into parkland, instead of housing developments, as a protective barrier.

New York City is going to build a wall around the lower part of Manhattan, and add a park. The Dutch are using public space to absorb floodwater. New Orleans is building parks to double as reservoirs for floodwaters, on the advice of the Dutch.

Toronto’s recent floods a wakeup call

Toronto has had a few waterfront floods over the years, including this year and last, damaging the Toronto Islands in 2017. The city faced several storms in 2018 with violent winds and flooding downtown. Some wealthy Torontonians are leaving the city for private lakefront properties in cottage country, but others live within limited space affected by the aftermath of catastrophes. The Toronto Islands recovery, for example, is still ongoing and has not yet been fully paid for.

Meanwhile, new Toronto lakefront condominium developments are proceeding in the Quayside and Portlands neighbourhoods, near the Islands, on flood plains historically contaminated by heavy metals, oil and coal. “Workforce housing” is a required part of the plan.

Will Flessig, former Waterfront Toronto CEO, says that middle-income professionals are expected to settle in the waterfront condominiums so that they can be closer to where they work.

But no one in Toronto is talking about the flood plains, since elected officials apparently consider the issue resolved. Based on a plan developed in 2007, the federal and provincial governments are investing $1.2bn to reconstruct the mouth of the Don River so that the water safely flows into Lake Ontario.

However, the waterfront area still remains a flood plain, and is still affected by storm surges associated with climate change.

Building on flood plains has serious consequences, including future uninsurable buildings as insurance companies anticipate they won’t be able to afford the payouts. A single major flood causes a great deal of damage and requires insurance companies to pay all at once. With a higher frequency of catastrophic floods and the corresponding required payouts, the pool of insurance premiums collected to cover the losses dries up, and insurance companies face bankruptcy.

Before that happens and buildings are left derelict, people and property are endangered. We recently saw life-threatening flooding of buildings in Toronto, and there are limited rescue personnel to address all of the issues at the same time when mass floods happen.

Simultaneously, damage to personal property can be overwhelming — for example, to cars and contents within condominium lockers in underground parking garages. In Toronto, we have also seen streetcars submerged in water recently with people trapped inside.

Fixing the damage therefore adds costs to public transit. Water quality and disease concerns are also heightened as storm sewage systems cannot handle increasing rainfall volumes. Over the longer term, repeated flooding also weakens building foundations.

Hard to manage water levels

On a broader scale in the Great Lakes region, the ability to adapt to changing conditions is reduced. That’s because the ability of water officials to manage water levels is much more difficult when condominiums and other housing is built on flood plains.

For example, water flows are somewhat controlled in the Lake Ontario and St. Lawrence River watersheds through an international agreement called Plan 2014. If buildings are in the path of water flow, this complicates and limits the range of adjustment options.

We know now what we’re confronting. Let’s learn from past mistakes. In the best interests of homeowners, the public and climate adaptation, what’s left of Toronto’s waterfront should be public parks, not condominiums billed as “workforce housing”,.

Deborah de Lange, Associate professor, Ryerson University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

How US planners experimented with “the iron hand of power” over colonial Manila

Manila in ruins, 1945. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

In 1904, Manila must have appeared to its new overlords a despairing prospect. Racked with poverty and disease, it was still recovering from years of war, epidemic and a fire that had left 8,000 homeless.

For architect Daniel Burnham, it was an opportunity to put to work the radical ideas he had dreamed of in America.

He was among those asking how America’s unprecedented wealth at the turn of the century could be reconciled with the lives of the country’s poorest. Like many, he admired the ideas of harmonised city-planning articulated in Edward Bellamy’s bestselling science-fiction Looking Backward (1888).

At the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Burnham constructed the “White City”. Built across 686 acres of parkland, boulevards, gardens and neoclassical structures rendered a spray-painted plaster vision of the future – all laid out to one comprehensive plan.

It was impressive – but implementing grand designs where people actually lived meant laborious negotiations with citizens, businessmen and politicians.

Instead, opportunity lay in America’s new overseas territories. As Daniel Immerwahr describes in How to Hide an Empire: A Short History of the Greater United States, “They functioned as laboratories, spaces for bold experimentation where ideas could be tried with practically no resistance, oversight, or consequences.”

An architect’s dream

The US had gone to war with Spain in 1898, taking advantage of an empire-wide insurrection. It ended up controlling the entire Philippines, along with Guam and Puerto Rico.

As a “territory”, the Philippines existed outside the protections of the constitution. Congress could impose any law, proclaimed the attorney general in 1901, “without asking the consent of the inhabitants, even against their consent and against their protest, as it has frequently done.”

Which is how Burnham, upon invitation by the Philippine’s new rulers, came to wield what the Architectural Record called “the iron hand of power” over Manila.

 Burnham’s plan for Manila. Click to expand.

Where Burnham’s Chicago plan was complex, took years and entailed collaboration with hundreds of citizens, Burnham spent six months on the Manila plan, and just six weeks in the Philippines. And with no voters to persuade, there seemed little reason to register Filipino input in his designs.

In 1905 Burnham submitted his Report on Improvement of Manila. It described filling the toxic moat of the Spanish fortress Intramuros and developing a rectangular street system modelled on Washington D.C., with diagonal arteries which even Chicago lacked.


Central to his plan was the city’s beautification through monumental buildings, waterfront improvements, and parks – “wholesome resorts” to “give proper means of recreation to every quarter of the city”

Burnham charged William E. Parsons as the omnipotent “Consultant Architect” to interpret his plan, who relished its authority over all public building as an “architect’s dream”. When concerned with the extent of his purview, he also chose to standardise a number of public buildings.

“I doubt if this method would bear fruit in our own city improvement plans, in which everything depends on slow moving legislative bodies,” reported the Architectural Record’s correspondent.

Despite Burnham’s colonial sentiments his biographer concluded his plan was “remarkable in its simplicity and its cognizance of Philippine conditions and traditions.”

His plans did not shy from asserting the colonial government’s authority, however. The Luneta, a favourite park, was to become the nuclei of government. The city’s avenues would converge there, for “every section of the Capitol City should look with deference toward the symbol of the Nation’s power.”

Unusual monumental possibilities

Burnham also worked on a summer palace for US administrators at Baguio, 150 miles north in the mountains. On land inhabited by Igorot people, Burnham saw an opening “to formulate my plans untrammelled by any but natural conditions”.

Baguio’s “unusual monumental possibilities” were facilitated by a road whose construction employed thousands, risking death from disease and falling off cliffs. Civic buildings would “dominate everything in sight” and a golf course would rival those of Scotland.

“Stingy towards the people and lavish towards itself,” griped La Vanguardia, the government “has no scruples nor remorse about wasting money which is not its own.”

As enthusiasm for US empire soured in the States, local power was relinquished to Filipinos. Parsons resigned in protest in 1914. He was replaced by Manila-born Juan Arellano, whose rebuke to imperialists was the mighty, neoclassical Legislative Building which hosted the elected Philippine Legislature. Arellano upheld Burnham’s plan, producing a beautified city bearing resemblance to Burnham’s White City.

But the Legislative Building, along with Burnham’s great edifices and almost everything else in Manila, was levelled as US troops recaptured it in 1945, this time ousting the Japanese in a brutal battle. “Block after bloody block was slowly mashed into an unrecognizable pulp”, recorded the 37th Infantry Division as they exercised their own “iron hand” over Manila.

American artillery had transformed Manila into ruins. “It was by far the most destructive event ever to take place on US soil,” writes Immerwahr, even if few soldiers realised they were liberating US nationals at the time. Burnham’s expansive vision was lost in the debris, and though some buildings were rebuilt a majority were replaced. Today, Manila’s pre-war architecture is remembered with fondness and nostalgia.