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How community-led design can help a city rebound after a storm

How design helped Cedar Rapids, Iowa, recover from a catastrophic flood, and lessons the process may have for Houston

A presidential helicopter flying above a damaged bridge on June 19, 2008 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Gina Ford understands the challenges of flooding and recovery in major American cities. The design and planning firm where she’s a landscape architect and principal, Sasaki, actually created a plan for renovating the riverfront of the city of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, after a catastrophic 2008 flood of the Cedar River inundated the city’s waterfront and caused more than $6 billion in damages. Considered a “2000-year-event,” the water crested at 31 feet, 11 feet above the previous record flood. Sasaki team members, including Ford, were in town for another project when the storms hit and experienced the flood firsthand. The redevelopment scheme they devised for what was to be billed as the “year of the river” quickly became repurposed and refocused on recovery.

Sasaki’s river corridor redevelopment plan for Cedar Rapids was put to the test last year, during another extreme weather event, held up and helped the city withstand and bounce back more quickly from flooding.

“Cedar Rapids is a small community, comparatively,” she says. “What’s happening in Houston now is on a completely different scale.”

When she looks at what’s happening in the Houston area right now due to Harvey, she has incredible empathy for those coping with the unprecedented flooding, as well as an idea of how planners and city leaders may move forward once the waters recede and begin to build a stronger, more resilient city.

Ford and her colleagues at Sasaki have actually been in the middle of devising a new master plan for downtown Houston, focused on placemaking, economic development and natural systems. The area hit by Harvey encompasses a much wider swath of southeast Texas and Louisiana, so Ford doesn’t claim to be an expert on the entire region. But her brief experience here, and previous work in numerous regions that have also been hit by massive storms, gives her some idea of how initial conversations may proceed. Ford offered some thoughts on how this type of planning and recovery process works, and what issues may be at the forefront as Houston looks forward.

During community debate over the right course for rebuilding after the 2008 Cedar Rapids flood, residents considered a number of different options.

Creating a community conversation

Right after the flood in Cedar Rapids, the community started a conversation about what they wanted, and how they wanted to move forward. Different strategies and philosophies for recovery were discussed. Should we move properties out of the floodplain and never build there again, the retreat strategy? Does the city build a wall along the threat boundary and “armor the front line,” preserving as much along that line as possible? Or should it blend the two options, a mix that may return some of the developed land to the floodplain and natural systems of drainage?

As different ideas were discussed, including buying out 7,000 homes and walling off the river entirely, Cedar Rapids took a middle path, and moved roughly 1,500 homes out of its floodplain, as well as strengthening natural resilience via flexible new infrastructure projects, including a detachable storm wall system on the riverfront and new street-level stormwater systems that drained more quickly and efficiently.

Ford has previously worked on other post-disaster planning scenarios, including the areas hit by Sandy and Katrina, and said one of the most important things to consider is that often, the areas hardest hit are the poorest neighborhoods. Rental and low-income areas get the brunt of the damage, so it’s important for the community to consider how best to help them bounce back and plan for the future. A new 220-acre greenway built in Cedar Rapids after the flood offered new community amenities, but also serves as a levee protecting nearby neighborhoods.

How do we work with the landscape?

Ford believes the planning discussion will begin with a focus on flood risk reduction infrastructure, how green infrastructure strategies are deployed and how streets and pavement capture and direct water.

“Landscape architecture is about how to address water more than anything else,” says Ford.

Adding more permeable pavement, so natural groundwater systems can absorb overflow, and focusing on low-impact development, won’t lessen the amount of water that hits a city in a major storm. But it can lessen the impact in the future, and significantly lessen the damage done by smaller weather events. Cedar Rapids responded much better to 2016 flood event because of the green infrastructure investments it had made after 2008.

Ford sees flood-proofing and adaptability becoming a bigger part of the building and design discussion. During her time working in New Jersey after Hurricane Sandy, more and more homeowners placed their homes on stilts, and in Cedar Rapids, public facilities were renovated so ground floors would be protected against water runoff from big storm events.

Ford says it’s important to design and build with multi-beneficial solutions in mind. Infrastructure and new projects shouldn’t just be about mitigating floods, for instance, but adding green space and better transportation options through parks and bike paths. Build smarter and more intelligently for better efficiency. Cedar Rapids’s recovery plan included investments in mobility, green infrastructure, and community reinvestment in housing, guaranteeing the recovery helped in myriad ways.

“There’s a problem when you design to a certain benchmark; when you go past that benchmark you have a problem,” Ford says. “We need to design systems believing it is possible they can fail, and then imagine how they can be resilient to failure."

A map of Cedar Rapids and the Cedar River

Building on existing efforts

Ford observed city politicians and leaders in Cedar Rapids come together to create a plan that made the city better and stronger. She believes that’s exactly the same process we’ll see in Houston. It’s very hard to start a conversation about the long-term things that need to happen after a disaster like this when people are without homes, in trauma, and in an incredibly difficult place. Reconciling the emergency response with the long-term vision are very difficult.

But during rescue and response efforts like this, she says, different parts of city government and different services come together and collaborate, laying the groundwork for future collaboration.

“The flood blurs boundaries between all the different departments,” she says. “Everything is everyone’s issues. A lovely part of the process in Cedar Rapids was seeing people come together.”

As she and her colleagues researched downtown Houston, Ford found that the city was already making investments in its bayou and floodwater systems, like the Bayou Greenways 2020 project, and figuring out how to better connect Houstonians to greenways. Those will continue, and expand, as the city comes back from Harvey.

“Think positively about what progressive things can happen,” she says “A lot of ideas the world has never seen before—new housing, parks, and infrastructure—can come out of a disaster like this. Houston can become a model for dealing with these kinds of issues.”

There are a lot of things Houston is doing that it can expand upon; selective greening of some areas, road diets, adding rain gardens. It’s possible to imagine a future where there’s a much larger investiment in the green infrastructure, flood mitigation, and the bayous.