New Bottom Line Volume 3.1 – Out of the Mud: Disaster Recovery and Sustainable Re-Development

January 23, 1994

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

More than 200 communities are seriously questioning 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) and other agencies, many of these towns are grappling with how to keep their community together while planning and building at a new and hopefully safer locations. The town of Valmeyer Illinois, for example, all but wiped out by the flood, has already broken ground for a new Valmeyer safely perched on a bluff 400 feet above the river.

But there’s a new element. Chicago business consultant Nancy Skinner heard watched 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, and followed her nose from one phone call to the next. One year later, 40 architects, scientists and bureaucrats from across the US gathered at the Johnson FoundationĀ¹s 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.

Sustainable re-development? It’s a subtle spin on “sustainable development”, an increasingly popular phrase in business and policy circles. Sustainable development means different things to different people, but perhaps the most common definition makes good common sense: according to Robert Gilman of the Context Institute, “sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Why such an esoteric issue for 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. 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 where they live, and leave it in better shape for their children–and even for their grandchildren’s grandchildren.

And because design with nature can often improve the survivability to these communities, by intelligent siting, building the strength of local economies, pre-disaster contingency planning and quick and effective response in the event disaster does strike.

The toolkit is filled with practical specifics about everything from siting and infrastructure to building design and community process. The “economic development” component, for example not only includes the elements of the classic economic development process, such as characterization and health assessment of the local economy; analysis of future trends; emphasizing business retention and development as well as business attraction; and technical assistance ranging from market research to capital formation. The sustainable development perspective supplements these by adding assessment and enhancing of eco-efficiency; revised procurement strategies — both for at-risk communities and for crisis response agencies like FEMA — toward 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.

Of course these kinds of 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 now 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.

Communities that engage in this sort of pre-disaster preparedness — and for many disaster is more a question of when than whether — 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?

(c) 1994 Gil Friend. All rights reserved.

New Bottom Line is published periodically by Natural Logic, offering decision support software and strategic consulting that help companies and communities prosper by embedding the laws of nature at the heart of enterprise.

Gil Friend, systems ecologist and business strategist, is President and CEO of Natural Logic, Inc.

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