In the wake of Irene, examining how smart growth can help protect communities from floods and other hazards

Can smart growth help communities avoid the catastrophic impacts of flooding? The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) brought together designers, land use planners, engineers and policy wonks at NOAA’s Silver Spring headquarters last week to examine this question, and to find commonalities and tensions between hazard mitigation techniques and smart growth principles.

“Hazard mitigation” is the technical term for a wide range of urban design, landscape, architectural, land use and engineering practices aimed at reducing exposure to threats like flooding, hurricanes, tornadoes and wildfire. This field of practice is closely related to climate change adaptation, or the process of planning ahead for eventualities such as extreme temperatures and sea-level rise.

The experts at last week’s meeting raised several questions about urban planning’s role in hazard mitigation. Should cities require the street level of new buildings to contain nothing more permanent than parking spaces? Can communities be persuaded to envision a post-disaster future by engaging in pre-disaster planning? Is it worth the effort to integrate local comprehensive plans, which are optional, and hazard mitigation plans, which are required?

While smart growth does offer many techniques to help towns and cities avoid critical environmental and hazard areas, many of the United State’s most populous areas and most robust economic centers are vulnerable to flooding. How does an area endure despite these challenges?

John Jacob, of the Texas Sea Grant program, framed the conversation by describing how the French colonial governor, Bienville, selected the site for New Orleans on a bend of the Mississippi that he thought would be protected from tidal surges and hurricanes. The original colonial capital, which has been called “the inevitable city on an impossible site,” has survived centuries of hurricanes and tidal surges because it demonstrates the key characteristics of a good city – lovability and durability.

Throughout the roundtable, the idea of lovable-and-durable places joined resilience as a framework for thinking about the ultimate goal of hazard mitigation as well as smart growth. As with other fields in which federal regulation and investment come together with local needs and authority, the biggest question is how to align a national interest in investing wisely for the future with more immediate local needs.

“River’s Bend,” by Flickr user wyojones.