Detroit Flood: Life goes on,....or at least it should.
In Detroit the city infrastructure has been deteriorating for a while now. However, this past week's unprecedented flooding provokes us if not implores us to re-evaluate the way people navigate about the city.
I was in Seaside, Florida working on a project, when the massive flooding occurred. I was bombarded with emails, texts, tweets, and pictures sent to me from family and friends back home. As I began to think about the situation I realized a significant contrast and similarity between where I was and the downpour in my home town. Here I was in the middle of the Florida Panhandle, an area known for consistent heavy rains and seasonal hurricanes. As I pondered I thought about the massive amount of tropical precipitation I had already experienced here in Florida. Yet, there was no flooding. Meanwhile, back in Detroit I watched as some of America's oldest national freeways were filled to the brim like Jacuzzi tubs. I watched an entire city - already crippled - come to a virtual standstill because its main vehicular arteries were inoperable. Let’s think about that for a second. The Great Motor City - motor less. Cars floating instead of driving. People watching instead of working. Seemingly time was still instead of ticking. Commercial activity was no doubt dealt a serious blow as truckers and other delivery vehicles could not make their rounds. Daily life, already a tough task, is now made even more egregious turning a simple trip like purchasing milk from the store into a hike through the Amazon.
Images taken by Joe Gall Photography http://camerajesus.com/
I noticed two main issues here that need to be addressed as Detroit pedals forward: First, the city needs to reevaluate the relationship it has to cars in general. Secondly, the role of mechanical systems to manage natural forces also needs to be rethought.
The fact that Detroit's essence is so deeply rooted in the automobile culture has also been its demise moving into the 21st century. I would guess that almost its entire economy is dependent of vehicular traffic. Living there for 25 years of my life, I have experienced the burden of having to have a car to complete basic tasks. This week’s events are a prime display of why total dependence on the wrong mode of transportation (in my opinion) and not having a multi-modal transit system is harmful to a city. Such a city is inefficient and quite frankly not urban. What the world witnessed was Detroit infrastructure humbled at the mercy of Mother Nature.
Equally as responsible are the failed infrastructural systems, in this case the sewage and drainage system which was completely overwhelmed by tropical storm type rains. This is a much broader issue as road construction and water runoff drainage is virtually the same globally (China is building monstrous concrete and asphalt roads). But, Detroit brings to light the issues with this ideal form of road/sewer construction. Systems will fail. From the engine in our cars, batteries in our phones, circuitry in our computers, and the sewers of our cities, the things we make will eventually break down. Now it is no secret that Detroit's sewage system is outdated. This is an ever-present ordeal in many post-industrial American cities. The issue here is not the outdated sewage system. The issue here is again an entire cities function contingent on one fallible system.
Meanwhile in Seaside, we had been in the midst of gargantuan rains for 3 consecutive nights - on and off all the time. But, we were fine. I comfortably walked, yes walked, in a thunderstorm to a market no more than 200 feet away to get some orange juice. Here in Seaside the main mode of transportation is by foot. Residents park their cars in covered car ports and sometimes don't touch them for weeks. Visitors trek to Seaside by walking, by bike or if you're really fancy by golf cart. Visitors that do arrive by car, park their vehicles in carefully planned parking area as not to endanger the many people walking around. This activity continued to a certain extent even during inclimate weather because of Seaside's multi-faceted drainage network. Seaside has a small traditional sewer system like any other town. However, it also uses porous materials for road construction which allow water to naturally filter into the ground instead of entering the sewer. The crown jewel of the drainage system is Center Square, Seaside's main public space which also serves as the town's main water runoff collector during downpours. Topography is essential as the entire community is designed with a slight slope toward Central Square, diverting water into the space. Here three systems manage water runoff on an urban scale and two of them are not mechanical. Three systems - not one.
The point I'm trying to get across is that life and activity in cities designed like Seaside, will always continue even in the most tumultuous circumstances. This is because in the initial stages of design the human is thought of first and foremost. Cars certainly must be accommodated in urban areas but never dominant. Furthermore passive infrastructures (systems that don’t require fuel, power, and machinery) are employed before mechanical and electrical ones. Methods such as pervious paving and water retention ponds help alongside sewers.
I hear you thinking and your questions are valid. Yes, Seaside is a fraction of the size of Detroit. Yes, some 'Acts of God' will be unavoidable. Yes, the heavy rains lasted for just two days. But big plans always start as small and simple ideas. Acts of nature will come certainly. But cities for people should always be designed in such a way so that when storms come, life goes on.