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3 Questions: Brent Ryan on Hurricane Harvey’s implications for U.S. cities

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3 Questions: Brent Ryan on Hurricane Harvey’s implications for U.S. cities

Flying through Texas last weekend on his way to a workshop in Mexico, Brent Ryan found himself stranded at a hotel near Houston’s Bush International Airport as a result of Hurricane Harvey’s catastrophic flooding. An associate professor of urban design and planning at MIT, Ryan and two of his graduate students watched the waters rise and considered the implications of the disaster unfolding around them.
Ryan, who heads the City Design and Development Group in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP), is no stranger to cities and natural disasters. He has studied coastal development in China, co-led an interdisciplinary team exploring strategies for Boston’s adaptation to climate change, and this summer taught a graduate practicum focused on disaster-resilient communities and housing in India. Last January, a team including Ryan and other MIT faculty were winners in a design competition to envision how policy changes, new investments, and innovative thinking could reshape the coasts of New York and New Jersey and prepare them for the next 25 years.
After safely departing from Houston, Ryan shared his account of what he observed during the hurricane, offered his thoughts on human decisions that contributed to the scale of the destruction — and explained why he believes the disaster ought to prompt soul-searching about where and how we build communities.
Q. How did you get caught up in the hurricane in Houston and what did you see there?
A: I flew into Houston last week with the weather worsening. And I think none of us — whether it was the news agencies or the airports or travelers — had any idea that we should have left as soon as we could have. By Saturday afternoon it started raining really hard and it just didn’t stop raining. Our flight was cancelled, so we rebooked from Dallas. I had rented a car preemptively on Saturday, which was really lucky. But on Sunday morning, we got up to leave and realized the roads in all directions were closed off by floods. Together with two master’s students, I was more or less trapped for 48 hours. Nobody panicked, but when you think, “I’m cut off by floodwaters and I don’t know for how long,” it starts to get really scary.
We were all sitting there on Sunday thinking about the storm’s impact, asking ourselves, “How did things get this way? What went wrong?” In a sense, it really was a perfect storm because you have a city that’s sprawling, hasn’t been carefully constructed, and lacks environmental sensitivity in its development patterns — and it got the heaviest storm that you could possibly imagine.
Houston is a very wet area. It’s low lying, it has clay soils, it’s poorly drained. We realized as we were looking at the map — thinking, How did these airport roads get flooded? — that, essentially, what we were seeing was the runoff from the airport runways draining into what are called bayous in Houston. We realized that the airport access roads had cut across the drainage routes for these bayous in a very casual way. They had not been engineered to really confront any substantial amount of flooding. That’s what trapped us at the airport. Regionally, we noticed that even interstate highways were flooded because the engineering of the roadway system wasn’t enough to accommodate the degree of water that was generated.
Part two of Houston’s problems is the region’s absolutely sprawling, auto-oriented development. You have parking lots, wide roads, impervious surfaces, and uncontrolled development that more or less ignores environmentally sensitive areas. With an event like this, it becomes viscerally evident which residential areas are absolutely not safe from even moderate flooding. Driving out, it was so sad: We were driving past all this water, stretching for as far as the eye could see with houses poking out of it.
Q. How does Houston recover and plan for the future?
A: I think you need to start at the regional level first, from a life-safety perspective and from a critical regional infrastructure perspective. It’s absolutely unacceptable that both airports shut down and major interstate highways closed. Once that happens, the area is essentially closed to the outside world. I think Houston needs to generate a whole new set of engineering standards in conjunction with environmental engineering analysis of the area that says, “We can’t build this way anymore, and we have to rebuild a lot of places that we thought were okay.”
A secondary priority for life safety is either discouraging or prohibiting settlement in low-lying areas — and there’s so much of that in Houston. There are a lot of residential neighborhoods that are getting flooded two, three, four, five times a year. These are areas in flood-prone zones and they’re not going to be safe from future flooding. There’s no doubt about it.
But Houston is famous for having no zoning. They’re not going to tell people how they can build or where; it’s all up to the market. And the market has made a lot of decisions that are absolutely not in context and not sensitive to the environmental needs of the area. I think Houston really needs to do some soul searching about how they govern land use and residential development.
Whether or not you think that climate change is an issue, there’s not anyone out there who doesn’t see that Hurricane Harvey just came in and destroyed or damaged half of the city of Houston. Whatever the cause of Harvey’s strength, I think serious provisions need to be made for ensuring that the city doesn’t shut down in this type of storm again. But that serious commitment is going to have to go up against a lot of anti-government ideology, and a lot of skepticism about regional planning and regional governance. In that sense Houston is going to face real dilemmas — ideological and practical — as it faces the future.
Q: You’ve studied disaster preparedness and resilient urban design around the globe. Are you able to draw any lessons from Houston based on your experience in different regions and contexts?
A: Yes, a significant lesson, for better or worse, is that top-down planning allows you to make decisions and to fund those decisions more easily with respect to resilience.
China is not a democratic country, but it has top-down planning. The central government allocates the funding and local government essentially falls in line and does what the central government says. There’s no disagreement in the Netherlands that large-scale governance is critical to providing protection from water. It’s a country that has become a leading example in how you can use design, planning, and engineering in concert to plan effectively for these types of problems. The Dutch are the classic example, but I think once China decides to confront sea-level rise directly, it’s going to do so swiftly.
It’s a lot more complicated in the United States. The New York region we studied after Hurricane Sandy has something like 250 separate municipalities. Each of these municipalities is facing its financial future more or less on its own. Each is responsive to its own citizens, who may be skeptical of relocation. Each governs its own land-use pattern. America’s local governance and lack of regional planning really doesn’t serve the United States well with respect to this kind of problem, whereas I think European and Asian governments — where there’s a lot more trust in the higher levels of government and a tradition of central government abundantly funding planning and design decisions — are better prepared to deal with this.
I don’t want to label the Harvey disaster a wake-up call, because we’ve had a few wake-up calls already. But it’s a reminder that the manifestation of climate change or climate severity can affect different cities in different ways. It’s a reminder of how many of our cities and regions are vulnerable. And it’s an absolute reminder of the imperative for us to think hard about what types of measures we can generate to create more resilient regions.

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