If Resiliency Matters, Let’s Be Thorough (4/29/2016)

As a former member of the Boulder Daily Camera’s Editorial Advisory Board, I have written on the subject of resiliency many times, often working the concept into editorials about seemingly unrelated subjects because true resiliency must be woven into everything we do, privately and publicly, over the short and long term. Boulder probably made the Rockefeller Foundation’s short list because of several natural disasters in recent years. There are even better reasons for Boulder to be involved in a resiliency study, but let’s start with them.

Boulder regulates land use based on a hypothetical 100-year flood event. It could happen within our lifetimes or within the expected life of the structures we build. The 100-year flood won’t remain within the river channels formed in Boulder long before settlers arrived. However, it’s not a mile wide and several feet deep, like the floods in Iowa or New Orleans, either. Boulder’s downtown is going to get wet, but it won’t stay wet for long.

There are some obvious things we should do to prepare for this “toilet flush”-type of flood. Identify the properties at risk. Flood proof our infrastructure (install remotely triggered shut-off gas and electric valves outside of high hazard and conveyance flood zones). Plan how to direct people to higher ground. Segregate hazardous wastes. As opportunities arise, relocate facilities for the elderly and the disabled out of harm’s way. Require insurance. To prevent catastrophic fires, turn off the gas and power within mapped flood zones after the sirens go off and before the flood hits.

Wild fires have always been a challenge in the hills west of Boulder, but fires in the wildland/urban interface zone are becoming a more frequent occurrence. Building and fire codes are meant to protect us, but they are often no match for nature’s fury. One reason the fires have been so catastrophic is that building permit-based regulations do nothing to change existing structures. If we hope to do more than improve the survivability of the 1/10th of one percent of our buildings for which a permit is pulled in any given year, educational outreach and meaningful economic incentives need to be creatively employed.

To achieve true resiliency, though, Boulder must more effectively address the following challenges: workforce housing, year round local agricultural production, and creation of “primary self-sufficiency” in our neighborhoods (the ability to work, shop and play closer to where you sleep). It’s time to dramatically extend both our planning time horizon and its geographic scope. Boulder simply can’t meet these regional challenges quickly or alone.

Much of the residential development added to Boulder since the 1950s is not walkable. We should examine the pattern and location of Boulder’s rental housing stock to determine whether joint ventures with private landowners (willing to cooperate in assembling smaller parcels into larger ones) might enable new village centers to be built in the right places for the right reasons: to strengthen our transit system and improve the quality of life in our neighborhoods.

For the good of the planet and to strengthen our economy, we have to kick our fossil fuel dependency. Let’s plug every hole, insulate every wall and roof, caulk every window and door, and retire every gas guzzler. We need to reduce leaks along with our profligate use of carbon fuels before opening up the supply spigots any further. Expensive, hard-to-find, environmentally risky oil and coal production should wait until our entire energy system has been fine-tuned, so we will waste none of it going forward. This will also enable us to squeeze more value out of every electron we generate with renewable sources, while evolving our energy generation and distribution system into one that allows renewables and fossil fuels to “play well together.”

Finally, in an energy- and resource-constrained world, conservation, localization, and sustainable land use patterns will be critical to our survival, not just our quality of life. Boulder’s businesses should examine their supply chains to determine where raw material and integrated component vulnerabilities lie. “Just-in-time” inventories work great until the flow stops. The essence of effective long range resiliency planning is anticipation of probabilities and preservation of options.

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