Creativity in Disaster

February 28, 2011

Disaster recovery specialist Ed Blakely examines the planning and design lessons to be learned in the aftermath of the devastating natural disasters that have rocked Australia and New Zealand.

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Disasters – natural or manmade – generate opportunities for planning, design and engineering professionals. In many ways, a sudden jolt to the status quo presents options that many professionals have been presenting to un-accepting public audiences. In post-disaster situations the old order is unable to cope so new ideas can come to the fore. And so it is with the tremendous tragedies that have recently befallen Australia and New Zealand, we can create new opportunities.

Unfortunately, the tendency is to form a Royal Commission to look into what went wrong and how to assess blame. Rather we should be focusing not only on what can be done to deal with the past, but also exploring how we might shape a new and better future. We have had several Royal Commissions on fires and floods and each made headlines about how the events were handled during or shortly after the tragedy. Unfortunately, the salient and good information on what can be done to prevent future catastrophes – typically buried in the reports – gets almost no press or political attention. Moreover, these Royal Commissions are often limited by their brief to look only at the single event without addressing the larger set of manmade or natural systems that may cause the same or worse events. For example, no Commission has been given the brief to look at the urban sprawl that may be one of the most significant contributing factors to these extreme fire and flood events. This void creates an opportunity for the planning, design and engineering professionals to generate new ideas about what is and what can be.

For some time, I have proposed that the best international minds should be brought into mega-disaster situations in Australia and New Zealand as the stimulus for re-thinking and re-imagining the future of the places that were damaged. These international forums, sponsored by government and our professional bodies, would unleash the creative juices of our local professional talent by putting new global templates at the forefront of the planning and design process, instead of continually repeating the reactive approaches that are currently in use. In such an atmosphere, new creative and more holistic approaches could be canvassed – such as moving entire cities to match future climatic or geo-hazards. New, more imaginative solutions to de-centralise power and water generation could be canvassed without the usual protection of old legacy power and water generation systems dominating discussions. New built form ideas that would make homes more capable of generating larger portions of their energy and water could be proposed without the heavy hand of current home builders weighing down the discussion.

It is time for us to re-think our response to disaster and allow our professionals to start the process of re-making our communities so they can proactively face the future. While the current catastrophes are difficult to bear, they, like many historic events from wars to civil unrest, can usher in new options and opportunities to create a better world and not just a bandage approach to an already fragile and dying system. We need to use these tragedies as ways to invent the future and not as ways to protect the past.

Edward J Blakely is professor of urban policy at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney. He has been called the ‘master of disaster’ for his work in six major disasters in the United States and around the world. His views and those of international experts in urban planning and development can be found at www.blakelycitytalk.com

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