Improving Disaster Response Through Architecture and Data


Disasters have been increasing in frequency and intensity around the world in the recent decades. Governments are responding with some incredible planning to protect their citizens and minimize the damage done.

Figure 1: Rendering of park on Governors Island built to prevent a storm surge

For those in the US, especially in or around New York City, you are more than familiar with Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and the destruction it caused in New York City and the surrounding areas. Damage estimates for infrastructure, property, and assets exceed $50B. The city is still recovering and there is still a long way to go including fixing property, infrastructure, and subways, including the dreaded shutdown of the L Train to fix the subway tunnel running under the East River.

NYC has been investing in some very smart engineering and architecture to try and avoid this type of disaster in the future. Specifically, a park on Governors Island which doubles as a natural defense against a storm surge, which caused the majority of the damage. You can read more about it in the linked article below, but suffice it to say, it was quite a feat of architecture and urban planning.

The US and New York City are not alone in this effort, either. Planners, architects, and engineers around the world are putting some serious thought into urban design and how it can be used to protect from or respond to disasters. Whether it is sea level rise, wildfires, earthquakes, flooding, plans are beginning to take disasters into account in a way we haven’t seen before.

Figure 2: Natural Disasters by Subgroup from 1950–2016

This type of thinking and planning cannot come soon enough, either. Data from EM-DAT tracks the prevalence of all types of disasters as far back as 1900. We see growth in all types of disasters since 1950. If history and the current state of our climate serve as predictors, we should only expect this growth in disasters to continue.

In addition to the infrastructure and architecture considerations of disaster prevention and planning, there is also the citizen aspect. Back in NYC, there is an effort to help with the mobilization of citizens after disasters, using a combination of social and public data. Efforts like this are arguably more important as protecting citizens and getting them to safety in the midst or aftermath of a disaster should be a paramount to a city.

Ideally this type of informed design-thinking will continue so that citizens, cities, and infrastructure can be protected from the potential growth of disasters in the future.