Responses to “Risky business: Development

USA:  Responses to “Risky business: Development in the eye of nature’s storms”

10 January 2002

Source and Copyright: Environmental News Network


By Erica Gies
In a college geology class, my professor took us to Alum Rock Park in San Jose in Northern California. We walked down a road that buckled and gave way to encroaching grass, observing a steep hillside where only remnants of house foundations clung. As we left, we passed a man getting into his car outside of his house. Our professor pointed out the numerous cracks in his foundation and asked the perturbed man when he was going to evacuate. Indians had called this site of mudslides and earthquakes Moving Mountain. 
Floods, quakes, fire, tornadoes, hurricanes, mudslides: These natural events have always been inevitable. Some scientists argue that global warming will make them occur more frequently. But one thing is indisputable: Planting housing developments in the historic paths of these events for short-term profit leads to death and economic destruction on a vast scale. 
In Ecology of Fear, author Mike Davis relays the history of development in the Los Angeles basin, a chronicle of greed and corruption that unfortunately, is typical of other regions as well. He reveals how, almost to this day, developers have chosen to build in fire corridors and on fault lines, despite common sense and the reasoningof ecologists and urban planners such as Frederick Law Olmstead. In the 1930s, Olmstead recommended setting aside these areas as communal greenbelts to avoidfuture property losses. Needless to say, he was largely ignored. 
In places like Malibu, an area which was burning in 1826 when Richard Henry Dana described it in Two Years Before the Mast, subsequent fire damage has been subsidized by federal disaster relief, allowing the victims to build larger and larger mansions with each generation of fire. 
Urban planning is often politically motivated. In his essay”A Hundred Rivers Run Through It,” Wade Graham provides insight into modern trends in Californian development: “Because of the stiff property tax ceilings established by 1978’s Proposition 13, local governments are forced to compete with one another for the kinds of development that can produce large amounts of revenue quickly. Wildlife refuges and farms simply will not do the trick; shopping malls and housing developments will.” 
Some progress has been made since the 1970s by use of infrastructure adequacy ordinances, which prevent growth if the streets and water and energy suppliescannot handle the extra load, and urban growth boundaries, which encourage infill development. Olmstead’s idea of prohibiting development in risky areas has a name now: avoidance theory. But others advocate mitigation theory, which posits that it’s OK to develop risky areas if risk mitigation measures — like brush clearance and use of fire-resistant materials — are used. 
Why is our urban planning driven by the short-term profits of aggressive developers and bureaucrats rather than the natural requirements of our ecosystems? As Davis points out, this practice does not even make sense from an economic point of view. How can the politics that drive development be tempered with common sense? If people choose to build — or buy — in disaster zones, should all taxpayers be responsible for the reconstruction bills? Your responses arebelow.
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