I have been learning a lot lately. No, I have not returned to school or taken a few courses through Planetizen. Instead, I have simply been playing with my five-year old daughter and gaining a few insights along the way. Some of her favorite toys these days are Blockitecture sets which consist of colorful wooden blocks of buildings, parks, green spaces, rivers, and lakes. Together, we have built neighborhoods and had humorous conversations about what makes a city “fun” or “awesome,” two of her most often-used adjectives. Of course, this has brought me, a plannerd and father, much joy and satisfaction, knowing that my daughter is beginning to understand what I do as a planner and that she may even aspire to be one in the future (well, I am not sure about this yet). All kidding aside, I have seriously learned a few things through our play sessions that I would like to share below. . . . Read More
I find it fascinating that in response to an article about economic development, a male planner felt entirely comfortable telling me that the only thing of value about me is how developed my breasts and vagina are. In fact, he seemed downright proud about that observation, so much so that he signed his email to me with his company logo, telephone number and web address. What precipitated this completely unprofessional sexist email outrage that I quoted exactly in the headline? [Read more…] about The only feminist development I’d like to see is on your chest and between your legs…
I wear a blue County jacket and dark pants, denim or Dickies, when I’m out doing zoning enforcement inspections. This isn’t a regulation uniform. I don’t have to wear it. I’m an urban planner, not a cop. [Read more…] about An Urban Planner on the Ground in South Central Los Angeles
In the previous segment, we discussed the misuse of the term ‘wildfire’ when applied to the recent California fires and the concept of the wildland urban interface (WUI).
My third and, arguably, most important point is that we plan accordingly. Rather than wring our collective hands in despair or split hairs over semantics and terminology, we must plan and manage land use better and more strategically in areas at risk of large-scale fires. Innovations in landscape and building design are also critical.
The great news is that the stage for proactive design and planning has been set for some time, and continues – as do most national and international standards – to be refined based on informed experience.
The International Wildland-Urban Interface Code
Andrew Kollar, Chairman of the American Institute of Architects National Codes and Standards Committee – and my colleague in the Boston Society of Architects Committee on Resilient Environments (CORE) – notes that the WUI concept is not new, nor is the international code community’s response to fire.
For properties within the WUI, at least two sets of codes come into consideration:
- the International Fire Code (IFC)
- the International Wildland-Urban Interface Code (IWUIC)
I say at least two, because the IWUIC is a supplemental or ‘overlay’ code which compliments the base requirements of other international codes or “other comparable model codes and standards.”
The International Code Council published the first edition of the International Wildland-Urban Interface Code (IWUIC) in 2003 and has periodically updated and issued new versions every three years. The preface of the 2015 version notes that “this code is founded on principles intended to mitigate the hazard from fires through the development of provisions that adequately protect health, safety, and welfare; provisions that do not necessarily increase construction costs; provisions that do not restrict the use of new materials, products or methods of construction; and provisions that do not give preferential treatment to particular types or classes of materials, products or methods of construction.”
Apart from the ‘new normal’ of greater frequency and severity due climate change of which Gov. Brown warns, Kollar sees professional due diligence as part of a continuum, asserting that architects and engineers “have always striven to uphold the health, safety, and welfare of the public.”
In other words, while the public’s health, safety, and welfare is the bedrock, innovation and initiative by the design and planning professions and the construction industry do have their place and are backed by robust codes.
The IWUIC is quite comprehensive, looking beyond the building scale and considering the totality of the site. Some standouts include that design and engineering teams provide:
- Vicinity plans, showing other structures, slopes, vegetation, fuel breaks, water supply systems and access roads within 300 feet of the property line.
- Site plans, showing topography, width and percent of grade of access roads, landscape and vegetation details, site water supply systems, existing or proposed overhead utilities, and the locations, occupancy and construction classifications of main structures and outbuildings.
- Vegetation management, fire protection, or other plans as conditions require.
- Fire Hazard Severity Form, to quantify the level of threat from fire (moderate, high, or extreme).
However, as with all codes, since the details are usually well-covered, the devil is in the adoption and enforcement in real-world settings.
Kollar notes that the level of comfort that design professionals have in using the code is an important factor. So is the ability for communities to be able to enforce the code as part of their plan review and inspection responsibilities. Piecemeal adoption or enforcement is a very real possibility.
“Supplemental codes present unique criteria that are not always readily accessible, and it is imperative that all parties involved refrain from waiving / omitting parts thereof, ” writes Kollar.
Other real-world concerns include existing conditions and maintenance. “The IWUIC is almost 15 years old; most of the built environment is not,” writes Kollar. “That unbalanced equation means that while new development should be better prepared for wildfires, neighboring properties may not.”
Fuel breaks, according to the IWUIC, are “areas strategically located for fighting anticipated fires, where the native vegetation has been permanently modified or replaced so that fires burning into it can be more easily controlled. Fuel breaks divide fire-prone areas into smaller areas for easier fire control and to provide access for fire fighting.”
Because maintenance is difficult to address – and enforce – under code, Kollar suggests that a conversation within the architecture and engineering community about long-term code compliance related to preserving fuel breaks and sources as well as vegetation control might be valuable.
A proactive and resilient approach
Finally, circling back to the first segment of this series and California Gov. Brown’s ‘new normal’: the changing frequency and severity of catastrophic events due to a changing climate.
As the controversy continues unabated over how to nudge FEMA’s Flood Insurance Rate Maps (FIRMs) into being tied to predictive modeling and forecasting rather than solely historic data, Kollar sees pertinent to the discussion of planning for fire two scenarios for both the design community and the code development process. The first is a reactive model, which assumes – as do the current FIRMs – that the past might be an adequate predictor of the future, a “punctuated path whereby change occurs incrementally in response to a changing world”.
The second scenario would forge “…a new path for code development more closely aligned with designing for projected future social and climatic conditions. In this scenario, the ongoing code development serves as a chance to re-calibrate the performance criteria based on refinements and other improvements to the models. This is a proactive model.”
Let’s approach the lessons of the California fires and other similar catastrophic events – events that are naturally occurring, occurring more often, and with greater severity – as an opportunity to help us continue to refine a more nimble, proactive, and resilient approach.
Special thanks to Andrew J. Kollar for his significant contributions and to the following for the use of their images: Tony Morain
Communications Director, Direct Relief; Kelly B. Huston, California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (CalOES); Scott L. Stephens, Professor of Fire Science / Co-Director UC Center for Forestry and Fire ESPM Department, UC Berkeley;
Further reading / exploring
Urban fire or ‘wild’fire?
The previous segment highlighted how the tension between attribution and contribution to the effects of climate change – while an important discussion – shouldn’t hamstring being proactive in emergency preparedness, response, and recovery.
So, why the quotes around ‘wild’ in wildfire? [Read more…] about Lessons from the California Fires: Climate Change Impacts and Proactive Planning (part 2)
Can you believe that it is almost the middle of December already? Well, it is that time of the year again when many of us think about giving and receiving presents. I previously shared some ideas on the perfect gifts for planners, architects, landscape architects, and other related professionals in 2013, 2014, 2015, and 2016 which have turned out to be a few of my most read articles. I am glad to know that my lists have been helpful (and perhaps entertaining?) to some planners and/or fans of planners. Without further ado, here is my 2017 edition of Presents for Plannerds: [Read more…] about Presents for Plannerds: 2017 Edition
Vancouver B.C. Metropolitan Core is famous among urbanists for what is now called the “Vancouver Style,” neighborhoods of point towers of 40 stories or more, with a planned tower separation to preserve public views and maximize privacy. The towers have small floor plates set on top of a street wall podium lined with three-story townhouses, or retail storefronts with offices above. There is landscaping on top of the podium and parking underground. Vancouverites have embraced density and walkability in the urban core, the envy of many of us from stateside. [Read more…] about How Metropolitan Vancouver Is Reorganizing Suburban Growth Around Transit
With Thanksgiving and the holiday season fast approaching, this is perhaps a good time to look ahead to 2018. Specifically, I would like to talk about some events that planners, architects, and landscape architects can look forward to in the new year. [Read more…] about Looking Ahead to 2018: Events for Planners
What is a scholar-practitioner in urban planning? And what does it take to become one? Essentially, scholar-practitioners bridge the gap between academia and the real world, combining scholarly research with practical application of theories and knowledge to solve complex problems in our profession. [Read more…] about Becoming a Scholar-Practitioner in Urban Planning
Due to today’s housing crisis, it seems west coast cities are taking on Not-In-My-Backyard (NIMBY) opposition that has stymied new projects and developments via polarizing and protracted public processes. These ‘no-growth’ individuals group together out of an innate fear of change to stop planned development intended to benefit their larger community. In my hometown of San Diego, these polarizing projects range from bicycle lanes, stadiums, house rentals, and to building more homes to address our housing crisis. Their innate ‘fear of change’ response to anything new creates an ethical challenge for every major city trying to build housing or transit. [Read more…] about How to Program Social Equity into Planning Sustainable Communities