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How MIT And San Francisco Are Testing A New Approach To Disaster Prep

Resilience isn't just about what happens when disaster strikes. It's about what happens in the days—and years—before that.

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Suddenly, you wake up. The ground has already stopped shaking, but a small earthquake seems to have knocked out the power. You reach for your phone and realize you don’t have service, either. Just finding out what’s happening is suddenly very hard.

When we think about disaster preparedness, we think of "go-bags" and flares. But what about communication? Without a working phone, you can’t call or text. You can’t download a map. You might not even know what time it is. You certainly won’t be able to get vital information in a crisis situation. Does your block have a crisis plan? Who can you rely on for information? You’ll find yourself asking: What now?

The Earthquake Czar

Patrick Otellini, who became the first chief resilience officer in 2014, wants to answer that question before any of San Francisco’s 900,000 or so residents ask it. Originally known as the city’s "earthquake czar," Otellini now oversees the city’s overall strategy for crisis scenarios—not only earthquakes but sea level rise and other risks, too. "We can no longer fight one hazard at a time," he says.

But by studying how the city would confront disaster, Otellini’s office is also confronting fractures that have formed in San Francisco’s urban fabric as it has rapidly developed. Resilience, it seems, isn’t just about what happens after a crisis: It’s about what happens in the months, and years, before it. "It started off looking at the hardscape stuff—sea level rise, earthquakes," he says of the office’s new Resilience Strategy, published in April. But "it quickly became about social inequity and affordability, and other issues that San Franciscans are facing every day."

If you look at how cities recover from disasters, Otellini tells me, about 80% of the population recovers quickly, thanks either to preparedness plans or their financial largesse. The other 20% have more problems, either because of poor housing conditions, issues with money, or just the lack of a strong community upon which to rely during the aftermath. Five percent of those will have what he calls "acute" needs during recovery. "We really want to focus on making sure those people are thought of in the disaster," Otellini says.

Systemic inequality in the way different neighborhoods are treated during the planning process deepens these problems, as we saw both with Hurricane Katrina and Sandy. And the people who attend neighborhood emergency response training tend to be people in neighborhoods with higher rates of homeownership and who have the time to spend dozens of hours at classes, "so we’re also seeing an equity problem there," he adds.

Part of building stronger resilience in cities means building stronger communities, so San Francisco's resilience strategy focuses on community involvement.

Designing Crisis Infrastructure

It's a belief that's enforced by the work of a MIT research and design group called Urban Risk Lab, which is designing urban infrastructure that can not only aid in disasters but enhance public spaces and add value to communities on a daily basis. Now, the lab is collaborating with Otellini's office to plan a pilot project for its designs in San Francisco.

It’s called PrepHub: a friendly looking piece of urban furniture that seems like it might be part of a playground. Each hub is designed to embed disaster response tools into public spaces, like a pedal-powered generator that can charge your phone, emergency lighting, or a horn that can amplify informational messages. Other versions might include solar panels, emergency food and water stores, or a neighborhood resource map.

Urban Risk Lab’s director Miho Mazereeuw explains that the idea is to create disaster preparedness infrastructure that can be used on a daily basis as street furniture or interactive play areas. "I actually started researching the intersection of risk and architecture/urbanism because of the earthquake in Kobe in 1995," writes Mazereeuw, whose parents live in Kobe today. Later, she worked in the office of Shigeru Ban, whose post-disaster design has become an international standard for architects. But at Urban Risk Lab, she and her team are focused on "how to embed preparedness into projects now, before anything happens," she said over email.

Led by project lead David Moses, the Urban Risk Lab is also working with MIT's Lincoln Lab on the PrepHubs. The team is developing telecommunications infrastructure for the hubs, too—like a mesh network that would initially allow first responders to communicate with each other if cell service is down. Survivors could use the network to upload their names and locations to a larger database, Mazereeuw explains, "improving both the quality of the disaster response and also reducing panic for everyone affected." Downloadable maps, which could function independent of Wi-Fi or cell service, are another core functionality.

Building Community Before A Crisis, Not After

For 99.9% of the life of a PrepHub, these emergency capabilities won’t be immediately obvious. During tests in Cambridge and San Francisco, people flocked to the hubs to play on them: Kids raced using the pedal generators, Mazereeuw writes, while parents lounged or charged their phones.

But there's a link between strong communities and resilience. The hubs are intended to create engaging public spaces in every neighborhood in San Francisco, a city with a dearth of space and an extraordinary divide between rich and poor. Over the next year, Otellini’s office will host community meetings in 29 different library branches around the city to discuss the possibility of placing the hubs in underserved parts of the city—to serve not only as disaster preparedness but as usable public space.

"I personally think they look like art," says Megan Stephenson, who is a community affairs specialist at the city’s Department of Emergency Management, or DEM. The DEM will help facilitate the pilot project around the city over the next two years. Empty space is tough to come by in San Francisco, and Stephenson imagines partnering with schools to install the hubs in a diverse array of neighborhoods. "We want to make sure that these go in places that are equitable," she says, "making sure that they’re not just in the wealthiest neighborhoods but in places where there’s actual need."

It’s still early days for the project, and since they're still in the design and research phase, it's difficult to put an exact price on the hubs. Many of the specifics of the pilot project are still to come, too, and the planning and approvals process may take months, if not years. Meanwhile, the next hub prototype will debut at this year's Market Street Prototyping Festival in the fall.

At first glance, a collaboration between a lab in Cambridge and the city of San Francisco may seem odd—they're 3,000 miles apart, after all—but underlying each group is the belief that a community that works together before a disaster will be better off after it. Strong social bonds are a crucial part of resilience.

"Our client truly is everyone in a city, from all possible cultural backgrounds and economic strata," Mazereeuw writes. "At the end of the day, if a PrepHub network can foster all these diverse people to come together to have conversations about building resilience before a disaster, and to have those conversations shift in tone from the typical gloom and doom of natural disaster discourse, then as a design and research lab, we'd be very happy."

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