From Toronto to Portland, everyone is talking about high-rise density and what a good thing it is. But as Hurricane Sandy reminds us, so is resilience. These are the conditions that make you wonder why people want to knock down every old building and put up 40 storey towers; Where would you rather be, in a walkup in a solid brick building with a bodega on the ground floor, or on the 39th floor of a building with floor to ceiling glass on every exterior surface? Sure, the tower has an emergency generator and the walkup doesn't, but what happens when the fuel runs out for it?
Resilient Building Design
Alex Wilson, in his wonderful series on Resilient Design at BuildingGreen, says we should design for "passive survivability":
I believe that our single most important priority is to ensure that our dwellings will maintain livable conditions in the event of extended power outages or interruptions in heating fuel.
You get that from thick walls with high thermal mass in old buildings or a lot of insulation in new. You get that through good operable windows and natural ventilation, not floor to ceiling sealed glass with mechanical fans. You get that in an urban setting with dense, low-rise buildings like Paris or Montreal where you can climb the stairs, not in high rises like Hong Kong.
Resilient Urban Design
Most of those resilient old buildings are in resilient communities. There are lots of stores within walking distance, and if one is gouging on a bottle of water there is another down the street. Unlike those in the suburbs, one doesn't have to drive to get a quart of milk. As long as the streets are not full of water, a pedestrian-based urban pattern can keep operating.
The form of those resilient communities is also better in a storm; the buildings are close together and break the wind, whereas in high buildings it can be amplified.
Glaeser, Avent and others all say we have to stop worshipping the past and let a thousand skyscrapers bloom; I say we have to learn from that past and design our buildings and cities the way we did before there was oil and electricity, because not only are those energy sources going to be getting really expensive, they are going to be getting a lot less dependable as our climate chaos continues.