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Smart Growth

Smart Growth Strategies for Disaster Resilience and Recovery

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How and where growth occurs, in both the short and long terms, can have a major impact on how well communities can prepare for and recover from natural disasters. But communities have not always used development planning as a strategy to become more resilient to hazards. Integrating smart growth approaches into preparedness and recovery can change this dynamic.

Smart growth strategies like creating flexible land use policies, targeting public investment to catalyze private investment, and engaging the entire community in making decisions about the future can help communities recover from a disaster, rebuild according to a shared community vision, and be better prepared for the next natural disaster.

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EPA-FEMA Memorandum of Agreement

In 2010, EPA and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) signed a Memorandum of Agreement that makes it easier for the two agencies to work together to help communities become safer, healthier, and more resilient. The agencies collaborate to help communities hit by disasters rebuild in ways that protect the environment, create long-term economic prosperity, and enhance neighborhoods.

FEMA and EPA also help communities incorporate strategies that improve quality of life and direct development away from vulnerable areas into their hazard mitigation plans. EPA and FEMA are using the lessons they learn from working together under this agreement and with other federal agencies to better coordinate assistance to communities on hazard mitigation planning and post-disaster recovery. The Memorandum of Agreement also helps the agencies work together on climate change adaptation.

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FEMA and EPA have collaborated on the following projects:

Safe Growth Strategies for the San Francisco Bay Area

Cover of Creating Safe Growth Strategies for the San Francisco Bay Area report

EPA partnered with FEMA on a project to help the Association of Bay Area Governments incorporate resilience to natural hazards and climate change into regional and local land use planning. While focused on the San Francisco Bay area, this project and the final report provide a model other regions and communities could use to assess the vulnerability of their housing and residents and develop strategies to make development safer.

The Association of Bay Area Governments is already working to implement these safe growth strategies in the Bay area, through a Resilience Program website Exit for communities and through workshops in each of the nine counties in the region. This project was funded by FEMA Region IX and will include a second phase that expands the vulnerability assessment and strategies to include drought and wildfire and apply the model in other regions in California.

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Planning for Flood Recovery and Long-Term Resilience in Vermont

Flood Resilience and Recovery Assistance for the State of Vermont

Through EPA's Smart Growth Implementation Assistance Program, EPA and FEMA worked with several Vermont state agencies, including the Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development, and communities in Vermont’s Mad River Valley in 2013 to identify smart growth strategies that can help vulnerable communities prepare for and recover from floods.

Although the project focused on state policies, local land use development policies, and hazard mitigation plans for communities in Vermont, the report and its Flood Resilience Checklist can help any community seeking to become more resilient to future floods.

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Preparing for Sea Level Rise in Coastal North Carolina

In 2012, in partnership with FEMA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the North Carolina Department of Environmental Management, EPA worked with the coastal towns of Wilmington and New Bern, North Carolina. Concerns about extreme weather events, more frequent flooding, and sea level rise led both jurisdictions to request assistance to understand potential impacts on neighborhoods and water and sewer infrastructure and identify ways to reduce vulnerability.

  • The Wilmington project examined ways to protect regional water and sewer infrastructure after a vulnerability assessment revealed that future sea level rise would likely inundate wastewater treatment facilities, pump stations, manholes, and other facilities.

    The EPA and FEMA assistance identified land use and infrastructure strategies that could reduce vulnerability, including design solutions such as using green infrastructure to reduce the amount of stormwater that enters or inundates wastewater infrastructure, engineering approaches such as elevating a facility, and land use options such as preserving undeveloped areas that are vulnerable to future flooding.
  • The New Bern project looked at options for using green infrastructure to manage stormwater, reduce flooding risk, and improve water quality in the Gateway District, an historic African-American neighborhood next to downtown. This neighborhood floods regularly because of its ineffective stormwater conveyance system and topography. Parts of the neighborhood are only 1 to 2 feet above sea level. 

    With EPA and FEMA’s assistance, the city explored how green infrastructure could help improve stormwater conveyance and reduce ponding on streets and in yards. The city also identified potential locations in the Gateway District for new green infrastructure.

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EPA Technical Assistance: Joplin PDF Cover

Complete Streets Assistance for Joplin, Missouri

An F-5 tornado hit the East 20th Street corridor in Joplin, Missouri, on May 22, 2011. After the tornado, residents and leaders decided to redesign the corridor as a model for green, complete streets that other locations in the community could follow.

In 2012, EPA provided technical assistance to Joplin to help create green, complete streets, which are attractive; safer for all users, including pedestrians, bicyclists, transit riders, and drivers; and incorporate natural elements to manage stormwater. Before the project began, FEMA worked with local stakeholders to identify long-term community recovery needs and helped EPA match its assistance with those needs.

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Land Use Planning Assistance for Spirit Lake Nation

Spirit Lake Nation is a tribe in North Dakota that has experienced 17 years of chronic flooding. In 2011, FEMA, EPA, and outside experts worked with the tribe to develop a land use plan that directs growth away from known flood risk areas and improves overall quality of life on the reservation.

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Post-Disaster Assistance to Iowa Communities

In 2009, FEMA and EPA worked with Iowa state agencies and local partners to help six Iowa communities plan their recovery after floods and tornadoes. Learn more about the assistance to Iowa communities.

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Climate Change and Resilience Assistance for the State of Iowa

In 2009, EPA and FEMA worked with state and local leaders in Iowa to explore how the latest science on changing weather patterns due to climate change could be integrated into state and local planning efforts to adapt to and mitigate future natural disasters. The Iowa Climate Change Adaptation and Resilience Report presents the findings of this pilot project.

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EPA Resources

Smart Growth and Climate Change

Disaster resilience is closely tied to climate change adaptation, as climate change is linked to the increasing intensity and frequency of severe storms, heavy downpours, and wildfires in many parts of the country, as well as higher storm surges as sea levels rise.

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Governors' Institute on Community Design

The Governors' Institute on Community Design helps governors and their staff make informed decisions about investments and policy decisions that influence the economic health and physical development of their states. The Governors' Institute has helped the governors of Iowa, Vermont, and New Hampshire recover from disaster events and prepare for a more resilient future. 

The institute also convened the State Resilience and Economic Growth Summit Exit in Washington, D.C., bringing together federal and state leaders to discuss best policies and practices for creating resilient communities.

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2013 National Award for Smart Growth Achievement

EPA presented the 2013 National Award for Smart Growth Achievement in the Plazas, Parks, and Public Places category to Charles City, Iowa, for its Riverfront Park. The city turned flood plain land acquired through FEMA buyouts into a park that provides recreation for residents and visitors but also helps reduce flooding.

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Achieving Hazard-Resilient Coastal & Waterfront Smart Growth: Coastal and Waterfront Smart Growth and Hazard Mitigation Roundtable

In 2011, NOAA, EPA, and the state Sea Grant College Programs of Rhode Island, Texas, and Hawaii organized a meeting on how coastal and waterfront communities can create economically and environmentally sustainable neighborhoods while minimizing risks from flooding and related natural hazards. Achieving Hazard-Resilient Coastal & Waterfront Smart Growth: Coastal and Waterfront Smart Growth and Hazard Mitigation Roundtable reports on the discussions in that meeting about approaches to integrate smart growth and hazard mitigation strategies on the coast.

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Visit our webinars page for information about webinars hosted by the Smart Growth Program on disaster resilience and recovery.

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Other Resources

This January 2014 article by Will Doig, “You Can’t Stop Urban Flooding”  Exit and video by Still Life Projects show how Boulder, Colorado, built infrastructure, including bike paths and bridges, that provide everyday benefits for residents while helping prepare the city for floods.

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