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Talking Small Towns and Resilient Futures

Interview with Andrew Rumbach, PhD

Associate Professor of Urban and Regional Planning

University of Colorado Denver

How did you get involved with disaster planning and historic preservation?

A couple months after I started my graduate program in planning at Cornell University, Hurricane Katrina hit. I became pretty immediately involved in a lot of Hurricane Katrina-related work through the school. We had a really robust partnership with a community organization in New Orleans, and I spent the next several years working on community-based disaster recovery there. I decided to do a PhD to continue doing disaster-related work and expanded my focus to India. Ever since then, it's been all disasters all the time.

In your experience, how does disaster planning in US communities differ from disaster planning in India?

I do a lot of comparative work of the US and India, in terms of disasters. In some ways, they're worlds apart in terms of how people approach and manage hazards, who works to mitigate hazards, and how the overall system and the institutions of disaster management work. For example, India’s local governments have much less control over disaster management, while a lot of work I do in the US focuses on the questions of how local governments plan for disasters. So many decisions in the US are made by local governments about things like land use, versus India is much more centralized with the state making more decisions than the local governments do. It's not necessarily top down, but it's definitely a different system for thinking about how we use land and how we protect land that may be prone to hazards. But there are some aspects that are very similar everywhere in the world. The same drivers of risk are there that are here: a lot of development in hazardous areas. Concentrated poverty and relative deprivation.

Human beings are also bad at thinking about long-term risk, everywhere in the world. It’s part of human nature, and that makes planning for disasters a challenge.

There are certain aspects of disaster management work that are really important in my research, but we struggle to get policy attention. For example, I do a lot of work on heritage preservation and disaster management in the United States and India. In both places, it's difficult to make that a key policy priority. There’s much more concern over infrastructure, and housing and economic development than there is over heritage and historic preservation. That's a huge challenge everywhere.

What drew me in the first place to India is really the shared democratic values, and also shared cultural values. As I’ve built relationships and gotten involved in local community groups, it has become another place that feels like home. I've continued to work in the same small places for 10 or 12 years. I tend to work with a relatively small number of places with very deep engagement. I continue to work in the same places in order to develop a deeper understanding of what's happening, more than I could if I were skipping around many different countries. I've continued to go back to India, because I have the relationships and the research partners there, and we’ve been able to do some really impactful work together.

Why have you chosen to focus your research on small and rural communities?

You can't just apply the same recipe to small places as large places. I grew up in a very rural place, and small towns are very near and dear to my heart, whether it's here or in India—although in India, a small town I work in is close to 100,000 people. It's a little different in the US and in India on a population scale, but still in their context, it’s a small town. Small towns are something I'll want to continue working on forever, because those are the places that tend to resonate with me. I think we need a whole different way of thinking about the disaster management work we're doing in smaller communities. We can't just do what we're doing in bigger cities; it just doesn't work.

A lot of my work in India has to do with understanding issues from the ground up. They have less of a developed emergency management system, and they're very much still response oriented. They don't have nearly as many resources around community risk and resilience, and hazard mitigation. I've had to really learn those issues from the bottom up there. Over the years of doing that and developing my own data collection instruments, I’ve come to understand that I also need to do that in the small towns in the US. You can't understand a place by just pulling down some numbers from a census or reading an article. You have to spend time in a place, you have to understand the place, and you have to get to know the people in a place. It’s definitely something that I've tried to do in all my work.

Do you find that certain groups get left out in preservation planning?

Absolutely. We have agreement among the planning community that broad participation is important, and we're really focusing on how to get good participation. Planning and design processes tend to privilege certain groups of people. Retirees with time on their hands can make it to a lot of public meetings, whereas if young families and people with long work hours might not be able to participate. We need to develop processes of engagement that are more representative of a whole community, but we also recognize that there will always be groups that are chronically hard to reach and engage with. That doesn't mean they can't be a priority or part of the plan. It just means that we have to design processes that are more inclusive than they are now. It's a huge, but necessary challenge. We also need to recognize that the U.S. historic preservation ‘system’ privileges a certain kind of resource and history. Some of the most interesting work that's happening right now, in my opinion, is about thinking more broadly about what the purpose of preservation is, and how to take a more holistic view of things like landscapes and communities as historic sites, not just the buildings and the physical fabric.

At the end of the day, if you don't start with a broad representation of the community in your plans, then it's very unlikely to be effective.

Do you find that discussing issues such as housing or economic development in conjunction with historic preservation encourages people to get more involved?

For certain people it does, especially for local decision makers. Making sure that they understand the connections between historic preservation and economic development, for example, is a really important part of helping make those things a priority. Historic buildings are not just museums and not just historic sites. They're also small businesses, and housing, and other things that really drive economic development.

There's a great benefit to framing historic preservation in terms of its economic value, but there's also a little bit of a fallacy there because there is an intangible value that we're never going to be able to put a dollar amount on. Trying to find that balance of value is a tough challenge. Among the preservation community, these conversations are familiar, but when we talk to emergency managers, disaster managers and planners, we often have to educate them on the value of preservation. Understanding the best way to help communities and states to prioritize historic resources as a key driver of disaster resilience is an ongoing part of my work.

I work with communities on things like incorporating resilience into comprehensive plans. You have to have a good community plan before you're going to be able to get any kind of momentum behind any priority. If you don't have people on board, if you don't have the political will, if you don't have the resources lined up, things aren't going to happen. A foundation of community planning is talking about what people value as a community. What is most important to protect? What are their biggest fears about disasters? What would they lose that they would really regret the most? When you start with those kind of basic questions, preservation comes more naturally. People don't tend to say, “we want to save the James Bob house over on Fourth Street,” but they will talk about the importance of maintaining their community’s character or the history that brings them together. From there, once you have that consensus, it's easier to understand what we need to prioritize when thinking about the resilience of these places, and how we want to prioritize our resources.

With your work at the university, are you finding that there are more young people that are taking an interest in disaster and community planning?

I think so. It's vital that the next generation of planning professionals focus on climate change. We need to put climate at the center of our planning. By training the next generation of planners, we're moving toward a more resilient world.

For more information on historic preservation and climate resilience, check out these resources:

Andrew Rumbach is an Associate Professor in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Colorado Denver. Rumbach received his PhD and Masters in City and Regional Planning from Cornell University and a BA in Political Science from Reed College.

Rumbach’s research centers on household and community risk to natural hazards and climate change, in the United States and India. Using a mix of qualitative, quantitative and geospatial data, he examines the intersection of urbanization and extreme weather events and the political-economic context for disaster risk creation. His writing has appeared in such venues as the Journal of the American Planning Association, Habitat International, Journal of Urban Affairs, and the International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, as well as in edited volumes. Rumbach’s current research projects include a study of mobile home parks and disaster recovery after Hurricanes Harvey and Michael; an examination of historic properties in Colorado and their exposure to flood hazards; and a study of landslide and earthquake risk in rapidly urbanizing towns and villages in the Darjeeling-Sikkim Himalayas. His research has been funded by grants from the National Science Foundation, the Natural Hazards Center, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the GeoEye Foundation, among others.

Rumbach is active in numerous state and national efforts to help communities build resilience to environmental hazards through land-use and historic preservation planning.

Connect with Andrew and read more about his work at , or on Twitter


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