Weitzman News

Posted September 27, 2018
  • Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, 2017

    Photo: Air Force Magazine on Flickr

PennDesign Studios Tackle Disaster Recovery Planning and Design in Puerto Rico

How can city planners and landscape architects contribute to disaster recovery efforts like those that have consumed Puerto Rico in the year since two hurricanes wreaked havoc on the island territory? 

The answer, say PennDesign faculty members coordinating four interdisciplinary design studios this semester, starts with recognizing that the disaster began unfolding long before hurricanes Irma and Maria made landfall. 

For the past month, master’s students in the City and Regional Planning and Landscape Architecture programs have been collecting research around the problems facing Puerto Rico in the aftermath of the deadly 2017 hurricane season. Two studios, one in planning and the other in landscape architecture, are focused on three overlapping sites on the island: Settlements surrounding the San Jose Lagoon in San Juan, the mountain town of Utuado, and the coastal town of Naguabo, which is adjacent to a former military base, a national forest, and a wind farm badly damaged during Hurricane Maria. A third studio in planning is focused on the 75-acre Luis Llorens Torres public housing project in San Juan, and a fourth planning studio is looking at the Puerto Rican diaspora in Philadelphia, which has grown as residents have evacuated or been displaced from the island over the last year. 

The studios are united in their approach: Bringing long-range, systems-oriented thinking to a host of ongoing environmental, economic, infrastructural and spatial problems that were exacerbated but not caused by the hurricanes’ devastation.

“When you’re redeveloping after a storm and the situation before was so bad, what are you really redeveloping to?” says Assistant Professor of City and Regional Planning Allison Lassiter, who is co-teaching one of the planning studios with Associate Professor of Practice David Gouverneur. “You don’t actually want to restore the previous conditions. So you have to figure out how to grow into a better condition.” 

After an initial research phase, all four studios are traveling to Puerto Rico this week to meet with partners at the Universidad Politécnica, architecture faculty at the University of Puerto Rico, the Puerto Rican Planning Board, the Center for Hydro-generated Urbanism at the University of Florida, invited experts, and local residents. Students in the studio led by Lassiter and Gouverneur will focus interrelated aspects such as socio-economic drivers, biophysical systems, economic diversification, infrastructural components, infrastructural risk and failure, flooding risk and seismic risk, effects of sea-level rise, secure energy, food security, and disaster response.

They're also working closely with students in the landscape architecture studio led by Lecturer Nicholas Pevzner, a senior lecturer in the Department of Landscape Architecture. Pevzner's studio is focused on energy infrastructure and the promise of more resilient landscape-driven development frameworks.

“After Maria, the centralized energy grid completely failed, and the blackout drove so many other interconnected infrastructural failures: loss of drinking water, flood-control pumps, communications, critical hospital equipment,” says Pevzner, whose studio is also being supported by the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy at PennDesign. “We’re studying the realtionship between these systems, how they failed, and the potential for resilient community-based power to support the delivery of critical services while also addressing long-standing systemic inequalities.” 

The matrix of planning problems is further complicated by population loss in Puerto Rico, which has accelerated since the hurricanes hit last year. Half a million people left the island during the decade before Irma and Maria, and at least another 200,000 have left since, according to Lassiter and Gouverneur’s syllabus. That trend makes housing and economic development issues especially urgent, alongside planning for sea-level rise and reimagining the island’s centralized power grid. 

Half a million people left the island during the decade before Irma and Maria, and at least another 200,000 have left since.

Students in Lecturer Nando Micale’s design studio will be studying the possible redevelopment of the Llorens Torres public housing complex, a site that was prone to flooding even before the hurricanes arrived. The studio will consider the possibility of a mixed-income redevelopment of the site, taking into account the housing needs of its existing residents. 

“I think, in general, we all hope that all the students take away a better understanding of the geopolitical and socio-economic issues in Puerto Rico,’ Micale says. “And then, second, for the students focused on [the Llorens Torres site], is how to think more creatively about the systems approach to redevelopment and particularly redevelopment that has income mixing as the central goal of the project.” 

And the flight of Puerto Ricans from the island to the mainland U.S. has led to growth in Puerto Rican communities here in Philadelphia. Ariel Vazquez, acting project architect at Blackney Hayes Architects, is leading students in a studio focusing on diaspora issues in several North Philadelphia neighborhoods, including Fairhill, Juniata, Kensington and Hunting Park. 

“There are plenty of challenges already in those neighborhoods,” Vazquez says. “They tend to have lower income brackets than other neighborhoods in the city, and they tend to have some of the highest crime rates and drug-use rates, so we need to understand how we can connect them back to some economic development that can help them change from the current situation they’re in.” 

Moreover, the Philly-based studio will be seeking ways to provide housing for Puerto Ricans displaced from the island. Vazquez says the students are working with a panel of leaders in community development, representing organizations like Asociación Puertorriqueños en Marcha, Congreso de Latinos Unidos, Concilio de Organizaciones Hispanas, HACE, and LISC. 

All the studio leaders say it’s too early to know what types of design interventions students will develop. They’re hoping the research and travel portions of the semester will provide the studios with a deep orientation in the complex issues facing Puerto Rico in the wake of the disaster, and an understanding of the way those issues are tied to the territory’s complicated relationship with the mainland. 

“You have to develop an understanding and ability to read into the sites and discover what is relevant in each one of them, raise relevant questions, and address them,” says Gouverneur. “I think that’s the main challenge. The other real challenge is that, in post-recovery planning, we we aren’t dealing with normal situations. People have lost their relatives, they’ve lost their homes, they’re stressed financially, their health is impacted. So we can’t just fool around. We have to be cutting-edge in the ideas, but we try to provide solutions that make sense, that are very implementable.” 

The studios are aiming to complement the many recovery and planning efforts that are already under way, considerations that impacted their selection of sites. Ultimately, Gouverneur hopes, local partners will benefit from PennDesign’s experience working in regions impacted by natural disasters and its previous Latin American work, including studios in Chile and Ecuador. 

“We have a tradition of addressing very complex sites and post-recovery issues,” Gouverneur says. “Systemic thinking— that’s what we bring. That’s our contribution.”