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Urban Planning Professor discusses long-term land-use issues and natural disaster vulnerability

Friday, August 25, 2017

LAWRENCE — The Texas coast is bracing for major storm Hurricane Harvey to bring high winds and perhaps damaging flooding to the Houston area, the nation's fourth-largest city.

A University of Kansas urban planning researcher is available to discuss and answer questions about the context of long-term risks and natural disasters.

Ward Lyles, assistant professor of urban planning in the KU School of Public Affairs & Administration, has published numerous journal articles on reducing risks from natural hazards, the use of social network analysis to examine the role of planners in local planning efforts, and evaluating the content of planning documents.

"Generally speaking, there's a failure in the way we do planning and decision making for reducing risk from natural hazards. Elected officials, the media and the general public typically only pay close attention to vulnerability to hurricanes, floods and other disasters during the short windows that open in advance of an impending storm and that stay open only as long as the impacts are on the front page of the newspaper," Lyles said. "Then, in the rush to return to a sense of normality, communities go back to repeating mistakes made in the past. Relocating structures to safer areas and allowing low-lying areas to revert to wetlands that act as natural sponges makes sense but does not happen often."

Several long-term factors make Texas – and much of the Gulf coast – especially vulnerable to damaging storms, including its position along the hurricane-prone Gulf of Mexico, large areas of low-lying areas susceptible to floods, and, importantly, a political climate averse to using land-use regulation to steer buildings and infrastructure out of flood-prone areas, he said. Additionally, research has shown that the most vulnerable socioeconomic populations typically suffer the worst because they live in areas most likely to flood and have the fewest resources available to recover.

"Some of the same people who have experienced flooded homes and other property damage in past storms are likely to suffer again," Lyles said. "While disasters are often referred to as 'acts of God,' they are better understood as the result of prior social, economic and political choices. Much of the suffering we will see on the news in the coming days can be attributed to decisions to prioritize short-term profit and private property over proactively promoting long-term sustainability and extending compassion to our most vulnerable neighbors."

To arrange an interview with Lyles, contact George Diepenbrock at 785-864-8853 or gdiepenbrock@ku.edu.


Ruth DeWitt, Communications Manager
KU School of Public Affairs and Administration
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