by Rick Pruetz, Vice President, Ecocity Builders

Almost 40 percent of all US housing lies in the wildland-urban interface (WUI) and consequently experiences increased risk from wildfire and its aftereffects including floods and mudslides. Reducing and reversing urban sprawl in hazardous areas is one obvious solution that limits vulnerability while offering many other benefits such as habitat preservation, watershed protection, and constraints on the cost of building and maintaining the infrastructure needed to serve exurban and rural development. A second, not-so-obvious solution involves the creation of compact, walkable nodes of resilience within the most defensible parts of the WUI. The Ecocity Standards developed by Ecocity Builders can be a valuable guide to the evolution of these future ecocities and eco-villages.

An estimated 4.5 million homes lie in the WUI in California alone, a state that experienced five of its six biggest wildfires in 2020. In addition to the potential loss of life, wildfires destroy community cohesion, threaten the sustainability of fire insurance programs, and reduce the supply of housing in a state already facing a huge housing shortage. To date, California’s response to wildfire has focused on retrofitting homes, adopting better building and site design standards for new homes, and improving the ability of threatened populations to shelter in place or flee.

In June 2021, Next 10 produced a report prepared by the UC Berkeley Center for Community Innovation concluding that California’s response has been inadequate at best. The report, Rebuilding for a Resilient Recovery: Planning in California’s Wildland Urban Interface, evaluated three scenarios for recovering from devastating wildfires. Two of these scenarios use green buffers that protect compact, mixed use development. In addition to reducing wildfire vulnerability, these strategies preserve natural and working lands (with their potential to sequester carbon and protect biodiversity) while creating communities where people can reduce or eliminate car dependency and generate fewer greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (UC 2021). That should sound familiar to readers of this newsletter since it has been the mantra of Ecocity Builders for the last three decades.  

California has long recognized the need to control sprawl in the WUI. But many elected officials balk at imposing strict land use controls, as demonstrated when the California Governor vetoed a 2020 bill that would have limited new development in very high fire-hazard severity zones. Curbing sprawl will require a combination of carrots and sticks: incentives for affordable, infill development and disincentives like additional fees on development in vulnerable areas capable of generating billions of dollars for risk reduction programs. In addition to conservation easements and publicly-funded buy-outs, the study urges consideration of transferable development rights (TDR), a market-based tool that uses private sector profits to pay for land preservation (UC 2021). The 100,000 acre greenbelt surrounding Boulder, Colorado, created by conservation easements and TDR, is credited with protecting Boulder, Colorado from the 2012 Flagstaff Fire with no loss of lives or homes (Greenbelt Alliance 2021). 

The UC report compares the advantages and disadvantages of three post disaster scenarios: Rebuild in the WUI (meaning business as usual), Managed Retreat from the WUI, and Resilience Nodes within the WUI, meaning higher-density, walkable development in the most defensible portions of the WUI protected by green buffers.

Of these three scenarios, Managed Retreat provides the greatest protection from wildfires and the associated benefits that result from preserving a greenbelt with natural and working lands. Managed Retreat also has the greatest potential to reduce GHG emissions since it envisions infill development within existing urban areas with public transportation and other energy saving characteristics. However, managed retreat is also the most difficult to accomplish due to the cost of preserving WUI land, the preference of many people to live in the WUI, and the reluctance of local governments to lose tax base.

Although Managed Retreat is generally the best overall strategy, Resilience Nodes within the WUI are still better than rebuilding as usual at low density within the WUI. Resilience Nodes preserve greenspace buffers that offer greater protection from wildfire and conserve some natural and working lands. Plus Resilience Nodes could ideally be compact, mixed-use neighborhoods in which residents are able to access employment, stores, schools, and public transportation without a car.

The degree of planning and implementation envisioned by the UC study will require unprecedented political leadership and resources from the state and federal governments. However, the rising impact of disasters fueled by climate change will force meaningful action sooner or later. In the long run, acting sooner will be cheaper than waiting until after sprawl in the WUI is rebuilt at low, vulnerable densities over and over. When the transition to resilience occurs, the Ecocity Standards will provide a valuable guide to building fully-evolved ecocities under the Managed Retreat scenario or eco-villages under the Resilience Node option.

Reference

Greenbelt Alliance. 2021. The Critical Role of Greenbelts in Wildfire Resilience. Accessed 7-12-21 at file:///C:/Users/Richard/Downloads/The-Critical-Role-of-Greenbelts-in-Wildfire-Resilience.pdf.

UC Berkeley Center for Community Innovation. 2021, Rebuilding for a Resilient Recovery: Planning in California’s Wildland Urban Interface. Project of Next 10. Accessed 7-12-21 at https://www.next10.org/publications/rebuilding-resilient

About the author

Rick Pruetz

Ecocity Builders Vice President Rick Pruetz is a planning consultant and the foremost national expert on transfer of development rights (TDR). He is the author of “Lasting Value: Open Space Planning and Preservation Successes (APA 2012).”

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