When searching for safety, it is logical to look for places with minimal exposure to cataclysmic events that feature the upheaval of the water and wind, fire and earth: hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, tsunamis, avalanches, sinkholes, volcanoes, blizzards, wildfires, droughts, floods…. The list of possible threats is long, their consequences dire.
Measured against these dangers, where are safe places to live? Fifty percent of the world’s population lives within fifty miles of the coastline, susceptible to sea level change, flooding, tsunamis, and storm surge. But inland locations are not immune from natural hazards. Large-scale manmade hazards such as nuclear power generators offer another criterion for evaluating community safety, along with chemical and electrical plants.
Forbes magazine studied community safety in 2005. Not surprisingly, paradise topped the list of safe American cities, with Honolulu, Hawaiiranked highest. Volcanoes? Extinct on the island of Oahu. The 2011 tsunami had limited impact, mostly on the big island of Hawaii.
Other relatively safe places in the U.S. include Boise, Idaho and Santa Fe, New Mexico. New Zealand has been identified as the safest place to live using the Global Peace Index, including indicators related to political instability, armed conflict, and violent crime. With a long, unshared border along the sea, New Zealand may not be likely to sustain armed conflict with neighbors, but natural disasters occur with dismaying frequency. The ring of tectonic fire in the Pacific is still in motion, causing earthquakes, tsunamis, and avalanches.
Following back-to-back hurricanes in 2005, rebuilding along the Gulf of Mexicocoastline was questioned. Public investment in roads, infrastructure, and housing stock was delayed as Congress debated ways to mitigate against future losses. They ultimately provided funds to “buy out” owners with properties that had suffered “repetitive losses.” The buy-out program encouraged a retreat from areas of the sensitive coastal wetlands which should never have been long-term prospects for development. This type of “non-structural” solution is less expensive, and requires lower maintenance, than the methods of building community safety with levees, channels, breakwaters, and other constructed means.
If there are no inherently safe places, then the provision of safety lies to a great extent in the hands of the architect and engineer. We can continue whistling in the dark as the oceans rise, public transport options are severed, and habitats are scraped bare; or we can engage in producing solutions for self-sufficiency and resilience. As desirable and safe places are colonized by a growing population, it is essential to remember that where you build is often more important than whatyou build.