Mary Tobin

Urban Planning, Urban Design and Earth Science Students Plan Disaster Relief Project in Venezuela

By Abigail Beshkin

In the wake of mudslides that devastated Caracas, Venezuela, in December of 1999, 38 students and faculty from Columbia's programs in Urban Planning and Urban Design and from the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory will travel to Caracas, Venezuela, to help the local government create a long-range plan to redesign the neighborhoods and transportation systems that were decimated during this natural disaster.

From Jan. 27 until Feb. 3, the team is examining different aspects of Caracas' growth and development. The Urban Design group, which comprises 21 students and three faculty, is looking at how people in Caracas use public transportation and open spaces, and examining how the city has begun thus far to invest in and rebuild the devastated area. Based on their work, the students will make preliminary recommendations to the city's mayor and the region's governor about where the government should promote new development, organize open space and lay down transportation lines.

"We'll look at signs of where reinvestment has already begun, and look at how to best allocate the new investment within the whole city, taking into account the rebuilding of the coast," said Richard Plunz, director of the Urban Design Program, who is leading the project.

The 1999 mudslides occurred on the northern face of the Avila, the mountain which separates Caracas from the Caribbean; more than 15,000 people were killed and another 100,000 were displaced. The area serves as a coastal retreat, attracting more than a million visitors on weekends. It is also home to a major seaport and the international airport.

One of the priorities of the project will be to better integrate the region into the rest of the city. Some of the options the team will explore will be to recommend a high-speed road and rail corridor, a new airport and seaport infrastructure at the eastern end of the study area, and a high-tech complex centered around a newly-installed fiber-optic cable.

The Urban Planning team, including 10 students and two instructors, is looking at areas that are at risk for future mudslides, and making suggestions for disaster relief plans, said Urban Planning Professor Sigurd Grava, who is leading the urban planning component of the project.

"Many areas have seen tremendous uncontrolled development," said Grava. "In building, trees were cleared and topsoil was loosened, making these communities more vulnerable to future mudslides." Caracas is also prone to severe earthquakes, the last hitting the capital in 1967 and causing high-rise buildings to collapse.

Grava said he and his team plan to identify those areas and make recommendations for either preventing disaster by doing such things as strengthening buildings, or, in extreme situations, recommending that people relocate.

The Urban Planning and Urban Design groups is working closely with two students and one professor from the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, who are examining the geographical landscape, making recommendations for the safest places to build based on the assessment of mudslide and earthquake hazards.

Klaus Jacob, senior research scientist at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory who is the faculty member heading the Earth Science component of the project, said the group is examining areas of soft soil in the Caracas basin that amplify seismic shaking. The team is determining what height structures can be built in the areas of soft soil. They are also looking at the mudslide problem and the coastal hazards which are amplified by sea level rise, as well as storm surges. Mostly, Jacob said they are examining historic rainfall, landslide and seismic patterns to make extrapolations for future hazardous events.

"Disasters happen at the intersection of nature and society," said Jacob. "The planners and designers deal with the built environment, and the earth scientists deal with the natural environment. Our goal is to work with Caracas to help incorporate disaster planning into the next set of redevelopment plans to make Caracas and the coastal towns disaster resilient," said Jacob.

Plunz said the project represents a unique collaboration from an academic standpoint, as it brings together urban planners, urban designers and earth scientists, who each bring to the table a different approach to the same problem.

The project was coordinated by two visiting professors, Eric Brewer and Ignacio Lamar. The group has had a good working relationship with the academic institutions and the government of Caracas since 1996, when the Urban Design Program began work on development issues for the city. While visiting, the students are to meet with Carlos Genatios, the minister of science and technology, as well as with Alfredo Pena, the Metropolitan Mayor.

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