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Preventing predictable disasters | ASU KEDtalk

The Interstate 10 spans the U.S. and offers a living laboratory for exploring the biggest issues of our time. Duke Reiter explains how ASU’s Ten Across (10X) initiative is using this transect to plan a resilient future.

In the course of my experience, I’ve lived in multiple cities, including two whose very existence has been questioned — New Orleans and Phoenix, and in each case, around the issue of water. Obviously, in the case of one, too much water, the other two little. One below sea level, one in an arid desert environment. I moved to the city of Phoenix and to ASU in 2003.  

And it was from here in 2005 that I observed Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, and the waters over the top of the levee system there. That was a very predictable disaster. The city of New Orleans has been imperiled by water from its founding. In Phoenix, it’s a very different situation, obviously. This is a hot climate, and one profoundly lacking in water.  

But what these two cities have in common is that each were made possible by extraordinary feats of engineering to either keep water out of the city or to bring water to it– and in the case of Phoenix, across hundreds of miles of desert. These are highly artificial constructions, and their fragility is built right into the structures that makes them possible.  

One of the things that New Orleans and Phoenix share is that they’re both on the same street, so to speak– the US interstate I-10. I’ve noticed, frankly, that many of the other cities along this transit reveal in addition to water some of the major issues of our time in their highest relief. Take for example global trade and commerce. Certainly registered in one of the largest ports in the world, Los Angeles, and one of only two megacities in the United States.  

Or the future of energy, central to the question of Houston, how we will continue to either burn fossil fuels or find alternatives. Or in the very news today, immigration. What’s a border? How could that be more profoundly registered than in the city of El Paso, or Cuidad El Juarez, a binational city. We could be learning from the lived experience of people in the I-10 corridor.  

We should be listening to their stories, recording them, and responding to the issues in their communities. I would suggest that universities have a unique obligation to show us who we are, what we’re becoming, and how we can respond to alternative futures. Accordingly, we’ve built a project called Ten Across, a project that spans the country from the Pacific to the Atlantic, runs through the three largest states in the union.  

This is a project we think is uniquely suited to ASU, the new American university. Can, for example, we look at potential disasters, things that are highly predictable, and avoid them? I think as humans, we also have an innate aversion to thinking that far into the future, to planning. But the Ten Across project is about suggesting the value of doing so, of responding to challenges and opportunities, and creating a better world.  

Preventing Predictable Disasters | ASU KEDtalks featuring Duke Reiter

Boudreau: Welcome to ASU KEDtalks, the podcast. I’m your host, Diane Boudreau, and I’m here today with Duke Reiter, senior advisor to the president at ASU, executive director of the university city exchange and founder of the Ten Across project. Thanks for joining us.

Reiter: Glad to be here.

Boudreau: So first of all, tell me what this university city exchange is.

Reiter: The university city exchange is pretty much as it sounds in the title a, what’s the relationship between the university and the metropolitan area? How can we find mutually beneficial relationships, downtown Phoenix campus being a perfect example? What was the city looking for in terms of urban vitality? What were we looking for in terms of positioning some of our best professional programs in the environments where those things take place like journalism, like government, and we established an extraordinary relationship with Phoenix in that regard. We’ve done the same with Mesa, with Scottsdale, other communities in the Valley, obviously Tempe. And so the university exchange makes sure that we never lose sight of the fact that our futures are inextricably linked.

Boudreau: And then tell me a little bit about the Ten Across project that you that you founded, correct?

Reiter: So if the university city exchange is somewhat local or regional, although we are thinking about where we are in the rest of the country, the Ten Across project is expansive for sure. So it’s a 2,400-mile-long stretch of highway, obviously, on the I-10 that goes from the Pacific ocean to the Atlantic and all the major cities in between. Looking at those cities, Phoenix included, of course the Phoenix Metro Area, we think we see a laboratory for the future in those places.

Boudreau: And when you say a laboratory for the future, what kinds of issues and topics of the future are we talking about?

Reiter: Well, I think the most pressing issues of the day are shown in their highest relief in these places. Take for example, obviously what’s in the news right here in Phoenix, water, or lack thereof, probably couldn’t have a more existential issue. On the other hand, if you’re in the Gulf region, water is equally important, but for another reason. They’ve got simply too much of it, and cities are being inundated, and water supplies are being threatened. So just water alone is one of those topics as being emblematic of where we’re going and how we’re going to have to handle things and well-represented in this quarter. But the same is true for energy with the energy capital of Houston obviously being in this transect. Global trade, think about all the discussion now about tariffs and other things that certainly affects the port of Los Angeles, as well as the other major ports in this area.

Reiter: Immigration and migration, probably again, right in the news. And where could you go to understand this better than El Paso, Ciudad Juarez. So we just think all the major topics of the day seem to be, again, demonstrated in extraordinary ways on this transect. So along the I-10, which is why we’re calling it Ten Across.

Boudreau: How was this idea born?

Reiter: The idea was born in the fact that I spent 10 years of my life in New Orleans. I grew up in Ohio. Wanted to go to a place that was as different as that as I could find. New Orleans was certainly all that, a singular city, but it was clear that the city, while it was aware that was in a hurricane zone and that waters were rising all the time, its infrastructure was inadequate to meet those conditions. And so you could see the future in the infrastructure.

Reiter: And one always wondered why we didn’t do more, knowing what was going to happen there. And sure enough, in 2005, Katrina came, hurricanes came to New Orleans almost every year and this one really demonstrated the inadequacies of that infrastructure. Now that I live in Phoenix, I see some similarities even though the circumstances are different, again around water. But are we fully prepared? And as I mentioned earlier, that topic is in the news to address the future. So the project was born of looking at places that can see their future and maybe don’t quite grapple with it in the way that they should. And that’s probably true of all of us in a lot of different places as well.

Boudreau: When we spoke earlier, you mentioned that New Orleans actually now has a resiliency plan.

Reiter: That’s true. So Katrina clearly caused people to think about what’s important about cities. And that one in particular, it’s irreplaceable. It’s a very special place. So following that, there was much more attention paid to preparation and what that city means to not only the residents who live there, but the country as a whole. And the Rockefeller Foundation has a program called 100 Resilient Cities. And New Orleans is one of those cities. Rockefeller was down in the city, as were many other foundations and other organizations, trying to help rebuild it. And so they provided a resilience officer as they did with other cities on the I-10 corridor. El Paso would be one. Los Angeles is another, in fact, post Harvey, Houston was just designated as the hundred and first resilient city in that program. So that affirms that the stretch that we’re looking at is the place where you can understand resiliency and sustainability, adaptability. And so New Orleans was probably built because they were highly motivated. One of the most comprehensive and well organized resiliency plans in the country was done, especially under Mayor Landrieu’s administration and with a gentleman named Jeff Aber who’s one of our best partners in the Ten Across project.

Boudreau: What does a resiliency plan include? What kinds of things?

Reiter: It can range, and we’ve studied resiliency plans on all the cities in the 10X area. We’ve looked at all their documentation, we’ve got about 400 pages of notes. It goes from the most immediate, how do you address a disaster and what people need in the here and now. And then these plans begin to look a little further and further and further into the future. What do we need to be doing to manage water systems, energy systems, food security, wellbeing in all of life, health and wellness. And the cities that have gotten the furthest out there are really thinking now generationally, what should we be doing now to prepare a place for our children and our families and others to really be able to be in this place, at the very least, but also thrive in that. And that can include economic resiliency as well. What happens if there’s an economic downturn? How quickly does your city recover?

Boudreau: So is Phoenix thinking about doing a resiliency plan, or do we have one?

Reiter: Phoenix is not one of the hundred resilient cities in the Rockefeller program, but that doesn’t keep you from doing the work. And Phoenix has been very focused on this issue. It has a chief sustainability officer. You can’t think about Phoenix and not think about the availability of water. I know Catherine Sorenson, who’s the head of the water district, our department for the city of Phoenix is very focused on this of course, as you would expect, and Phoenix has been looking at itself and what it needs to do around a variety of issues. Take for one, take one for example, that would be very much Phoenix, which would be heat. And so they’re looking at heat island effects and how the construction of our cities and the materials that hold heat impact temperatures, especially the reduction of nighttime temperatures. Also what it means for water and evaporation. What it means for health, what it means for security for people. So Phoenix is very much focused on sustainability and heat would be but one example.

Boudreau: Well it’s good to know we’re thinking about it.

Reiter: Yes.

Boudreau: So your background is in architecture, right? How did you come to study resilient cities? How did you get into this area of work?

Reiter: I think, uh, by being an architect, you take cues from the built environment. So whether you’re looking at New Orleans or Phoenix or even places like Detroit that have suffered downturns, you can see the beginnings of what’s going on in a community by the built environment, what it’s telling you. So if you’re an architect who’s both designed buildings but also attuned to look at them for cues about what’s happening in communities, I think that’s been really helpful experience and expertise to understand what the built environment is telling us that we need to attend to. So for me, it was a natural transition and going from let’s say, individual buildings to whole communities. That was very much the transition I made when I came here as dean of the College of Design, from maybe designing buildings to thinking about let’s say the Downtown Phoenix campus. How do you knit a whole area together? They’re all designed projects if you think about it.

Boudreau: And then when we met to discuss your KEDtalk, you also mentioned doing your thesis work on monuments to the future. And that phrase really intrigued me. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?

Reiter: Well, sometimes it’s easier to think about a place once you’ve left it cause when you’re in it every day it’s just part of your, your being. So, when I left new Orleans after 10 years, I not only went to school there, but I worked on the last World’s Fair ever held in the United States. And after that was fortunate enough to go to Harvard and graduate school, and my thesis project there looked back to New Orleans and talked about how maybe instead of building monuments to the past, New Orleans is very much a place that thinks about its past. It’s an extraordinary one. And involving many cultures. Could you build or conceive of monuments that would remind you every day you should be thinking about the future as well. And so as you move through the city on your way to work or wherever it was, you would see something and they wouldn’t be conventional, let’s say statues on pedestals, but some indicator that the future was right around the corner and you would do well to attend to it. So, while I think we know what monuments the past are, we build them all the time, how would you build an indicator that suggests that the future is equally, if not more important, and would require you to do something differently maybe to, uh, in your individual lives and your community or maybe at the city, state or regional scale. What should we be doing? And I think we need those reminders.

Boudreau: So what would that look like? Do you have ideas about that?

Reiter: So when we looked at the, when I looked at the New Orleans circumstance, I actually designed. Again, I’m an architect, also heavily involved in the visual arts, a series of elements that as people moved into the cities, they got closer and closer to the city. They saw indicators that reminded them that this is a water place. It’s a place born of water. New Orleans had to happen, there was always going to be a great city at the mouth of the Mississippi River. So it was absolutely the place where a city had to be, and it’s one of the worst places to build a city. It’s a swamp, and now much of it below sea level. So that dichotomy, sorta drove what the design of these things were, reminding us that we made a decision to be here and presumably for a long time. What do we need to be doing?

Reiter: And these structures were in various ways, shapes and forms as you can imagine. And then they sort of reached a crescendo when you got to the city. It said, here we are, this is the place that we were destined to create. What are we going to do about it? It’s also quite interesting that Mayor Landrieu got involved heavily in the issue of monuments as all of you know, having taken down a number of monuments in the city, four in particular, that were reminders of the past, sorta kind of. They were maybe not quite accurate depictions of the past, but he realized the importance of monuments as well and what they meant to various people. So New Orleans has a history of thinking about this.

Boudreau: Going back to Ten Across, Ten Across held its first summit this year in Baton Rouge. Is that right? This year? Can you tell us why Baton Rouge?

Reiter: Sure. So again, think about this transect coast to coast 11 or more major cities, all the issues I described that are of real importance, and what could be more so than water. And so as we thought about our water circumstance here in Phoenix, which is clearly one of access to it in the future, which is to some degree uncertain, we’re gonna have to work really hard to make sure that that’s the case. Having spent time in the gulf area, I was well aware of what was happening with regard to water in that area in New Orleans and Baton Rouge, and it’s about inundation. Waters are rising and every time there’s a major storm, the waters coming even further inland than they ever did before. They’ve lost 2,000 square miles recently of land and people are actually retreating. People are actually having to be moved.

Reiter: And in the case of Baton Rouge, the aquifers where they get their water is being infiltrated with saltwater, which could really threaten that city to some extent. So they had built a wonderful facility called the Water Institute of the Gulf, perched right on the Mississippi River, looking at the bridge that is the I-10. You could not find a better place to bring this all together. So thinking that water was something that everybody understands, everybody needs, obviously to sustain life. We would use that as our first topic and we would hold our event, not here in Phoenix, but in a place that was already thinking about it, had built a facility dedicated to it, including a scale model of the Mississippi River delta that shows the future of what that is going to be. So we thought that they were like-minded. We approached them. They were all over this topic.

Reiter: They have embraced 10X like no other area. I really want to credit John Davies in the Baton Rouge Area Foundation. He has taken 10X into his own, into his organization, and they continue to help us to this day. And they will be involved in every 10X water project that we hold because they believe in it. It turns out that the exchange of information amongst people interested in a topic like water is facilitated, if not accelerated, when the topics are a little different, meaning drought or flooding. And the flow of information at this conference was unlike anything I’ve ever seen.

Boudreau: Who was there?

Reiter: We invited, well it was opened up in a wonderful way by the governor, Governor Bill Edwards. The mayor of Baton Rouge was there, Senator Landrieu was there. Henry Cisneros was there, four-time mayor of San Antonio, obviously one of the major cities in the I-10 study area.

Reiter: So you had city officials from across the land from L.A. to Jacksonville. You had experts in water, you had experts in city development. You had citizens who understand the urgency of these issues. You had chief sustainability and resilience officers from these cities, appropriately so, and so everybody was there showing what they knew about their circumstance and why it might have some relevance to your circumstances if you weren’t from that place.

Boudreau: So what’s next for Ten Across?

Reiter: So we think of Ten Across as an awareness-building project. There are other people who are more expert in the science or engineering or other things than we may be, but we are, my team is particularly good at, I think understanding the whole and building a communications platform of some sort, like the events we just talked about, the Ten Across event in Baton Rouge, as well as other media forms that could further the dialogues that I think we started there and elsewhere.

Reiter: So we’re thinking about a number of things. How do we do that in all the kinds of media you would imagine? We are extending that into the potential to turn this into a course that can be consumed by high school students in all these cities along the 10. And again, foster exchange between them. I could be in El Paso and I get a call from somebody in Jacksonville to understand the issues of migration and what a border means. And I’m now in a dialogue with people who are, if you will, and we’ve used this quote before, on the same street, you’re all on the I-10, so you already have something in common. And so there could be an educational platform. I’m sure there will be. We’re also talking about how these cities can band together to form a risk pool that might help them in times of need. So they’re not exclusively dependent on the federal government. And we’ve talked about the potential for a podcast, not unlike this one, with people who live on the 10 and even a broadcast in a television format, if you will, that could move from West to East, from Los Angeles to Jacksonville, describing the future of this country as seen through the lens of those cities.

Boudreau: So as somebody who lives on this transect in the Phoenix area, if I’m interested in getting involved with the Ten Across project, how would I do that?

Reiter: So you can go to the website and you will find 10across.com, and I think we have a .org as well. We’re building all these things as we speak, as you and I are talking. And so you could let us know why you’re interested, and we’ll create a better forum on a website which is being constructed right now to take in information from people across the 10. We’re even imagining that we at some point would have a mobile studio to go out and get those voices and record them much as we’re doing here now and turn them into things that could make their way into that educational product for those high school students or for others. But if you have expertise in areas that are represented by the project, we would love to hear from you and involve you in our events or help with content development or whatever it might be.

Reiter: This project is very much about multiple ways of knowing, and some of that comes from people who live in these areas, their lived experience on the ground and what they know about what they’re seeing. In other cases, it’s from people who have more technical expertise. We have universities of course, great earth observing technologies. And that’s another kind of truth. We’re taking all of those ways of knowing, if you will, combining them into what we think is a pretty compelling understanding of what we’re going to have to attend to with regard to the future.

Boudreau: Great. Was there anything else that I didn’t ask about which you would really like to talk about?

Reiter: I might think of two things. One of the things that I think we saw let’s say in the recent elections is we are encountering a further rural/urban divide. And our first pass across the 10 is hitting the major cities. Those are the 11 largest urban areas on the 10. There are others, but we’re not unaware that in between these major cities in the, especially in the three largest states in the union that are implicated here, California, Texas and Florida, there are a lot of people who don’t hear their voices registered. They may not understand the issues that we’re talking about, or they may understand them better than we do. So we want to make sure that in this transect we’re gathering all voices, both those who are generated from cities and urban conditions to suburban, which there’s a lot in this transect. This is the new America, if you will. Many of these cities were facilitated by the automobile.

Reiter: So the suburbs are enormous, but also the rural areas, a lot of agriculture, a lot of other ecosystems. We want to make sure we capture all that. So I think this project could be part of a larger understanding of the nation as a whole and bringing diverse points of view together. I hope that’s the case. The other thing that’s interesting about this project, I think it’s crucial that it’s, if you will latitudinal in nature. In other words, East to West. If it weren’t for geographic circumstances, these cities would be somewhat similar. Sun angles are hitting these cities in the same way all the time, all year round. So they have a lot in common. What makes them different is their proximity to water or elevation or other things. But that means you can compare and contrast them. If this project was North to South where one area was obviously colder all the time and another was hotter, they are already separated in a certain way. So the fact that the cities are organized East to West, and this is one of the largest transects in one country where you could do this, the ability to cause these peoples and cities to be in dialogue with one another is really made much more available and easy because of the latitudinal organization here. Not to mention they’re literally on the same street and people can move easily between them.

Boudreau: Well, thank you for joining us here today.

Reiter: It was a pleasure. Thank you for having me.

Boudreau: If you’re interested in more from Duke Reiter, watch the ASU KEDtalks video at research.asu.edu/kedtalks. Subscribe to our podcast through your favorite podcast directory and find us on Facebook and Twitter @ASUresearch.

Learn more about the 10X Water Summit, March 26-28, 2019, in Phoenix.