125 Stanford Stories

NO. 76

Building cities’ resilience

Science & community meet
in the work of the Stanford Urban Resilience Initiative 


In the earthquake-prone San Francisco Bay Area, thousands of people live in so-called “soft-story” buildings: older, usually with parking on the ground floor and apartments above, and lacking strength to withstand a major earthquake.

Such buildings are easy for a trained eye to spot and can usually be retrofitted. Yet social and policy challenges keep solutions at bay. The tenants and owners are often of modest means. Many don’t know their buildings are vulnerable or, if they do, how to best make fixes. It’s politically risky for cities to mandate costly retrofits.

In March 2015, Stanford undergraduate and graduate students confronted the challenge in a Sustainable Cities class taught by urban studies lecturer Deland Chan, ’07, MA ’07. Students mapped soft-story buildings in the Bay Area city of Oakland, where about 22,000 residential units fall into the category. They surveyed tenants as to what rent increases they would be willing to pay to make their dwellings safer. Their input and analysis informed the city’s thinking and helped to create interactive tools such as a Soft Story Map to guide policy efforts.

This class set me on a pathway of exploration into how change is made in cities, where I can see myself contributing in these processes of change, and what change is most needed.

– Jack Lundquist, ’17

The class was part of the Stanford Urban Resilience Initiative, a multidisciplinary network focused on research and design of technologies to improve communities’ resilience to natural disasters.

Resilience is a term planners, engineers and scientists use to describe the ability of systems, including cities, to rebound from crises. Their focus comes as more of the world’s people live in flood- or quake-prone areas whose vulnerability puts swelling populations at risk. Members of the Stanford Urban Resilience Initiative work not just to study disaster risk but also to build people’s capacity to respond to it. Working at the intersection of natural sciences, statistics, engineering and policy, they create tools that communities, cities and nations can use to protect themselves against disaster and respond effectively when it comes.

“There is a lot of work that the earthquake engineering community and the public planners have to do as a team,” said PhD candidate Luis Ceferino, who was part of the Oakland project.

“For a long time, we have known about the vulnerable behavior of the soft story buildings in the earthquake-engineering community, but it is very recently that we have implemented policies for making these buildings less vulnerable.”

Ceferino and others involved in the Urban Resilience Initiative aim for cities to adopt and refine disaster mitigation policies with the help of the link between engineering communities and policy makers.

Anne Sanquini’s Stanford dissertation research measured the effectiveness of a short film in building support for school retrofitting in Nepal. In fact, Sanquini, PhD ’15, was in Nepal, screening her film for local researchers, when the 7.6 earthquake hit in April 2015.

In the week that followed, researchers from Stanford’s John A. Blume Earthquake Engineering Research Center developed a cloud-based computing model to estimate the quake’s impact on the region.

David Lallemant, PhD ’15, spent a month and a half in Nepal, working with the World Bank and the United Nations Shelter Cluster to support response and recovery efforts. Lallemant co-led the housing sector assessment for the joint U.N./World Bank/European Union post-disaster needs assessment requested by the Nepali government. Several other Stanford graduate students curated a data clearinghouse related to earthquake impacts.

Led by the Blume Earthquake Engineering Research Center, Stanford has a long history of research and service to reduce the impact of earthquakes worldwide. After a 7.8 earthquake struck Ecuador in April 2016, Associate Professor of civil and environmental engineering Eduardo Miranda and his students, including Ceferino, conducted assessments of damaged hospitals, examining both structural design and operational response. Their research aims to support more resilient emergency health services after disruptive events.

Working with the Natural Capital Project, a consortium whose Stanford participants are primarily housed in the Department of Biology and the Woods Institute for the Environment, members of the Stanford Urban Resilience Initiative are developing new ways to assess the benefits of ecosystems in reducing disaster’s impact. One ongoing project explores how nature can mitigate the impact of urban floods.

Upcoming projects include:

  •  A two-day “disaster art-a-thon” at Stanford in fall 2016. Engineers, scientists and local artists will come together to find novel ways to communicate about hazards, risk and disasters, and to have fun while doing it.
  • A fall 2016 course in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Disaster Risk and International Development. 
  • Training for Stanford graduate engineering students to rapidly evaluate buildings for safety after an earthquake.
  • Work on enhancing post-disaster damage assessments through crowdsourced image analysis using the volunteer Humanitarian OpenStreetMaps team. From satellite imagery, volunteers extract data on damaged buildings and roads for more efficient use by disaster response teams on the ground.

“I was surprised by how challenging it is to implement policy,” said Jack Lundquist, ’17, who received an undergraduate fellowship from Stanford’s Haas Center for Public Service to work on the Resilient Oakland project. Lundquist was energized, however, rather than intimidated by the task.

“An exposure to the hurdles – political, bureaucratic, economic, social – so early in the trajectory of my career was incredibly valuable because it got me thinking more realistically about how I want to create change in society,” he said. “Ultimately, I am committed to encouraging more sustainable, affordable, resilient and vibrant communities in the Bay Area.”