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Smart Growth Strategies for Disaster Recovery and Resilience


How and where growth occurs, both in the short and long terms, can have a major impact on how well communities can prepare for and recover from natural disasters. But communities have not always used development planning as a strategy to become more resilient to hazards. Integrating smart growth approaches into preparedness and recovery can change this dynamic. Smart growth strategies like creating flexible land use policies, targeting public investment to catalyze private investment, and engaging the entire community in making decisions about the future can help communities recover from a disaster, rebuild according to a shared community vision, and be better prepared for the next natural disaster.

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EPA-FEMA Memorandum of Agreement

In 2010, EPA and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) signed a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) that makes it easier for the two agencies to work together to help communities become safer, healthier, and more resilient. The agencies collaborate to help communities hit by disasters rebuild in ways that protect the environment, create long-term economic prosperity, and enhance neighborhoods. FEMA and EPA also help communities incorporate strategies that improve quality of life and direct development away from vulnerable areas into their hazard mitigation plans. EPA and FEMA are using the lessons they learn from working together under this MOA and with other federal agencies to better coordinate assistance to communities on hazard mitigation planning and post-disaster recovery. The MOA also helps the agencies work together on climate change adaptation.

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Some of the projects on which FEMA and EPA have collaborated include:

Flood resilience and recovery assistance for the state of Vermont

Through its Smart Growth Implementation Assistance Program, EPA worked with several Vermont state agencies, including the Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development, and communities in Vermont’s Mad River Valley in 2013 to identify smart growth strategies that can help vulnerable communities prepare for and recover from floods. Although the project focused on state policies, local land use development policies, and hazard mitigation plans for communities in Vermont, the report and its Flood Resilience Checklist can help any community seeking to become more resilient to future floods.

Preparing for Sea Level Rise in Coastal North Carolina

In 2012, in partnership with FEMA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the North Carolina Department of Environmental Management, EPA worked with the coastal towns of Wilmington and New Bern, North Carolina. In recent years, both communities have been affected by extreme weather events and more frequent flooding. Concerns about these issues and sea level rise led both jurisdictions to request assistance to understand the potential impact of sea level rise on existing neighborhoods and water and sewer infrastructure and identify ways to reduce vulnerability.

Complete, green streets assistance for Joplin, Missouri

After an F-5 tornado hit the East 20th Street corridor in Joplin, Missouri, on May 22, 2011, residents and leaders decided to try to redesign the corridor as a model for green, complete streets that other locations in the community could follow. Green, complete streets are safe and comfortable for all users, including pedestrians, bicyclists, transit riders, and drivers, and incorporate natural elements to manage stormwater. In 2012, EPA’s Region 7 office provided technical assistance to Joplin to help create safer, more attractive streets and manage stormwater in a more environmentally friendly manner. Before the project began, FEMA worked with local stakeholders to identify long-term community recovery needs and helped EPA match its assistance with those needs.

Land use planning assistance for Spirit Lake Nation, North Dakota

In 2011, FEMA, EPA, and outside experts worked with the Spirit Lake Nation, a tribe in North Dakota that has experienced 17 years of chronic flooding, to develop a land use plan that directs growth away from known flood risk areas and improves overall quality of life on the reservation.

The project resulted in the following report and fact sheet:

Post-disaster assistance to Iowa communities

In 2009, FEMA and EPA worked with Iowa state agencies and local partners to help six Iowa communities plan their recovery after floods and tornadoes.

Climate change and resilience assistance for the state of Iowa

In 2009, EPA and FEMA worked with state and local leaders in Iowa to explore how the latest science on changing weather patterns due to climate change could be integrated into state and local planning efforts to adapt to and mitigate future natural disasters.

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EPA Resources

Smart Growth and Climate Change

Disaster resilience is closely tied to climate change adaptation, as climate change is linked to the increasing intensity and frequency of severe storms, heavy downpours, and wildfires in many parts of the country, as well as higher storm surges as sea levels rise. Visit our Smart Growth and Climate Change page for climate adaptation resources and EPA’s climate portal for links to more information about climate change.

Governors’ Institute on Community Design

The Governors’ Institute on Community Design helps governors and their staff make informed decisions about investments and policy decisions that influence the economic health and physical development of their states. The Governors’ Institute offers technical assistance, typically in the form of two-day workshops, on a variety of topics, including disaster recovery and resilience. For example, at the request of Governor Peter Shumlin, the Governors’ Institute went to Vermont in December 2011 to support the state’s efforts to recover from Tropical Storm Irene and prepare for a more resilient future.

2013 National Award for Smart Growth Achievement

EPA presented the 2013 National Award for Smart Growth Achievement in the Plazas, Parks, and Public Places category to Charles City, Iowa, for its Riverfront Park. The city turned flood plain land acquired through FEMA buyouts into a park that provides recreation for residents and visitors but also helps reduce flooding.  

Achieving Hazard-Resilient Coastal & Waterfront Smart Growth: Coastal and Waterfront Smart Growth and Hazard Mitigation Roundtable 

2012. EPA and the state Sea Grant College Programs of Rhode Island, Texas, and Hawaii organized a meeting on how coastal and waterfront communities can create economically and environmentally sustainable neighborhoods while minimizing risks from flooding and related natural hazards. This report provides ideas from that meeting on research, tools, services, and approaches to integrate smart growth and hazard mitigation strategies on the coast.

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Other Resources

This January 2014 article by Will Doig, “You Can’t Stop Urban Flooding” Link to EPA's External Link Disclaimer and video by Still Life Projects show how Boulder, Colorado, built infrastructure, including bike paths and bridges, that provide everyday benefits for residents while helping prepare the city for floods.

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