Mitigating hazards with vulnerability in mind
From tropical storms to landslides, the form and frequency of natural hazards vary widely. But the feelings of vulnerability they can provoke are universal.
Growing up in hazard-prone cities, Ipek Bensu Manav, a civil and environmental engineering PhD candidate with the MIT Concrete Sustainability Hub (CSHub), noticed that this vulnerability was always at the periphery. Today, she’s studying vulnerability, in both its engineering and social dimensions, with the aim of promoting more hazard-resilient communities.
Her research at CSHub has taken her across the country to attend impactful conferences and allowed her to engage with prominent experts and decision-makers in the realm of resilience. But more fundamentally, it has also taken her beyond the conventional bounds of engineering, reshaping her understanding of the practice.
From her time in Miami, Florida, and Istanbul, Turkey, Manav is no stranger to natural hazards. Istanbul, which suffered a devastating earthquake in 1999, is predicted to experience an equally violent tremor in the near future, while Miami ranks among the top cities in the U.S. in terms of natural disaster risk due to its vulnerability to hurricanes.
“Growing up in Miami, I’d always hear about hurricane season on the news,” recounts Manav, “While in Istanbul there was a constant fear about the next big earthquake. Losing people and [witnessing] those kinds of events instilled in me a desire to tame nature.”
It was this desire to “push the bounds of what is possible” — and to protect lives in the process — that motivated Manav to study civil engineering at Boğaziçi University. Her studies there affirmed her belief in the formidable power of engineering to “outsmart nature.”
This, in part, led her to continue her studies at MIT CSHub — a team of interdisciplinary researchers who study how to achieve resilient and sustainable infrastructure. Her role at CSHub has given her the opportunity to study resilience in depth. It has also challenged her understanding of natural disasters — and whether they are “natural” at all.
“Over the past few decades, some policy choices have increased the risk of experiencing disasters,” explains Manav. “An increasingly popular sentiment among resilience researchers is that natural disasters are not ‘natural,’ but are actually man-made. At CSHub we believe there is an opportunity to do better with the growing knowledge and engineering and policy research.”
As a part of the CSHub portfolio, Manav’s research looks not just at resilient engineering, but the engineering of resilient communities.
Her work draws on a metric developed at CSHub known as city texture, which is a measurement of the rectilinearity of a city’s layout. City texture, Manav and her colleagues have found, is a versatile and informative measurement. By capturing a city’s order or disorder, it can predict variations in wind flow — variations currently too computationally intensive for most cities to easily render.
Manav has derived this metric for her native South Florida. A city texture analysis she conducted there found that numerous census tracts could experience wind speeds 50 percent greater than currently predicted. Mitigating these wind variations could lead to some $697 million in savings annually.
Such enormous hazard losses and the growing threat of climate change have presented her with a new understanding of engineering.
“With resilience and climate change at the forefront of engineering, the focus has shifted,” she explains, “from defying limits and building impressive structures to making structures that adapt to the changing environment around us.”
Witnessing this shift has reoriented her relationship with engineering. Rather than viewing it as a distinct science, she has begun to place it in its broader social and political context — and to recognize how those social and political dynamics often determine engineering outcomes.
“When I started grad school, I often felt ‘Oh this is an engineering problem. I can engineer a solution’,” recounts Manav. “But as I’ve read more about resilience, I’ve realized that it’s just as much a concern of politics and policy as it is of engineering.”
She attributes her awareness of policy to MIT CSHub’s collaboration with the Portland Cement Association and the Ready Mixed Concrete Research & Education Foundation. The commitment of the concrete and cement industries to resilient construction has exposed her to the myriad policies that dictate the resilience of communities.
“Spending time with our partners made me realize how much of a policy issue [resilience] is,” she explains. “And working with them has provided me with a seat at the table with the people engaged in resilience.”
Opportunities for engagement have been plentiful. She has attended numerous conferences and met with leaders in the realm of sustainability and resilience, including the International Code Council (ICC), Smart Home America, and Strengthen Alabama Homes.
Some opportunities have proven particularly fortuitous. When attending a presentation hosted by the ICC and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) that highlighted people of color working on building codes, Manav felt inspired to reach out to the presenters. Soon after, she found herself collaborating with them on a policy report on resilience in communities of color.
“For me, it was a shifting point, going from prophesizing about what we could be doing, to observing what is being done. It was a very humbling experience,” she says. “Having worked in this lab made me feel more comfortable stepping outside of my comfort zone and reaching out.”
Manav credits this growing confidence to her mentorship at CSHub. More than just providing support, CSHub Co-director Randy Kirchain has routinely challenged her and inspired further growth.
“There have been countless times that I’ve reached out to him because I was feeling unsure of myself or my ideas,” says Manav. “And he’s offered clarity and assurance.”
Before her first conference, she recalls Kirchain staying in the office well into the evening to help her practice and hone her presentation. He’s also advocated for her on research projects to ensure that her insight is included and that she receives the credit she deserves. But most of all, he’s been a great person to work with.
“Randy is a lighthearted, funny, and honest person to be around,” recounts Manav. “He builds in me the confidence to dive straight into whatever task I’m tackling.”
That current task is related to equity. Inspired by her conversations with members of the NAACP, Manav has introduced a new dimension to her research — social vulnerability.
In contrast to place vulnerability, which captures the geographical susceptibility to hazards, social vulnerability captures the extent to which residents have the resources to respond to and recover from hazard events. Household income could act as a proxy for these resources, and the spread of household income across geographies and demographics can help derive metrics of place and social vulnerability. And these metrics matter.
“Selecting different metrics favors different people when distributing hazard mitigation and recovery funds,” explains Manav. “If we’re looking at just the dollar value of losses, then wealthy households with more valuable properties disproportionally benefit. But, conversely, if we look at losses as a percentage of income, we’re going to prioritize low-income households that might not necessarily have the resources to recover.”
Manav has incorporated metrics of social vulnerability into her city texture loss estimations. The resulting approach could predict unmitigated damage, estimate subsequent hazard losses, and measure the disparate impact of those losses on low-income and socially vulnerable communities.
Her hope is that this streamlined approach could change how funds are disbursed and give communities the tools to solve the entwined challenges of climate change and equity.
The city texture work Manav has adopted is quite different from the gravity-defying engineering that drew her to the field. But she’s found that it is often more pragmatic and impactful.
Rather than mastering the elements, she’s learning how to adapt to them and help others do the same. Solutions to climate change, she’s discovered, demand the collaboration of numerous parties — as well as a willingness to confront one’s own vulnerabilities and make the decision to reach out.