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Mitigating Natural Hazards Through Land-Use Planning

Land-use planning – the authority to regulate the development and use of land to advance the health, safety and welfare of the public – has long been recognized as a tool for natural hazard mitigation and climate change adaptation. Gilbert White and Eugene Haas, in Assessment of Research on Natural Hazards (1975), pointed to the vast potential for local land-use controls in regulating development in hazardous areas. Foundational studies that shape our current approach to disaster management, like Dennis Mileti’s Disasters by Design, also recognize the central importance of land-use planning in reducing disaster losses.

And yet, land-use planning has been largely absent from the U.S. emergency management policies and programs. Even hazard mitigation plans – one of the best policy vehicles we have for advancing local disaster risk reduction efforts – drastically underutilize land-use planning. There are likely several reasons for this. First and most obvious is the common ceding of land-use authority to local governments, meaning we have a patchwork of tens-of-thousands of land-use authorities with different needs, resources, and political considerations. Using land-use planning as a tool for hazard mitigation also requires a background and knowledge set that have not been particularly common in the emergency management community, which has historically been dominated by professionals from the military, police, fire and emergency medical services professions (aka the “lights and sirens” crowd). The messy local politics of land-use planning is often a poor fit for their experiences and strengths. Third, emergency managers and planners historically have had few institutional incentives to collaborate and speak different professional languages, common issues with the “siloing” of expertise. Lastly, federal policies and programs can actually thwart efforts to use land-use planning to reduce risk. Raymond Burby and his colleagues (1999), for instance, describe how local land-use planning is routinely undermined by federal programs that incentivize, protect, or even encourage development in hazardous places.

Source: CPAW

Source: CPAW

This is all changing. In recent years, planners and emergency managers have increasingly acknowledged their shared goals and interests. The emergency management profession has begun to diversify, and increasing numbers of emergency managers have training in planning, public administration, and other land-use related fields. FEMA has funded and made available a terrific set of resources on land-use planning, from Integrating Hazard Mitigation Into Local Planning to Phil Berke’s prep talk on Land-Use Planning for Community Resilience. Likewise, the American Planning Association has published several important guides on planning for natural hazards, like the recent PAS reports Planning the Wildland-Urban Interface and Subdivision Design and Flood Hazard Areas. Across all these resources, we are seeing an increasing convergence between hazard mitigation and land-use planning, to the benefit of both.

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This is difficult work, however. Leveraging land-use planning for hazard mitigation requires significant time, information, money, political commitment, and community buy-in. These are resources in short-supply in many communities, especially given the myriad of other important issues we need to plan for.

Many communities are making progress, however. Here in Colorado, I have had the good fortune of contributing to Planning for Hazards: Land-Use Solutions. This guide and website, which came about after the devastating wildfires and floods in our state in 2012-2013, provides 28 profiles of common land-use planning tools and how they can be used to mitigate natural hazard risk. It further includes 16 model code languages and commentaries, to allow local governments to work from a template when revising their regulations. It is also chock full of examples and links to real communities and real land-use examples in Colorado and nationally. as well as linking to, interviews with land-use planners, a video of

Since we launched the Planning for Hazards project in 2016, we have learned some important lessons. First and foremost, knowledge about land-use planning and hazards is necessary, but not sufficient, to spur action. While we believe our guide if fairly unique, it is only information. The Department of Local Affairs and CU Denver, among other partners, have tried to help communities move from “knowledge to action” through a variety of projects that use the guide as a jumping off point. These included a two-year webinar series on land-use planning for natural hazards; interviews with local leaders who have “walked the walk” of hazards planning; a year-long implementation project with three communities in Colorado who revised their land-use tools to better mitigate risk; and the Mitigating Hazards Through Land-Use workshop that helps local governments to kick off their land-use planning process with expert consultation and peer-to-peer learning. All of the materials from these activities are free and available on the Planning for Hazards site.

Second, the project has taught us how important collaboration is for achieving action, especially in smaller communities and those with fewer planning resources. Planning for hazards, especially for hazards beyond floods, requires a great deal of resources that are often beyond the capacity of communities. Finding the right mix of resources and incentives that will spur communities to act is still a challenge.

We hope this project might inspire similar projects in other states. In fact, much of the work is already done! For many states it would be a short step to modify our guide to match their own communities needs and interests. We would be more than happy to share whatever material we have.

Learn More

The Natural Hazards Center recently wrote a story about the project, which highlights the implementation aspects of the project. The Western Planning also wrote a nice summary of the project in 2018. If you happen to be at the Natural Hazards Workshop this year, I will be moderating a panel where project participants will discuss their experiences.

About the Project

The Planning for Hazards project was conceived and led by the Colorado Department of Local Affairs. Clarion Associates, along with DOLA, the University of Colorado and a great group of consultants, created the guide. Today, I help to manage the project along with DOLA and a steering committee of hazard mitigation and land-use planning experts from organizations like FEMA, the Colorado Water Conservation Board, the Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, the Natural Hazards Center, and the town of Manitou Springs.