Smart Growth Approaches for Flood-Resilient Communities

Smart Growth Program LogoLast month marked the first year anniversary of the President’s Climate Action Plan. As part of that plan, EPA has been working to prepare the United States for the many impacts of climate change, including flooding. Many communities across the country are recognizing the need to prepare for more frequent and more powerful storms; others are already dealing with storm damage and looking for ways to recover that deliver the best long-term results.

Smart growth approaches to development can help communities become more resilient to flooding by protecting vulnerable undeveloped lands, siting development in safer locations, and designing development so it is less likely to be damaged in a flood. Recognizing this, the state of Vermont came to EPA’s Office of Sustainable Communities and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for assistance in 2012 following Tropical Storm Irene, which damaged many communities across the state. Together, we helped several state agencies and communities in the Mad River Valley of Vermont assess how they could incorporate smart growth principles into their policies, development regulations, and hazard mitigation plans to make them less vulnerable to extreme floods. EPA’s Office of Sustainable Communities recently released a report and a handy checklist that communities seeking to prepare for or recover from a major flood can use to assess whether their codes, policies, and regulations can help them withstand floods.

The report and checklist cover a wide range of activities. Not all of these activities will be appropriate for each community. I encourage community leaders to consider them all, and then choose the activities that work best for their local conditions and circumstances.

Here are some general steps communities can take to improve their flood resilience:

  • Update and integrate community or comprehensive land use plans with hazard mitigation plans to ensure they are coordinated and that they prioritize planning for new growth in safer areas.
  • Audit policies, regulations, and budgets to ensure consistency with flood-resilience goals outlined in community plans and hazard mitigation plans.
  • Amend existing policies, regulations, and budgets or create new ones to help achieve the flood-resilience goals outlined in plans.

Here are some specific local land use policy options communities can consider:

  • Conserve land and discourage development in particularly vulnerable areas along river corridors, such as flood plains and wetlands.
  • Where development already exists in flood-prone areas, take steps to protect people, buildings, and facilities from flooding risks.
  • Plan for and encourage new development in areas that are less vulnerable to future floods.
  • Manage stormwater using watershed-wide stormwater management and green infrastructure approaches to slow, spread, and infiltrate floodwater.

State agencies can also partner to support recovery and flood-resilience planning. Specific actions states can take to improve their flood recovery and resilience efforts include:

  • Auditing all state programs to determine how well they help communities achieve flood-resilience goals.
  • Developing a comprehensive recovery plan before the next flood happens.
  • Developing a personnel plan that delineates who will assist with post-disaster recovery.

The checklist and report come on the heels of President Obama’s announcement on June 14 of a new National Disaster Resilience Competition, which will provide nearly $1 billion in funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Community Development Block Grant-Disaster Recovery funds to help communities that have experienced natural disasters rebuild and prepare for future disasters. The Notice of Funding Availability for the competition will be posted on www.hud.gov.

The Office of Sustainable Communities will host a webinar on smart growth approaches for flood-resilient communities with FEMA and the state of Vermont on Wednesday, August 13, from 1:00-2:30 EDT. Find details at http://www.epa.gov/smartgrowth/webinars/index.html.

Joel Beauvais is the Associate Administrator for EPA’s Office of Policy.

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