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A smarter urban design concept for a town decimated by wildfires

SWA Group—a winner of Fast Company’s 2022 World Changing Ideas Awards—is helping Paradise, California, imagine a safer and more sustainable future with a design that buffers the town with parks, athletic fields, and orchards—areas less likely to burn than forests.

A smarter urban design concept for a town decimated by wildfires
[Image: courtesy SWA Group]

Three and a half years after the deadliest wildfire in California history destroyed the small town of Paradise, residents are slowly rebuilding. By last November, the third anniversary of the fire, more than 1,000 homes out of the 14,000 destroyed had been rebuilt. By this fall, the town expects that 10,000 of the 40,000 people who were displaced will have moved back. But as climate change continues to increase the risk of megafires, how can the town protect itself from future catastrophes?

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SWA Group, a landscape architecture, planning, and urban design firm, worked with town leaders to help envision how it could build a 90,000-acre buffer zone around itself to slow the spread of future fires. Homeowners in wildfire zones already know that their houses are safer when surrounded by few things that can burn; SWA’s design applies the same idea to a city.

[Image: courtesy SWA Group]
“What we really tried to do is scale this concept of ‘defensible space’ all the way up to the much larger scale and increased complexity of an entire community,” says Jonah Susskind, an associate at SWA Group who led the firm’s Edge of Paradise project, which is the winner of the urban design category of Fast Company’s 2022 World Changing Ideas Awards.

[Image: courtesy SWA Group]
The design proposes surrounding the town with new parks, athletic fields, orchards, and other amenities that are less likely to burn than forests, in a design that carefully considers data about current land uses, ownership, and fire risk. Trees and bushes would be cleared along an overgrown power transmission corridor in an area that designers say could become a bike trail. Sheep could help graze the area to reduce dry grass that can burn.

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[Image: courtesy SWA Group]
Controlled burns—planned fires designed to reduce the likelihood of an accidental fire that quickly spreads—could also take place in the area, with existing roads and other barriers used as fire breaks. (Decades of retroactive fire suppression in California have ironically led to larger, more out-of-control fires now.) Forests could be selectively thinned to further reduce risk, and add more recreation for visitors, something that the community depends on for the local economy. In an outer zone, fires could be allowed to burn naturally.

The team wanted to illustrate how the changes could happen in ways that felt natural to residents. “It’s a community that is coming out of a trauma,” Susskind says. “And the idea of changing everything overnight is really scary. One of the things that our project does also is it really tries to communicate that these ideas aren’t necessarily so radical. They’re very innovative, but they don’t necessarily call for a wholesale, radical change for the community at large.”

[Image: courtesy SWA Group]
From a fire-risk perspective, Susskind says, there are areas in California where it’s arguably too dangerous to build. But that reality has to be balanced with where people live now, and the desperate need for more housing. “We’re sort of in a situation where it has to be a ‘both, and’ scenario—we have to mitigate and adapt at the same time,” he says. “And we have to do both more aggressively and smarter than we’re doing today.”

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While it remains to be seen how much of the design Paradise will adopt, the Parks and Recreation Department has already started acquiring new land as a buffer zone around the town, and is considering the full design. The plan may cost $20 million, much of which can likely be covered by the settlements that the local government is receiving from PG&E, the electric utility responsible for the fire.

[Image: courtesy SWA Group]
Communities in other at-risk areas could apply the same fire-mitigation approach; a quarter of California’s population now lives in the wildland-urban interface where fire danger is high. “We’re still just at the bleeding edge of learning how to live with fire,” Susskind says. “One of the things that this project attempts to do is to really begin to move the needle in terms of how we identify both technical and ideological shifts that our disciplines need to make in order to respond to the ever-present and constantly accelerating challenges of climate change here in the American West.”

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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley

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