Between Floods: Resiliency & Urban Regeneration
Working in Cedar Rapids, a city of 130,000, that had only eight years between their first and second highest floods on historical record
The city of Cedar Rapids crowned 2008 the “Year of the River,” a title meant to reinforce the connection between the city and the Cedar River that runs through its core. This name took on an unfortunate new meaning when, in June 2008, a flood of unimaginable scale forced thousands of evacuations and caused over six billion dollars in damage. Over 10 square miles were flooded, including the downtown. The flood displaced 310 city facilities and devastated more than 7,000 properties—including over 5,000 homes.
Just before the flood, Sasaki had been selected to generate a riverfront master plan for the city and the team was quickly called in to chart out a recovery plan. Within days of the flood, Cedar Rapids City Council outlined a series of strategic recovery goals. Sasaki worked with the city to accomplish these goals in 11 months with a broad and unprecedented public engagement process.
Phase I, the Flood Management Strategy, minimizes future flooding risk while improving the city’s relationship to the river. A series of open houses engaged over 2,680 community members. The favored option—a floodplain Greenway—increases connectivity to the river and transforms the 650 damaged-beyond-repair parcels of the 100-year floodplain into a positive civic amenity for the community. Phase I also resulted in the adoption of non-structural measures, including improved evacuation planning, interim flood protection, flood-proofing, flood warning systems, and a larger civic initiative to address upstream Cedar River Watershed issues. The interdisciplinary consultant team worked closely with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to test and synthesize community feedback into a direction for future flood management.
Phase II, the Framework for Neighborhood Reinvestment, provides a reinvestment framework for the city’s nine flood-affected neighborhoods, including downtown. The intention was to not only help Cedar Rapids recover, but also to make it stronger and more vibrant than it was before the flood. Sasaki developed three planning study areas, each containing multiple neighborhoods and spanning the river. This enabled a discussion of shared interests across neighborhood boundaries and long-held psychological boundaries like the river itself. Collectively, the resulting Area Plans envision a sustainable future for the city characterized by strong pedestrian, transit, and vehicular connections, open spaces, revitalized and diverse neighborhoods, economic opportunities, and thriving cultural destinations. Over 1,420 citizens attended 8 public meetings and spent over 6,000 hours collaborating. Sasaki helped to train approximately 70 people from multiple city departments to facilitate table discussions at planning meetings, which fostered more cross-departmental coordination and improved community service from city employees to residents.
Since the flood, the city and its residents completed several phases of reinvestment and revitalization planning, which have led to manifold implementation initiatives. The planning process has been a partnership between community members, multiple city departments, the City Council, and various agencies. Subsequent initiatives have built on the recovery planning outcomes, including: a community process to prioritize the replacement of flood-damaged city facilities; a Parks and Recreation Master Plan to integrate the 220-acre floodplain greenway into the existing Park System; an Urban Design Principles process to address the need for a consistently high-quality urban realm as the city rebuilds; and an Energy Management Plan to reduce municipal energy use and promote efficiency. At the heart of these planning processes is a desire to ensure that Cedar Rapids will not only recover from the flood, but will become a greater city for future generations.