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How to prepare Philly and Puerto Rico for the next climate disaster? Penn Design students took on the challenge.

The design school worked to provide a better response to communities affected by natural disasters here and on the island.

Instructor Ariel Vázquez talks to Penn Design students who presented local solutions for future climate-caused migrations to Philadelphia.
Instructor Ariel Vázquez talks to Penn Design students who presented local solutions for future climate-caused migrations to Philadelphia.Read moreSTEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer

Residencial Luis Lloréns Torres is a 2,451-unit public housing project in San Juan, Puerto Rico, near two bodies of water: the San José Lagoon to the south and the Atlantic Ocean to the north. Besides being susceptible to rising sea levels, the low-income gated community is closed off from other neighborhoods, over a bed of mangroves, which limits its almost 7,000 residents from road access and aid.

This housing project, together with other climate-threatened towns and communities, was the focus over the last semester of 35 graduate students at the University of Pennsylvania School of Design. On Tuesday, International Migrants Day, they presented solutions intended to make Philadelphia and cities in Puerto Rico better prepared for future climate-related threats and migrations — specifically addressing the socioeconomic disparities and environmental challenges both places experienced after Hurricanes Irma and Maria hit the island in September 2017 and many Puerto Ricans took refuge in Philadelphia.

This comes at a time when island officials need to submit plans for the $20 billion that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has allocated for the reconstruction of infrastructure. Jerry Kirkland, director of emergency management for the Municipality of Naguabo, who was one of four jurors from the island invited by the instructors for the students' presentations, said he’d be using their findings “because it includes so many angles that we really didn’t analyze.”

Two student labs, one in city planning and another in landscape architecture, focused on the settlements near the San José Lagoon, the mountain town of Utuado, and the coastal town of Naguabo. A third planned the redevelopment of the Lloréns Torres project, and the fourth looked at the response in Philadelphia to Puerto Ricans who were evacuated or displaced.

For the Lloréns Torres project, the students suggested creating a park by the mangrove bed that would intentionally flood during storms, thereby saving the housing project; increasing the connectivity among nearby neighborhoods by reducing barriers; and implementing a water collection and storage system in case of contamination.

Lisa Servon, chair for Penn’s department of city and regional planning, said this was the first time the studio portion of the classwork was dedicated entirely to Puerto Rico and the Puerto Rican community; other years it has addressed Guatemala, Mexico, Ecuador, and other U.S. cities.

“These studios try to propose big ideas, and it seemed to me that the aftermath of Hurricane Maria — and the whole history of Puerto Rico leading up to that — was very important,” she said.

When it came to handling evacuees in Philadelphia, students suggested that local, state, and federal governments create a one-stop shop that could centralize and facilitate aid access, and set up a preparedness task force for long-term planning. Currently, evacuees have to sift through a number of government and nonprofit organizations to navigate aid.

Other ideas included allocating FEMA funds to a pilot Airbnb-style program that could provide immediate short-term housing options in cooperation with homeowners, pushing for more housing cooperatives, and developing an account funded by Puerto Ricans on the mainland that would contribute to development projects in Puerto Rico.

“We worked on the basis that any state or city can implement the ideas that we are sharing, as any place can be the next one to receive a large group of people due to a natural disaster,” said Ariel Vázquez, instructor for the lab that focused on Puerto Rican evacuees to the city.

» READ MORE: To better understand their Puerto Rican students, Philly teachers travel to Caribbean

One of the challenges students faced was multiple data sources on the number of Puerto Ricans coming to Philadelphia after the hurricanes.

According to the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency, more than 3,400 people moved to Pennsylvania from Puerto Rico as of June. Of those, more than 2,000 registered through Philadelphia’s Disaster Assistance Services Center.

According to Philadelphia School District data for the 2017-18 school year, 206 displaced students had registered by December 2017. As of Jan. 30, 2018, according to a research paper published by the Center for Puerto Rican studies at City University of New York’s Hunter College, 414 displaced students were enrolled here — ranking second in Pennsylvania for the number of displaced Puerto Rican school-age children. First was Lehigh County with 481 students. Berks County, with 367, ranked third.

José Ríos, president of the Utuado city council, said the students' presentations shed light on the assets that local officials had not yet considered.

“These projects give us a sense of what we have and on multiple occasions what we don’t know we have," he said, “people outside of Puerto Rico that see our value, resources and potential.”