Miho Mazereeuw

Associate Professor of Architecture and Urbanism

Reducing Disaster Risks by Design

Reducing Disaster Risks by Design

Miho Mazereeuw's Urban Risk Lab develops ways to boost community resilience in floods, earthquakes, wildfires and other emergencies.

By: Eric Bender

Extreme rainstorms, wildfires, hurricanes and other calamities never stop coming, on a planet with eight billion people and an accelerating climate crisis. Miho Mazereeuw, associate professor of architecture and urbanism, combines multidisciplinary MIT design skills with close community partnerships to boost resilience when these disasters strike.

Mazereeuw is founder of the MIT Urban Risk Lab, which develops a wildly diverse set of risk-reduction concepts around the globe. “Preparing communities for disaster is usually a more of a disaster management field, but we approach it through design and technology,” she says.

Her own focus on designing for disaster began in 1995 with Great Hanshin Earthquake in Kobe, Japan. More than 6,000 people were killed. Her parents, who lived in Kobe, fortunately were away when the earthquake hit. But following the city's struggle to recover left an indelible mark on her.

Urban Risk Lab members provide expertise on everything from urban design, architecture and landscape architecture to software to emergency management and climate adaptation.

Mazereeuw founded the Urban Risk Lab after training in landscape architecture and architecture, and teaching at Harvard and the University of Toronto. “I wanted to start a lab at MIT because of MIT's interdisciplinary nature,” she says. “Although the Urban Risk Lab is based in architecture and planning, it's easy to reach across and meet faculty and students from other disciplines, so we can really think through who the ideal team members would be.”

Lab members provide expertise on everything from urban design, architecture and landscape architecture to software to emergency management and climate adaptation. The MIT researchers can quickly prototype and test their hardware and software concepts in the lab itself, but the key to their success is very close collaborations with communities and local governments. With these partnerships, “when the community is ready to use the product, it's something that we have designed with them,” Mazereeuw says. “It's not an additional burden on them but something that helps them with their lives.”

Among its many initiatives, her lab has designed real-time software for floods and earthquakes, emergency preparedness hubs, temporary shelters for island residents, and a scheme to turn a former shipyard into a safe evacuation site during floods.

Mapping a flood of information
The lab’s RiskMap leverages the information that people share during a disaster, gathered with the online platforms they use every day. For instance, the simple RiskMap platform for floods asks users for their location, the depth of flood water, a photo and quick text describing the situation. When users submit this information, it not only immediately pops up on a public map online but is shared with local emergency managers.

Like many other lab designs, RiskMap aims to connect people's everyday activities with a resource for emergencies. “It's not like all of a sudden during a disaster you have to download an app and learn how to use it,” says Mazereeuw. “We connect something that you're comfortable doing already with something that you can use if you are stuck in a flood.”

Another RiskMap module under development will leverage AI techniques to sort and prioritize the high volumes of flood information that otherwise can swamp emergency managers.

Risk maps aren't just for floods. Another platform, which performed very well in an all-city drill in Japan, helps in opening up emergency shelters for earthquakes and typhoons. The real-time map can show residents which shelters are getting full and what streets are blocked by debris.

Moreover, the software can aid school principals, facility managers or anyone else who suddenly finds themselves running a shelter. Instead of struggling with printed manuals and checklists, the newly formed shelter staff can be guided by an easy-to-use chatbot that also keeps them in touch with each other and with the city's emergency managers.


Hubs to share information and power
Japan suffers from many types of hazards and has built a network of disaster evacuation parks, but residents don't necessarily know that the parks can fill that role. The need to fill this gap triggered the evolution of emergency preparation hubs, which Mazereeuw and her colleagues have built and tested in many cities around the globe.

PrepHubs, she explains, are pavilions that can hold solar panels, cameras, information displays, speakers, lights, USB charging ports and other resources.

These PrepHubs, she explains, are pavilions that can hold solar panels, cameras, information displays, speakers, lights, USB charging ports and other resources. The hubs are designed to be fun and useful in everyday life—but to act as neighborhood focal points for communications and electrical power in emergencies.

For instance, the hubs can incorporate bicycle pedals that let children race to turn on colored lights until a rainbow appears. That's an enjoyable game in normal life, but in an emergency the rainbow shows that enough electrical power has been generated to charge a phone.

Emergency housing for islands
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) manufactures emergency temporary housing for disasters in the mainland United States. But these housing units can't be shipped to U.S. tropical islands.

When the agency asked Mazereeuw to come up with a better alternative, she and her colleagues began by interviewing storm survivors in Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Guam and other islands. The team came up with the Shelter for Emergency Expansion Design (SEED), a box the size of a standard shipping container. On site, the SEED unfolds to twice that size, containing a bathroom, a kitchen, a living room and bedroom space. This housing can be installed relatively easily within a day or two.

After disasters, emergency “temporary” housing often stays in use for years. That's particularly true in this situation, since “what goes to the islands stays on the islands,” Mazereeuw remarks. SEED is designed to go the distance, withstanding 195-mile-per-hour winds and earthquakes, and providing access for people with disabilities. The housing also includes a fan and windows that are properly built to keep things comfortable in a tropical climate. FEMA is currently testing SEED against extreme winds and rain.

Scaling up safety by design
Japan's IHI Corporation is rebuilding a former shipbuilding site as a logistics innovation hub, and a waterfront recreation area for citizens. “IHI wants to contribute to their community, so they're also turning it into a flood evacuation space, because their site is higher than the surrounding neighborhoods,” Mazereeuw says.

She and her co-researchers are collaborating with IHI both on technology and design for the reconfigured site, and on ways it can welcome residents to the site in emergencies. “It wouldn't be people's first thought to evacuate there,” she points out. “A lot of community engagement and then design and technology pieces will go into that project to make it really serve both uses.”

The IHI project offers one illustration of scaling up the lab's innovative designs and practices. However, scaling up can be tricky, she says. Lab members do fieldwork and get to know residents in every location, so that they can deeply understand the issues and painstakingly adapt solutions that are appropriate to the location.

“But we understand that we are sitting on things that many others can use,” says Mazereeuw, who hopes to find more partnerships to scale up her lab's designs.

Scaling up is a general issue for the hundreds of MIT researchers engaged in interdisciplinary climate-related work, whose most useful results now should be shared broadly around the world, she emphasizes.

One essential ingredient is partnerships with large corporations, which often have sites in vulnerable locations or depend on employees who live in such locations.

“Our goal would be to work closely with corporations to understand the context and what we can do to prepare or mitigate at those locations,” Mazereeuw says. “We would also like to work with people in those communities to make sure that they're prepared for these events, and maybe even to build infrastructure that helps to lessen the impacts.”