A few days ago, Elon Musk announced that he’s going to be starting a new city: Starbase, Texas. When asked if this was the current Boca Chica Village, he said that it was going to be a lot larger, but didn’t get more specific.
Creating the city of Starbase, Texas
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) March 2, 2021
I took over 50 credit-hours of graduate school emergency management courses and learned quite a bit about making places more resilient. In this article, I’m going to share some concepts from that education as well as ideas I’ve developed on my own based on my other experience and training in law enforcement and other similar fields.
A Great Opportunity
Ask any city planner or emergency manager, and they’ll all tell you that it would be their dream to have input on creating a new city, and not only because some of them played SimCity as kids. One of the greatest challenges in emergency management, and urban planning in general, is that there are always problems baked into existing cities that you can’t easily get rid of. It’s said that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” and in some places the opportunities for prevention are severely limited by not only bureaucratic inertia and political will, but also the physical environment that has already been built up.
Another great thing is that operating a city will help people involved in space colonization to gain some experience in self-government before setting out to build space colonies. In theory, space vessels will be under the jurisdiction of whatever country authorized their launch, but in reality, Mars is several minutes away even by radio and will have a certain measure of de facto independence no matter what legalities may exist on Earth. Experience in managing a civilian government will be of immense utility if the mission of colonizing Mars is to be a success.
Perhaps more importantly, it gives potential Mars colonists a chance to build a resilient and sustainable culture prior to getting on a Starship.
Getting The Clean-Sheet Design Right
Emergency management personnel divide their efforts into four phases: mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery. Most people only think of preparedness, response, and recovery because those parts of the job tend to get into the news. Citizens and officials prepare for disasters, sometimes holding big training exercises. When disaster comes, officials respond to it and try to prevent as much death and destruction as they can. Once it’s over, you clean up the mess and rebuild. But what if you could head disaster off at the pass and keep it from happening at all?
Let’s take a hurricane, for example. We really can’t prevent a hurricane from happening (no, not even with nuclear weapons), but even the biggest hurricanes sometimes aren’t a disaster. Why? Because sometimes hurricanes just don’t pass over any people. Even the most powerful storm possible wouldn’t be a problem if it stays out in the ocean.
For a disaster to happen, risk must meet vulnerability. A lit match isn’t very dangerous, but it’s a big deal if someone drops it in your gas tank. A burning cigarette butt won’t hurt anyone in the middle of a parking lot, but it could kill thousands if dropped in a dry forest. A tiger in an Asian jungle probably won’t hurt anyone, but it’s a big deal if one escapes from the zoo in a major city.
To prevent disaster from being an issue, you find ways to keep the risks away from the vulnerabilities. That’s called mitigation. If an area is prone to flooding, either don’t build things there or find a way to divert the water elsewhere. If there’s a risk of fire, make sure buildings have clear space around them to keep it from spreading. Keep riots from happening by not doing things that upset the population, and more importantly, by avoiding even the appearance of evil in city government.
Some forces of nature are too powerful to keep away, so mitigation for them means failing gracefully (resilience). In places with earthquakes, buildings are made to not kill the occupants during a major quake. The building may need rebuilt, but the irreplaceable people inside can be saved. Places with frequent flooding can be built to coexist with the excess water rather than be ruined by it.
Any serious all-hazards emergency and city growth plan needs to consider climate change. What is rare today could become more and more common in the coming years. Sea levels are likely to rise. Extreme heat and cold will become more normal. Fail to plan for any of that, and you’ve only planned to fail.
Decentralization is also a good strategy for resilience, and it goes hand-in-hand with sustainability. If every new structure in Starbase has a solar roof, enough battery to keep it running 24 hours, and has a source of backup heat (like fireplaces), then Starbase would be in a position to sit out bad situations like the rest of Texas faced both this year and in 2011. Because next to nothing has been built in the area, it’s not a hardship to make this a requirement, and the city will be built right from the beginning.
In short, every decision about how the city should be planned and run should consider potential disasters, climate change, resilience, and sustainability. By doing this from the beginning, none of these issues will present major problems that could have been avoided.
Building A Better Culture For Starbase That Can Extend to Mars
There’s only so much a city government, major employers, and influential people in the community can do to make the new city resilient and sustainable. Fostering a local culture that values these things can make the difference between success and failure here, because if you find yourself fighting against the population to get things done, they won’t get done.
The best thing the city and its major employers can do is scrap the idea that resilience and sustainability is somebody else’s responsibility, or that the city government is the sole entity responsible. It should be widely known that Starbase is a city where people step up to the plate and take care of each other. It should be a city where the city pays for second responders, because the citizens themselves are there first getting the response started. I discuss the reasons personal responsibility works in more depth in this other article.
To do this, the city should require every adult to learn at least one skill useful in an emergency. Examples include:
- First aid/CPR
- Emergency communications
- Mental health first aid
- How to plug an air leak on a spacecraft or Mars habitat
Well, maybe we can save that last one for later, but you get the idea. By having people invested in some way toward the safety of their city, it will matter more. Having them spend a weekend a few times a year training with the city’s professional emergency personnel will help everyone be on the same page and have an appreciation for each other instead of creating an “us vs them” mentality that already creates problems on Earth and definitely won’t do very well in space. Research also shows that having working relationships in place helps bad times go more smoothly, and there’s no reason that these relationships shouldn’t extend outside of government.
There does need to be professional law enforcement, EMTs, and skilled firefighters in Starbase, but they should be acting as leaders in public safety and not the people doing the whole job alone while everyone else lets things get worse. As was expressed in the Peelian Principles, “… the police are the public and that the public are the police, the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence.”
Corporations operating in the area likewise should be encouraged to adopt this better mentality. Business as usual, where a company privatizes the benefits of operating in a jurisdiction but makes the public pay for its safety, is a dead end (sometimes literally). Absolving corporate entities of any responsibility for being part of the public safety effort leads to them making poor decisions, like putting up a “no guns” sign, but not using metal detectors and armed guards to secure a sensitive facility. When something bad happens, they want the cops and EMTs to come take care of the mass casualty event that shouldn’t have ever occurred on their watch, and then enjoy limited liability when the families of the deceased sue. Making companies (especially multinational corporations) take responsibility and be part of the city’s overall efforts keeps poor decisions like this from happening and costing lives.
One big benefit companies get from coordination with an enlightened local government would be having a professional review their operations to help them be more resilient and secure. Everyone on both sides wins here.
A city with Elon Musk as one of its founding fathers deserves to be a hub of innovation, from top to bottom, and not just another city with intractable problems that plague it year after year. This can be done by getting things right from the start by taking advantage of centuries of knowledge. The worst thing Starbase, Texas, and future Mars settlements can do is take the baggage of bad Earth practices into the future. Because Starbase will be starting fresh, it’s definitely possible to do better, but only if there’s a serious effort to make sure it happens that way.
Featured image: A render of a possible future Mars colony. Image by SpaceX.
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