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In a recent New Yorker article, “Adaptation: How Can Cities Be ‘Climate-Proofed’?,” sociologist Eric Klinenberg points out that much of the discussion around resilience focuses on physical infrastructure, when social infrastructure—vibrant, tight-knit neighborhoods and solid social networks—can play an equally important role in how well a community survives a natural disaster. The Martin Luther King Medical Center is one example of the role that such social infrastructure can play.

Located in an unincorporated part of Los Angeles County, the MLK Medical Center Campus (MLKMCC) was developed after civil unrest in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles in 1965. The government of Los Angeles County is looking to leverage the reopening of the currently underutilized hospital as a catalyst to reinvent the campus within the context of health and wellness, with a long-term objective of improving the social, economic, and environmental quality of this south Los Angeles neighborhood. The master plan, created by Gensler, envisions a development comprising full-service inpatient and outpatient medical facilities, a behavioral health center, and seniors’ housing and health care, as well as a mix of transit-oriented development and community-serving uses. Ample open space on the campus will include new parks, recreation areas, community gardens, and urban agriculture.


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To address public health epidemics including diabetes and obesity—results of lifestyle and planning decisions—the master plan proposes an incremental series of improvements aimed at increasing physical activity for people who use the campus, providing easy access to healthy food, and improving air and water quality. With an overarching objective of improving the health of the facility’s inhabitants and neighbors, the primary element of MLKMCC’s resilience planning lies in fostering stronger community connections. But key elements of the plan also position the development for improved performance during natural disasters, which may include earthquakes and drought.

Transportation

The Wellness Spine, a defining element of the plan, prioritizes alternative transportation for the campus and adjacent community. Whereas Los Angeles is notorious for car-dependent planning, the MLKMCC is adjacent to the second-busiest transit station in L.A. County. The Wellness Spine comprises bike paths and pedestrian lanes that weave throughout the community, offering many ways for people to get around while power is down or traffic systems are encumbered, reducing potential conflicts with emergency vehicles. Alternative transportation options include a helicopter landing pad—critical to a hospital campus in many situations—as well as dedicated emergency-vehicle access and routes to and from the nearby community.

Response Preparedness

As a community hospital, the MLKMCC has a clear plan in place for how it will operate without power from the grid, using a central plant and solar photovoltaic arrays. Above and beyond standard hospital services, the campus provides triage capabilities to the broader community, linking to an on-site evacuation zone for a neighboring high school. The campus includes shared emergency organization areas for many different kinds of emergency responses. These open spaces can be used to expand medical services and response, as well as for temporary shelter and community organization areas.

Water

As a region susceptible to frequent droughts, L.A. County has stringent water-management requirements. MLKMCC strives to go beyond these requirements and become a best-in-class example of land use development. Replenishing aquifers is a priority. Gensler designed the site to capture stormwater and filter it via bioswales as well as via other best management practices before reintroducing overflow to the stormwater or aquifer system. For example, an on-site retention pond will capture rainwater during storms and filter it back into the ground.

Food

While all planned developments include landscaping, few incorporate edibles. The Willowbrook MLK Wellness Community incorporates publicly accessible fruit trees, community gardens, and urban agriculture into its landscaping mix, all of which is easily accessible to the nearby community. While the intent is to provide healthy food options, thereby improving the community’s long-term wellness, these areas mean that fresh food is available on site at all times. This will further benefit the community if the food supply system were to be disrupted.

This case study is related to the article: Minimizing Risk in an Era of Resilience