How the Census Plays a Role in Designing Resilient Communities

Every 10 years, the U.S. census gives us a detailed picture of the nation’s population size, makeup and distribution across the country. This count is crucial because it determines how many congressional seats each state gets; how much federal and state funding communities receive for needs such as housing, education and infrastructure; and where businesses set up stores and factories.

As designers, we use data from the decennial census and other U.S. Census Bureau statistics to study prospective sites, set building programs and protect communities in case of a disaster.
Understanding how the census works can help us grasp how it can inform the design of more resilient communities. The decennial census counts everyone in the U.S., with the Census Bureau collecting additional demographic data by targeting a sample of addresses for annual surveys between censuses.

The responses from the census and the American Community Survey create data sets across a scale of geographic units that help identify where changes in infrastructure, policies and social programs are needed.

Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

According to Census Bureau data, more than a quarter of the 327 million people who live in the U.S. reside in coastline counties, which are particularly vulnerable to climate change. Scientists have recorded increases in the average global temperature and sea levels, which foreshadow challenges for coastal cities, such as more powerful storms and periodic flooding. Census Bureau counts and estimates provide valuable information to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and other emergency response organizations about where resources should be steered to protect residents from natural disasters.

In preparing for a crisis, some communities choose to adapt their built environment, with measures such as designing parks and parking lots to accommodate flooding or building levees and ecological shorelines. For instance, the city of Miami Beach in Florida is spending $100 million to raise public roads in response to sea level rise. As designers of the built environment, we have a duty to be aware of the impending impacts of climate change and must responsibly influence communities and governments to be more responsive to these impacts.

As sea levels rise, some city and regional planners are already predicting waves of migration from coastal communities to urban areas inland and at higher elevations. Census Bureau data can tell us where people are moving so that government officials, with the aid of planners and designers, can prepare accordingly. For example, South Florida was home to more than 6 million people in 2019. If a devastating hurricane were to hit the region, government officials and designers must pay attention to where people move afterward to determine whether there are enough jobs and housing units to support an influx of people.

Streets flooded with ocean water in Key Largo, Florida. The Florida Keys will likely see increased flooding as sea levels continue to rise. Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans, which lost more than half of its population, according to Census Bureau data. The hurricane displaced more than a million people in the Gulf Coast Region. Similarly, Puerto Rico was devastated by Hurricane Maria in 2017, which killed thousands of people and forced tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans to relocate to the continental U.S. Such extreme weather events are expected to become much more devastating due to climate change. 

Governments and planners also need to allocate resources for passive survivability. The term typically applies to buildings and is defined as the ability to ensure that critical systems remain functional through sub-optimal conditions. Employing passive survivability strategies such as storm-ready structures and on-site renewable energy production and water treatment in communities will allow residents to better endure disasters and create more resilient cities.

Census statistics are a powerful tool to help prepare our communities for tomorrow. Federal, state and local governments can better appropriate resources for the people who need them most. Governmental and non-governmental organizations can develop more equitable policies as they build communities. The data enable architects and planners to design more resilient and responsive buildings and neighborhoods. The decennial census and related surveys let us know where more affordable housing, transportation infrastructure and civic services are needed.

All this planning depends on the participation of everyone who lives in the United States. To do your part in building a more resilient America, complete the census and spread the word. The deadline is Aug. 14.

Census statistics are a powerful tool to help prepare our communities for tomorrow.