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How Cities Can Battle Climate Change with Resiliency Planning

Bill DiBenedetto headshotWords by Bill DiBenedetto
Leadership & Transparency
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Editor's Note: This article is part of a short series on creating resilient cities, sponsored by Siemens. Please join us for a live Google Hangout with Siemens and Arup on October 1, where we’ll talk about this issue live! RSVP here.

Climate change is not going away, so cities large and small must adopt resilient and collaborative strategies not only to cope with the mounting risks they face, but also to survive. It’s no longer a matter of picking and choosing what piece of crumbling infrastructure to repair with scarce funds this year or next — the entire urban organism has to deal with rising waters, super storms, health and food security, air and surface pollution, and increasing numbers of residents.

The stakes are even higher as populations worldwide increasingly cluster around urban areas. “The world is undergoing the largest wave of urban growth in history,” says the United Nations Population Fund. In 2008, for the first time, more than half of the world’s population lived in towns and cities.

Cities are on the front line of the changing climate


The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says in its findings on the implications of climate change for cities: “Urban centers account for more than half of the world’s population, most of its economic activity and the majority of energy-related emissions. The role of cities in reducing emissions and protecting their inhabitants is therefore central to effective climate policies,” IPCC concluded.

Many emerging climate change risks are concentrated in urban areas, and climate change impacts on cities are increasing, IPCC continued. Key issues include rising temperatures, heat stress, water security and pollution, sea-level rise and storm surges, extreme weather events, heavy rainfall and strong winds, inland flooding, food security, and ocean acidification.

Due to the growth in urban populations, the number of people exposed to climate change risk is increasing: “Rapid urbanization in low- and middle income countries has already increased the number of highly vulnerable urban communities living in informal settlements, many of which are at high risk from extreme weather events.”

On the flip side, rapidly developing cities in industrializing countries may also have the “greatest potential for mitigating greenhouse gas emissions.” The problem is that many rapidly developing cities “lack the financial, technological, institutional and governance capacity required for effective mitigation,” IPCC said. That’s where the notion of resilience comes in big time, because “steps that build resilience and enable sustainable development in urban areas can accelerate successful climate change adaptation globally.” Resilient cities may be the solution. 

An entire resilient cities movement has emerged

Arup, Siemens and Regional Plan Association (RPA) recently explored the role of technology in enhancing the resilience of cities and their critical infrastructure systems in a report, Toolkit for Resilient Cities. (Click here to view  the full report).

Between 2000 and 2012, the report noted, natural disasters – including weather, health and seismic events – caused $1.7 trillion in damages worldwide.

“Across the globe, governments, business and communities are seeing an ever-increasing frequency of extreme weather-related events,” the report noted. These events are occurring against a backdrop of global population growth and urbanization, “leading to a complex knot of interrelated pressures.”

In emerging and established cities alike, “these trends are changing the spatial pattern of risk and radically altering perceptions of whether a city is ‘safe’ or ‘well prepared.’” Cities thus face huge challenges to maintain social well-being and economic vitality in an atmosphere laden with complexity, uncertainty and major risk.

A new approach to infrastructure planning


Cities need a new way of thinking about the design, planning, building and management of essential infrastructure — including energy, mobility, water, sanitation, shelter, information, emergency response and other critical services, the report continued. Basically, they are the first responders in the critical early stages of a crisis and in many regions, the only entities around for support, resources and reconstruction as the crisis ebbs and wanes.

In short, they need to be smart and … resilient. Cities are similar to global supply chains: If one part of the chain fails, the entire enterprise is at risk. A resilient city can survive, adapt and grow no matter the stresses and shocks they experience.

The Arup/Siemens/RPA report defined resilience as “the ability of a system to survive and thrive in the face of a complex, uncertain and ever-changing future.” It’s a mindset that encompasses both short-term cycles and long-term trends: “Minimizing disruptions in the face of shocks and stresses, recovering rapidly when they do occur, and adapting steadily to become better able to thrive as conditions continue to change.”

The report focuses on physical infrastructure, including energy, transportation, water and buildings. These particular systems were highlighted because they underpin many other essential city operations and services, including sanitation, emergency response, and the delivery of food, fuel and other materials.

Resiliency embodies and embraces five important facets


  • Robustness: infrastructure that can withstand the impacts of hazard events without significant damage or function loss

  • Redundancy: systems with the capacity to absorb sudden changes in demand or partial loss of supply

  • Diversity and flexibility: services are supplied through a number of pathways that use distributed resources and multifunctional equipment

  • Responsiveness: responsive systems use automated monitoring, short feedback loops and controls at multiple points

  • Coordination: knowledge is shared, planning is collaborative and strategic

Any way one looks at it, creating resilient city systems will require major changes, a high degree of collaboration, and advanced technology and instrumentation to facilitate the development of systems with greater ability to withstand and respond to sudden impacts. Also, lots of money and a high degree of innovative thinking.

Resiliency requires system thinking


Further, resilient infrastructure networks must incorporate components that will continue to function in an ever-changing environment. Equipment must be able to withstand stronger winds, more intense rainfall, higher temperatures and other impacts. Energy, transportation and water infrastructure can be designed to operate both as part of a large system and to serve a more localized community independently of the wider network.

System monitoring and control is supported by increased application of IT networks and IT-enabled equipment, such as sensors and field devices, either embedded in new infrastructure or retrofitted into existing assets.

Urban planning and land use policies can direct development in ways that protect people and structures from harm when disaster strikes. “Buffers, building codes, easements, transfers of development rights, and no-build and no-rebuild zones can aid in this goal.”

Resilience practices should be adopted in policies, planning and construction across all city districts, “to ensure that resilience of the whole city is increased and not enhanced in one community at the expense of another.” Governance thus needs to take a “whole system” approach to city management, meaning collaboration and a minimum of turf battles. “Collaborative planning should be normal behavior, not just a crisis response strategy.”

And of course it all comes down to money. Innovative and sustainable financing mechanisms are needed to support investments in resilient city infrastructure, for both capital and operational investment. To put it mildly, this can be a “particular challenge” especially for cities in low income countries. Innovative approaches can involve new incentives and revenue streams such as grants, taxes and fees.

New York City’s experience in the wake of Superstorm Sandy in October 2012 exposed the vulnerability of the city’s electrical grid. The Arup/Siemens/RPA report features a case study and economic analysis developed to illustrate the business case for investing in resilience technologies by “improving infrastructure robustness, redundancy, responsiveness, flexibility and diversity to the grid, while also increasing capacity and efficiency in normal times.”

The case study says that just repairing the damage in NYC from Sandy would cost up to $3 billion over 20 years, based on an estimated price tag of $350 to $450 million every three years.

Increasing infrastructure robustness (flood and wind protection measures for critical assets) in order to avoid or minimize the constant cycle of needed repairs could be implemented fairly quickly, within three years, with a cost of about $400 million. Implementing those measures might reduce the cost of repair and response over the next 20 years by about $2 billion.

But “robustness investments” are a defensive solution designed to reduce losses. Full investment would mean long-term benefits for the city in addition to protections against loss. We'll delve more deeply into the New York City case in future articles in this series.

Resiliency around the globe


Last month the Rockefeller Foundation kicked off its 2014 100 Resilient Cities Challenge, which aims to help “build resilience to the social, economic, and physical challenges that cities face in an increasingly urbanized world.” Each of the 100 cities selected will receive funding to hire a “Chief Resilience Officer” and assistance in developing and implementing a resilience strategy.

“We can’t predict the next disruption or catastrophe. But we can control how we respond to these challenges. We can adapt to the shocks and stresses of our world and transform them into opportunities for growth,” the 100 Resilient Cities’ site says. While shocks include events like earthquakes, fires and floods, stresses include high unemployment, inefficient public transportation, endemic violence or chronic food and water shortages. The challenge aims to help cities be better prepared for adverse events and better able to deliver basic services in both good and bad times. Last December the Rockefeller Foundation announced the first 33 cities selected, including Medellín, Colombia, New York City, and Rotterdam, Netherlands.

Resilient systems share and demonstrate certain core characteristics:


Along with eight international organizations, ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability joined a new urban resilience partnership announced at the World Urban Forum in Medellin, Colombia in April.

“There has been a tremendous outpouring of support for urban resilience in recent years. This new collaboration represents a consolidation of those efforts as we prepare for an explosion of urbanization in the 21st century,” said Margareta Wahlström, UNISDR Chief and Co-patron of the Resilient Cities congress 2012 and 2013.

The partnership includes U.N.-Habitat, UNISDR, The World Bank Group, the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (GFDRR); the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB); the Rockefeller Foundation; the 100 Resilient Cities Centennial Challenge Program, pioneered by the Rockefeller Foundation; the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group; and ICLEI - Local Governments for Sustainability.

In a fundamental way, the mission for resilient cities is to become more urban while at the same time becoming greener and more sustainable.

Perhaps Peter Newman, author of Resilient Cities: Responding to Peak Oil and Climate Change, summed it best in an interview with the American Society of Landscape Architects: “A resilient city is sustainable in its economy, environment, and community, but it has a deeper quality which enables it to quickly adapt to challenges and rebuild itself for any challenge it faces. This is a spiritual quality, which we can see in individuals, families, communities, and businesses, when they are able to face their problems honestly and reinvent themselves rather than live in denial.”

Image credit: Cover picture extracted from the Toolkit for Resilient Cities report

Bill DiBenedetto headshotBill DiBenedetto

Writer, editor, reader and generally good (okay mostly good, well sometimes good) guy trying to get by.

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