Creating resiliency – one city at a time

Authored by: Heather Scranton Published on: May 20, 2015

Today, virtually every coastal city in the U.S. has acknowledged the need to focus on the significant threat that climate change poses. As an organization that has helped designers across the country address climate-resilience challenges, we were excited to help facilitate the Urban Land Institute Boston’s May 2014 charrette: Living with Water: The Urban Implications.

The charrette was a unique event that brought together more than 70 ULI members, sustainability experts, community organizations and city officials to discuss the visible threats of climate change in Boston, particularly sea level rise. In October, ULI released “The Urban Implications of Living with Water,” a 52-page report outlining the implications of sea level rise for the region, with a focus on four sites that represent different typologies.

An interdisciplinary team comprising development, finance, design, and insurance experts was assembled for each site. The teams were paired with city leaders and local experts to address the following questions:

  • What types of resiliency strategies could be implemented over time to upgrade and protect existing buildings and properties within the district?
  • How can we develop new urban design solutions that address both sea level rise and more frequent storm events, while maintaining a vibrant streetscape?
  • How do we pay for this, and what is the cost of doing nothing?
  • What barriers to resiliency planning currently exist at the local, state and/or federal levels?
  • What development opportunities arise if we strategically rethink our relationship with water? 

The report contains an in-depth exploration of the common themes that emerged from each of the four teams.

  1. The importance of dynamic planning. Each charrette team identified the need for overarching plans that could be implemented in coordinated phases. The phased processes would account for development cycles, infrastructure lifecycles, evolving finance condition, and the changing insurability landscape.
  2. The need for new urban design practices. The teams offered solutions such as double sidewalks, elevated walkways, and elevated ground floors – all of which push the boundaries of today’s accepted practices.
  3. The need for development incentives. Several teams concluded that mitigation payments should be applied directly to resiliency initiatives that benefit both the development and the community. One team suggested creating new development parcels in prime locations in exchange for developer support with a sea-wall project.
  4. The need to invest heavily in evaluating acceptable risk. Property owners, developers, governments, and infrastructure providers will all be required to invest in new methods of evaluating risk. Although expensive, the teams concluded that the cost of doing nothing could be exponentially more expensive.

Hurricane SandyImportantly, the teams stressed that designing for sea level rise differs from making preparations for an emergency like a superstorm. To address these issues, each site team presented not only key strategies and design opportunities for the area it studied, but also a comprehensive risk profile and a detailed look at the obstacles and barriers, such as diverse property ownership, historic preservation and transportation considerations.

The economic consequences of failing to make investments in resiliency were made clear in the World Bank’s 2013 report, "Future Flood Losses in Major Coastal Cities,” which predicted that global flood losses could exceed $1 trillion per year by 2050. As coastal cities around the world study their situations vis-à-vis climate change, we look forward to continued involvement in efforts like ULI Boston’s to formulate development strategies. That will help create the type of robust public/private partnerships needed to build more resilient communities.

We’d like to know what you think. Share with us your innovative ideas for building more resilient communities in the comments area or contact the author.

Heather Scranton

Heather Scranton is a Senior Project Manager at Haley & Aldrich. She is passionate about incorporating resilience in infrastructure, buildings and communities.

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