Building Resilient Cities

Cities like to brag about their glittering skylines, trendy neighborhoods and vibrant culture. The sexy stuff.

But sexy won’t save a city from disaster. What matters most when calamity strikes is resilience.

Resilience is the new sustainability, but while sustainability seeks balance with the environment, resilience is about more than going green. It’s about creating communities that can withstand adversity — be it a storm or a recession or some other tribulation — and bounce back quickly when disaster strikes.

In some ways, it’s a distinction without much difference. In other ways, it captures an evolving mindset about how cities are planning for the challenge of climate change — including rising sea levels and extreme weather — and other potential threats to their citizens, infrastructure and quality of life.

A New Mantra

Just ask the city of New York. Before Hurricane Sandy battered the Big Apple, the city’s planning mantra was, “A Greener, Greater New York.” In the wake of the October 2012 superstorm, it’s become, “A Stronger, More Resilient New York.”

“Nobody was really using the word resilient much prior to Hurricane Sandy,” says Mark Focht, president of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA). “After Hurricane Sandy, it started to emerge, and with New York’s plan, it started to gain traction.” Focht chose resilience as the theme for this year’s annual ASLA conference — partly as a nod to the professional resilience shown by the ASLA during the recession but also in recognition of the growing buzz resilience is generating as a planning and development goal.

The Rockefeller Foundation launched a 100 Resilient Cities Network last year. Eleven U.S. cities — including New York and Hurricane Katrina target New Orleans — were among the first 33 cities invited to join the worldwide network, which is providing support for cities to hire chief resilience officers and to develop resilience plans. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) published a guide last year to help communities in the Washington, D.C., area become more resilient using smart growth strategies like compact development, which relieves pressure to build on open space vulnerable to storm surges and other dangers. A nationwide guide is due out next year.

This year’s New Partners for Smart Growth Conference, sponsored by the nonprofit Local Government Commission, included a session on using smart growth to build disaster-resilient economies. Speakers from three disaster-stricken communities — Longmont, Colo., Springfield, Mass., and East Central Iowa — shared lessons learned and steps taken to better withstand future adversity. “Historically, there’s not been a strong connection between comprehensive planning and disaster-resiliency,” says Shawn Lewis, assistant city manager of Longmont. “It has become much more in the forefront as we’ve seen disasters — particularly weather-related — increasing in numbers.”

Hitting the Reset Button

In September 2013, record rainfall caused widespread flooding in Colorado, including Longmont, where the St. Vrain River spilled over its banks, displacing hundreds of residents, damaging property and leaving the city of 88,000 with a $152-million repair and recovery bill.

Yet it could have been worse. “The flood revealed more ways in which we were resilient than ways we weren’t,” Lewis said.

When the wastewater treatment plant flooded, the city was able to operate it remotely because it had installed a fully integrated electronic control system. The system also enabled the city to shut down valves at various locations without dispatching crews.

In addition, the city built redundancy into its electrical system. When a substation near the river flooded, it was able to reroute service through other substations and escape any long-term power outages.

Longmont’s biggest failure, Lewis says, occurred decades before when it permitted a large mobile home park to locate in the St. Vrain flood plain. After the 2013 cataclysm swamped the park, the city bought the property as part of a plan to re-channel the river for flood control.

“We could have done that earlier, but there wasn’t any sense of urgency,” Lewis says. “Many people thought there wasn’t any immediate danger to the people who lived there.”

The flood also prompted the city to hit the reset button on a new plan to guide development along the St. Vrain River corridor, Lewis says. Instead of focusing first on the land around the river, priority one is making sure the river has the capacity to accommodate future storms.

Flooding of Biblical Proportions

Iowa also is no stranger to flooding of biblical proportions. In the spring of 2008, rivers swollen by record rains inundated communities and forced widespread evacuations. Cedar Rapids was hit especially hard as the Cedar River crested at 19 feet above flood level, submerging 10 square miles of the city and most of the downtown.

The flood was devastating, causing billions of dollars in damages, but also a turning point. “The silver lining of a natural disaster is it allows you in many instances to start over ... and think about things differently,” says Doug Elliott, executive director of the East Central Iowa Council of Governments (ECICOG).

In East Central Iowa, the floods underscored the need for greater regional collaboration. “Natural disasters don’t recognize jurisdictional boundaries,” Elliott says. “Part of resilience is trying to maximize existing resources and eliminate duplications of effort.”

That mindset led the ECICOG and a private business group to merge previously separate economic development initiatives and fold a regional transportation plan into a combined document — the Comprehensive Regional Development Strategy (CRDS) — covering six counties.

“We’ve been able to build new partnerships and relationships between neighboring jurisdictions and the public and private sector ... that benefit the region,” Elliott says.

Out of the CRDS has come: a Multi-Disciplinary Safety Team to better respond to transportation safety issues during disasters and on a regular basis; a Regional Workforce Development Plan to address the problem of young people leaving the area to work elsewhere; and a Multi-Jurisdictional Hazard Mitigation Plan for Johnson County to help the county’s 17 units of local government address mutual risks from natural disasters and other dangers.

A Comprehensive Plan

Springfield, Mass., was hit by a rare tornado in June 2011 that destroyed or damaged blocks and blocks of homes and businesses — many in some of the city’s most depressed neighborhoods. Rather than just repair the damage, Springfield created a comprehensive revitalization plan to both recover from the tornado and become more resilient by improving quality of life for its residents.

“We spent a lot of time on walkability, access to transit and increased green space. There are many smart growth policies embedded in the plan,” says Jay Minkarah, president of DevelopSpringfield, a nonprofit redevelopment agency that helped produce the plan. None of that will protect Springfield against another tornado or other natural disaster, but it will make the city a healthier and more attractive place to live and do business, strengthening the resiliency of the city by strengthening the physical and economic wellbeing of its citizens, Minkarah said.

New Urgency

New York is supposed to be the city that never sleeps, but Hurricane Sandy gave it a serious wake-up call. Sandy destroyed more than 800 buildings and seriously damaged 1,700, killed 44 residents and injured 10,000 and racked up $19 billion in costs.

New York had already started addressing the risks of climate change more than five years earlier, but Hurricane Sandy made resilience a more urgent and explicit thrust.

“A Stronger, More Resilient New York” was produced by the Special Initiative for Rebuilding and Resiliency that Mayor Michael Bloomberg convened immediately after the storm. The 445-page document catalogs numerous strategies to increase resiliency citywide ranging from strengthening coastal protection by regularly adding sand to beaches to launching a design competition to create homes with raised foundations and other defenses against flooding.

A second group, the Building Resiliency Task Force, delved specifically into making buildings more resilient to extreme weather conditions. More than half of the task force’s 33 recommendations have already been enacted, says Cecil Scheib, chief program officer with the U.S. Green Building Council of New York, which led the task force.

The goal isn’t to merely keep buildings standing. It’s also to keep them inhabitable as long as possible when services — especially power — are lost. “If people don’t have to leave their buildings ... that will take a big strain off the recovery and relief efforts,” Scheib says.

For example, many New Yorkers live in high-rises where water is pumped to upper floors “The single biggest recommendation adopted so far is to require buildings to have an emergency faucet in the building for residents to get water in a power outage,” Scheib says. “During Hurricane Sandy, people had to leave their buildings because they ran out of water.”

Hurricane Sandy tragically showed that storm surges are greater New York’s greatest threat from extreme weather — a threat that will only grow as sea levels continue to rise. The south and east shores of Staten Island are especially vulnerable. Sandy’s storm surge flooded 16 percent of the borough and killed 23 people — a higher death toll than all the other boroughs combined.

The Staten Island Board of REALTORS® (SIBOR) commissioned a study by the College of Staten Island to better understand the borough’s vulnerabilities and explore how to make it more storm-resilient. The study recommends creating a levee district to build and maintain a six-mile levee funded by a local tax. The tax would be offset by a decrease in flood insurance premiums based on the additional protection provided by the levee.

SIBOR’S next step is to meet with the mayor’s office to discuss the levy recommendation, says Sandy Krueger, CEO of the association.

“Sandy damaged or destroyed many homes in our community,” says Krueger. “It’s important from both a business and a personal standpoint that we play a part in helping prevent this from happening again.”


Buildings should:

  • Protect mechanical systems from flooding and other extreme weather events by taking steps such as locating systems on upper floors.
  • Reduce dependence on complex controls and systems and provide manual overrides in case of malfunction or temporary power outages.
  • Reduce energy demand and rely on passive heating and cooling strategies to maintain livable conditions in the case of extended loss of power or heating fuel.

Communities should:

  • Minimize dependency on food and fuel sourced from far away.
  • Rely on natural systems to help control erosion and manage stormwater.
  • Consider potential extreme weather events and climate change in determining locations of critical facilities and systems.

Regions should:

  • Work to achieve a more diverse regional economy.
  • Develop regional transportation networks that can transport not only people, but food and other critical needs during emergencies.
  • Adopt policies that recognize ecosystem services such as healthy forests that purify air and coastlines that buffer against storms.

Source: Alex Wilson, founder and president, Resilient Design Institute, Brattleboro, Vt.


  • Mixed land uses – Makes it easier for people to meet daily needs in the event of a regional disruption. Also lets people walk, bike or drive shorter distances in everyday life, reducing greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change.
  • Compact development – Concentrates growth in existing areas, relieving pressure to develop open space and making it easier to protect areas vulnerable to flooding, wildfires, storm surge, or other impacts.
  • Open space preservation – Helps capture and absorb floodwaters, reducing flooding in developed areas.
  • Transportation choices – Enables people to continue to get to their destinations if a major transportation route is damaged. Also makes a community less vulnerable to economic impacts such as spiking gas prices by giving residents other options for getting around.
  • Fair and predictable development decisions – Helps ensure development fits a community’s changing flood plains and weather patterns, keeping people and property out of harm’s way.

Source: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

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