4 ways cities can invest now in climate resilience

By 2050, sea level will have risen two feet from now, with forecasts of seven-foot swells during major storms and up to 14-feet surges during category 3 hurricanes. By 2100, sea levels are projected to rise as much as six feet. This means big changes for cities and their economies — both in areas that have already been affected by climate change, and for those that are vulnerable to future storms and flooding.

Years after the 2008 catastrophic flooding in Cedar Rapids, the damage is clocking in at over $7 billion. Total damage from Hurricane Katrina is estimated at $148 billion. And along the iconic Jersey Shore, an annual $28 billion in economic activity is jeopardized by sea level rise and storm surge, according to the Environment New Jersey Research & Policy Center.

Recovery efforts in these areas are coming to fruition. But do we have to wait for a natural disaster in order to act and make change? We shouldn't. Where the cost-benefit of planning and acting proactively is 4:1, a strong economic case for proactivity can be made.

How do we make that happen?

In our experience with flood and storm recovery, we’ve recognized one truly essential ingredient: collaboration. Post-disaster, people help each other in unexpected ways. Transparency and open communication in the rebuilding process can help keep this momentum going, creating healthier long-term community relationships.

In Cedar Rapids, where we led the recovery planning effort after the 2008 flooding, many diverse stakeholders were involved in the process. One of the silver linings to a disaster is the opportunity (and, we'd argue, necessity) of embracing a more collaborative process. Silos are a roadblock. Through the process of recovery, a more resilient city network and more sustainable operations systems can emerge. This was true in Cedar Rapids, and we’ve seen similar partnerships emerge with our work in New York and New Jersey following Superstorm Sandy.

Invest in resilience now

But why wait? Let's make the wise investment in resilience now. Developers and business leaders must partner with designers, engineers, non-profits, government, academics and community members so that we can protect our shared assets.

Through our Sea Change: Boston initiative, we’ve been researching sea-level rise and potential design strategies in Boston, a city spared from Sandy’s destruction by five hours on the tide charts. Some of the city’s most vulnerable areas are the ones experiencing significant growth and investment — in particular Boston’s Seaport District. But it’s not just about economic hotspots. The transportation and energy systems that underpin our cities are vulnerable on a regional scale.Sea Change Boston project via Sasaki

For true resilience, Boston and other cities will need to work at several scales: regionally, along the coasts, in open space and within individual buildings.

First, Boston-area communities need to collaborate on a regional plan. Vulnerabilities — and potential solutions — cross municipal boundaries. A regional planning process should get all of the stakeholders at the table and facilitate new partnerships.

Second, Boston needs to make room for water in the city. Public space accounts for one-third of land in Boston. Rather than trying to keep water out, the city can leverage this existing space by designing areas that periodically accommodate flooding, storm water and high tides, such as canal streets, absorbent streets, floodable parks and underground cisterns.

Third, Boston needs to establish new building regulations. Future commercial and residential buildings should be built to a new standard of flood protection and accommodation. Existing buildings need to be retrofitted to keep water out.

Finally, Boston needs to adapt their coast, which today comprises public space islands, beaches, backyards and industrial facilities. The city has traditionally invested in armoring its coastal edge, using bulkheads, seawalls and revetments, but these inflexible structures make it difficult to gradually adapt to rising sea levels. Alternative edge conditions like terraced public spaces, floating neighborhoods, floodable open space and absorbent parks, are more responsive to changing water levels and provide engaging community amenities.

Many of these tactics are relevant to other cities seeking to protect themselves proactively. Ultimately, resilience will look different in different locations because the right blend of solutions at each scale will depend on the area’s geography, political landscape, culture, economy and resources.

However, the collaborative process remains constant—we must come together to build a culture of resilience and protect our cities.

Top image of projected Boston storm surge impact via Sasaki's Sea Change: Boston project