Regional Planning for Disaster-Resiliency and Sustainability

By Sarah Slaughter

Dr. Sarah Slaughter is the President and founder of the Built Environment Coalition, a research nonprofit focused on advancing practical knowledge to improve the sustainability and disaster-resiliency of the built environment. She was an MIT professor of Civil Engineering, director of the MIT Sloan School of Management Sustainability Initiative, and a member of the National Academies Board on Infrastructure and the Constructed Environment.

While some people take it as a given that “April showers bring May flowers,” the weather this year didn’t deliver on that promise across the U.S. The fire season has started early in the Los Angeles, CA area, where the snow pack is 17% of its normal depth. Texas is already seeing early drought signs, while the upper Midwest is coping with soggy fields and rising rivers from late torrential rains.

The impacts of climate change are stealthy. They are often small changes from year to year – slightly increasing summer temperatures, slightly less snow during the winter, slightly higher tides during the spring, slightly stronger winds.

It is only after several years that the cumulative effects are apparent, and the trend can feel unstoppable and ubiquitous.  The challenge is to provide people – and their government agencies, companies, and community organizations – with a path to move forward to adapt to the changing climate.

In It for the Long Haul

Resilience is the ability to adapt as needed to constantly changing conditions to maintain life. Willow trees can bend in the high winds as needed, but can lose major branches to maintain the trunk and recover quickly. The energy the willow tree expends growing new branches improves its vitality under both normal and extreme conditions.

Cities can likewise improve their resilience and, at the same time, improve the quality of daily life. The energy and resources invested in improving the capability and capacity of a city to recover quickly and effectively from extreme events can also provide new economic opportunity across all members of the community within robust and vibrant natural systems.

National Report on Disaster-Resilient Infrastructure

The National Research Council report, Sustainable Critical Infrastructure Systems, provides a new framework to allow individuals, organizations, and communities to work together to improve disaster-resilient infrastructure systems. The objectives are to significantly improve the quality of life through encouraging and implementing innovative solutions.

The report suggests:

  • Focus on providing essential services (such as power, water, sanitary, mobility, and connectivity) rather than on the physical elements (e.g., wires, pipes, and roads);
  • Bring together stakeholders at the regional level to work collaboratively across boundaries;
  • Recognize and use the interdependencies among critical infrastructure systems to improve robust performance;
  • Develop effective performance measures for greater transparency in decision-making.

Regional Planning for Sustainability

The New York State “Cleaner Greener Communities” program is an example of regional planning for sustainability. Governor Cuomo established the program to enable each region across the state to develop far-reaching plans to improve sustainability. The objectives are to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and enhance economic development across all communities. The plans explicitly focus on:

  • Energy, water, transportation, waste, land use, agriculture, and forestry systems in the context of
  • Economic development, climate change adaptation, and governance.

The team for the Finger Lakes region chose to start the planning process by establishing the unique character of the region as a basis for enhancing its sustainability. The region includes the city of Rochester and nine counties, stretching along Lake Ontario and south to the beginning of the Alleghany plateau and containing five of the seven Finger Lakes.

[map width=”300″ height=”300″ zoom=”8″ type=”ROADMAP”]
[marker address=”Finger Lakes, NY”]The Finger Lake region of central New York State[/marker]
[/map]

The analysis for climate change adaptation for the Finger Lakes region centered on disaster-resiliency related to extreme weather events. While the region’s deep lakes generally reduce temperature extremes, winter storms can include significant snowfall, ice storms, and ice jams on the Erie Canal, Genesee River and Lake Ontario.

Summer drought and high temperatures can endanger residents’ health, particularly for the vulnerable populations of the very young and old, and threaten livestock, crop, and forestry assets. The extensive natural and manmade waterways are vulnerable to flooding and the steep slopes of the glacier-carved valleys are susceptible to landslides, particularly after soaking rains that saturate the soils.

The critical infrastructure systems are highly interdependent; for example, energy production requires water for cooling, while water treatment and pumping requires energy. These systems often link between the communities and counties, so a problem in one town can propagate to become a problem across the region.  Communities and counties need to work together across organizational and jurisdictional boundaries to develop and implement new solutions that improve disaster-resilience and sustainability.

Opportunity Matched with Urgency

Improving the sustainability of the communities within the region can at the same time improve the disaster-resiliency, matching opportunity and urgency. Resilient sustainable systems more effectively use resources during normal conditions, which reduces the amount that need to be recovered after an extreme event.

The Finger Lakes Sustainability Plan provides general and specific strategies to enhance both the sustainability and resiliency of the region. For example, revitalizing existing town centers can both reduce transportation costs and GHG impacts as well as provide effective places of refuge during emergencies. In addition, recovery efforts can be accelerated through the concentration of robust services within these centers.

Specific innovations can provide new venues for community development and enhanced safety. For example, the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions can be paired with the need to ensure critical energy services during emergencies. One potential solution is to establish a network of localized facilities produce electricity and also capture nutrients. The combination of existing and emerging systems can improve disaster-resiliency as well as provide direct economic, social, and environmental benefits.

  • Anaerobic digesters or microbial fuel cells that use manure from the dairy herds and municipal wastewater/sewage to generate electricity. The electricity can be used on-site during emergencies, and sold back into the grid during normal conditions, thereby providing a new revenue source. The Minnesota Project is working with the USDA to develop new approaches for smaller-scale energy production.
  • Separation systems that recover nitrogen and phosphorous. Left unchecked, these elements infiltrate waterways and cause algae blooms, harming the health of the waterways and ecosystems, and potentially comprising human health. The separated nitrogen and phosphorous can be sold for fertilizer, providing another new revenue source. The EPA Office of Wastewater Management has just released a report evaluating promising emerging technologies for nutrient recovery.
  • Separation and processing systems for fats, oil, and grease (FOG) to produce biodiesel. These waste products clog municipal piping and equipment, and increase wastewater processing costs. Instead, the biodiesel can be used on-site for energy production or transportation, and sold to provide revenue. California is currently field-testing several FOG systems.

In the Finger Lakes region, these solutions could engender economic development, drawing on its unique capabilities in manufacturing as well as science and engineering research. The resurgence of the local manufacturing industry can provide new opportunities for all members of the region’s communities, and further bolster the local economy.

Providing additional revenue sources for the region’s farmers can likewise strengthen the strong social systems in the region, and the reduction of contaminants in the Finger Lakes and waterways can preserve and regenerate the abundance in the region’s natural systems.

Everything We Need We Have Already

Investments for resiliency should improve the safety, health, and well-being of community members under normal as well as extreme conditions. These investments can provide economic opportunity, strong and just communities, and robust natural systems when they build on the existing resources, capabilities, and aspirations of the community.

As communities develop their plans to improve resiliency, they often have difficult choices to make on the allocation of scarce resources. Diverting significant funding towards higher floodwalls or other defensive approaches is often hard to justify when current needs, such as fire, police, and teacher salaries, are facing pressure.

More resilient communities can also be more sustainable – and improvements in the quality of life as well as disaster-resiliency fit the needs of today with prudent planning for the future.

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