Climate Change is Challenging Historic Assumptions for Urban Resilience

by Aug 26, 2019Infrastructure, Society

Paul Chinowsky

Paul Chinowsky is the Director of the Program in Environmental Design at the University of Colorado Boulder and the co-founder of Resilient Analytics, Inc. His research focuses on the effects of climate change on infrastructure.

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Creating climate resiliency is not the same as disaster or emergency planning.
The chronic impacts of climate change will dwarf the impact of single hazard events.

These two statements represent the underlying challenge for cities and communities to achieve climate resilience. While single events such as hurricanes and tornados are serious events that can and do inflict physical and social damage in areas where they appear, they do not represent the sole impact of climate change. Rather, climate change presents cities with an arguably even greater risk to health, safety, and financial security – chronic damages. The costs required to address chronic damages resulting from increasing temperatures and changing rainfall patterns will alter the financial security of many cities regardless of size or prosperity.

One-time natural disasters cause significant damages when they overwhelm the capacity of local flood control systems or exceed the guidelines set forth in building codes. These events are notable for the significant damage they can cause in a single episode. The numbers that accompany these events such as the $27 billion in insured losses associated with Hurricane Andrew or the $12 billion in damage caused by the Midwest floods earlier this year, grab headlines and public attention. Even relatively small storms such as the recent tropical storm Berry result in damages that can reach the hundreds of millions of dollars.

The attention-grabbing headlines of these events are warranted. However, these damages, while significant, are isolated when compared to the chronic effects that are being introduced by climate change on a national level. Simply put, climate change alters the foundation of assumptions that underlie every building code that guides the development of our communities.

The first building codes were put in place with a focus on protecting individuals from fire. These public safety codes were slowly expanded to protect individuals from collapsing buildings during events such as earthquakes or hurricanes. As buildings became more sophisticated with electronics and environmental controls, further guidelines were created to ensure buildings were healthy and offered safe working environments. However, the weak link in these guidelines is that they are based on what has happened in the past. Our built environment is based on the assumption that the environment in which a city exists will not change from historical patterns.

Climate change is altering this assumption and shaking the foundation on which our built environment stands.

What does this mean?

The reports continue to be published on the potential impact of climate change on infrastructure. The EPA reports that over $200 billion is required to adapt roads for future conditions. The Center for Climate Integrity reports that a minimum of $400 billion is required to protect coastal areas. However, these reports are only a small fraction of what could occur. Some examples:

Energy Demands

Even small changes in temperature can significantly impact the amount of energy a building requires for heating or cooling. Buildings are designed for specific climate zones and a relatively small change in temperature can change the requirements for a building to respond to a climate that is similar to Denver to one that feels like Albuquerque. Buildings are not designed for such changes and significant costs will be incurred to alter heating and cooling systems to ensure the continued functioning of the building. A failure to address these changes will result in scenes of young children in elementary schools with insufficient air conditioning trying to learn with a heat index exceeding 100 degrees in late August.

Building Damages

Hurricanes damage a building as it comes ashore with heavy rains and wind. Climate change introduces rainfalls on a regular basis with greater intensity accompanied by increased wind strength than what is considered normal. Every time one of these regular storms breaks over a community, buildings will experience increased leaks from failures in roofs or window seals. And these are not one-time costs. These could be events that occur on a daily basis during a local rainy season.

Urban Flooding

Pictures of floods near rivers such as the Mississippi River appear all too regularly in the Midwest. However, individuals in other regions are likely to start experiencing a different kind of flooding – urban flooding. Once again, we encounter infrastructure, in this case storm sewers, that are designed for what has occurred in the past. Future projections of higher intensity rainfalls will overwhelm these systems and result in localized flooding that ultimately leads to flooded buildings, ruined vehicles, and scenes of individuals looking for higher ground for safety.

Road Failures

Asphalt is designed to handle a narrow range of temperatures. This may sound odd considering there are asphalt roads in every climate zone of the United Sates. However, each of these roads is designed for a specific climate zone. When temperatures exceed what is considered normal for that zone, roads get soft and fail under the stress of typical traffic. What is newsworthy today of a road buckling in the heat will become the norm under predicted temperature changes.

Bridge Damage

When a bridge fails it leads to injury and deaths. It is that simple. And projections of increased rainfall intensity will lead to situations where a bridge is not built to resist the amount of water streaming down a riverbed. In these situations, especially among the more than 100,000 bridges already in need of repair, we will see failures.

Coastal Damage

Much has been written about the potential impacts of sea level rise on coastal cities to the point that it does not need to be reiterated here. However, what does need to be highlighted are impacts such as permanent inundation, the destruction of coastal roads, and the need to decide which communities will be saved. We cannot afford to protect every mile of coastline and every small beach community from coastal climate effects. Who is going to make these decisions about which communities are sacrificed?

What We Can Do

Modern cities and communities were not designed and built for the future; they are built on an assumption that we will continue to have a climate that resembles the past. And now that it is increasingly apparent that this assumption is incorrect, can anything be done?

Without getting into the complicated world of international politics and agreements to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, here is a focus on things that can be done on a local basis.

Understanding the Issues

Preparing for climate change is a social, economic, and technical challenge. Understanding the potential impacts of climate change at an initial planning level is something that can be done quickly and affordably. Public officials need to aggressively pursue gaining this insight.

A Life-Safety Perspective

We need to start talking about life safety and reducing the usage of infrastructure as the term of choice. Infrastructure is a key component of public health and safety. It is imperative for public officials at all levels to start addressing the potential impact of climate change as a challenge to the health and safety of their constituents. And it is equally important for local citizens to start demanding that this perspective be the one that is used to minimize the ability of officials to discount this challenge as simply a public works problem.

Ethical Design and Building

Perhaps the largest change that needs to be implemented to realistically address adaptation is a change in building codes and regulations. Currently, if a designer, builder, or planner follows local codes, then it is legally following the rules. However, as laid out previously, these are the same codes that rely on historic climate conditions. Therefore, by relying on guidelines that look to the past and not the future, we are reinforcing the development of communities that are inadequately prepared for climate change. This is ethically wrong. Protecting public safety in the built environment requires a focus on the future.

Budget Realignment

A final step that is critical for preparing for the future is to reexamine budgeting procedures. Critical roads, bridges, and buildings need to be adapted for future conditions. Budgets need to be altered to proactively protect critical life services.

Climate change impacts can be a confusing and complicated topic. What are vulnerabilities, when should we be concerned, how much is it going to cost? While all of these are critical questions, the protection of communities can start with one question:

Is our community protecting public health and safety by preparing for a future environment?

Preparing a community for climate resilience requires an understanding of future conditions, a strategy for adaptation, and a commitment to designing and building a community that values public health and safety.


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  1. Thanks for elevating the discussion Paul. Communities need decades of infrastructure hardening to mitigate the impacts of climate change. Ensuring communications in the event of a natural or man-made disaster is another simple step…providing battery backup for maybe 1-5% of the 5G small cells in a community, plus providing simple and reliable public mobile device charging will go a long way to help people weather these increasing disasters.

    • I would argue that infrastructure needs adaptation rather than hardening. Inflexible (hardened) systems that exist today do not reflect the dynamism of the natural environment. Designers and policy makers need to combine smarter planning, landscape architecture, architecture and environmental product design to create new infrastructure. Writing this strategy into the code is the next challenge!

      • Susannah, we’re really splitting hairs here….I’m using hardening to mean resilient, not inflexible. Community infrastructure must be able to withstand a wide variety of natural and man-made disasters. For instance, how do communities ensure that energy, water, wastewater, communications and public services aspects maintain some level of functionality for a minimum number of hours or days in the face of flooding, fires, and extremely high winds? Concur that policies and codes must be updated first to guide investment.

        • Sorry to be sensitive on this point. I have spent the last two decades advocating, designing and building green infrastructure with sewer and transportation engineers at the city, state and federal level. When I hear the term ‘hardened’ it suggests an approach of the past. Very glad to know that we are on the same page!

  2. Interesting presentation of factual weather anomalies we continue to experience – and the symptoms they suggest when underscoring realities of Climate Change. Urban Resiliency remains critical to our everyday lives. Recent utility relay failure in NYC illustrate how disruptive said network outages /power disturbances can be. Further, the next week’s preemptive shutdown of targeted networks in Borough of Brooklyn – left some customers without power for up to 2 days. Ironically, relatively little press on that, underscored by an increasing ignorance of the majority I share this story with! While I agree – building codes are set towards outdated provisions often a 3 year lag.
    However, there are energy specific [ proven ] technologies requiring increased investment for widespread deployment – engineered/designed for resiliency across building types – including single family homes and small businesses. Such addresses urban vulnerabilities – while underscores the Value of Distributed Energy Resource Resiliency as coined by ACEEE – American Council of Energy Efficient Economy.

  3. Transportation resiliency is more than worrying about flooded roads or asphalt heat damage. To be truly resilient we need to reduce automobile dependency through strategies/policies such as, implement well designed high density development, provide active transportation (walk-bike-micromobility) infrastructure, ensure dependable funding/support for transit. Just shifting to EVs and CAVs will not be enough. There is a need to reduce light duty vehicle (cars, SUVs, pick-ups, minivans) use altogether.

  4. This is an excellent article—bravo!

    Reflecting on the thinking shared it follows that Business Improvement Districts’ common focus on hospitality and entertainment industry-based strategies and tactics are also due for a review and update in an effort to get city revitalization, growth, and development initiatives more in line with public health + safety.

    For example, it might better serve a growing urban area’s stakeholders to shift say $300-million of public money away from subsidizing a planned sports arena to investing in a 21st century high tech urban farming and distribution hub to address food deserts while fulfilling local food and spice needs and wants of individuals and businesses in more environmentally prudent ways than are currently in place.

    Developers want to build, so perhaps it is worth investigating partnering with academic institutions focused on agriculture and already successful high-tech agricultural enterprises to investigate what a high-rise farming system surrounded by on the ground and maybe even underground assets, which are complementary to the high rise, might look like. If that’s a dumb idea surely there are other approaches to healthful urban food production and local distribution which will key in on public health and safety more effectively than the standard Business Improvement District playbooks used throughout Europe and the USA.

    Worthy approaches to urban food production could also help generate local green jobs and help spur technological advancement in the green urban farming sector–all contributing to public health and safety. When people have healthful food and interesting reasonably well-paying jobs made available they are likely more apt to thrive.

    This type of approach will cut transit distance and times for food delivery reducing negative environmental impacts, help eradicate food deserts local to the project contributing to citizens’ good health, generate green employment opportunities contributing to citizens’ security, and encourage innovation related to food production designed to yield fresh, safe, environmentally responsible food.

    There have to be better investments with which to commit large swaths of land, rezoning efforts, and public funds than sports arenas and entertainment zones. Climate change and the oncoming consequences will not be forgiving and we will likely best prepare ourselves and future generations by re-calibrating what it is we choose to pursue relative to growth and development.

    Of note, which will interest economic development and tourism councils, is the likelihood that a well-designed and operating 21st century healthful food hub will draw a steady stream interested people 365 days a year, to see what it’s all about….and but some fresh vegetables and honey.

  5. Will, great points on the changing role of BIDs and the need for greater investment in urban agriculture (and aquaculture). Not sure i would position it as competing for public $ vs. stadiums though.

  6. George, You are correct about my clumsy positioning.

    Was trying to find a comparative way of highlighting what most counties and cities would see as a big risk by comparing it to a commonly accepted recipient of public funding. Did not pull it off.

    Point well taken. Thank you. Will take better care in the future.

  7. To address the issue we need to have a “Human centered planning ‘ practice, but now it is very much a technical approach to serve the vested group.

  8. Yes, all of this must be taken into account in light and focusing on what entities “win” by taking this approach. Clearly, the construction industry plays a significant role in keeping the economy progressing, and identifying what sources actually benefit by the investment and construction of this type of infrastructure are key to motivating entities to be good actors in participating in best practices to ensure healthy communities.

  9. No matter then the aggression of the climate in the next decades, the solution may be the refuge of high standard acquires vitality in all the latitudes of the globe and survive generating the resources regardless of the dependence of consumerism and large suppliers that generate risky habits for the same Survival from containers to extensive monocultures or the famous carbon footprint.
    The refuge should contain all the elements or systems to achieve an optimal life without restrictions or deficiencies from the self-generation of food and energy plus global communications, however, without littering and with absolute control of the waste the circle of the quality of lifetime. Everything else that ensues is growth and development to go for transcendental goals. However, the financial system must adapt or die because otherwise its existence would destroy everything.
    The difference between a climate event or a climate change seems obvious one is surprising and then involves repair or emergency and improvisation of resources, where all standards are exceeded while the other is gradual, gives time to react and is widespread but it is also in the order of the preventive, while and on the other hand, time plays against decision-making in both cases, there is a contrast between improvisation and despair against the struggle of interests and credibility in a climate of contempt for the environment and the obvious destiny but without hurry …
    Apparently it is convenient not to wait for the storm in the middle of the party, but to act working for the disaster that will be established without leaving. Looking for effective and decisive solutions. These reflections lead us to be more radical with phrases like “eliminate roads and not invest in any aspect of them”, but on the other hand it suggests not to protect yourself from the level of the waters, but to survive in houseboats, that is when levitation appears as a solution and reasonable effort to make in the short term, this solution synthesizes all other solutions against the change of the global environment
    Facing the reality outside of what they will say and the way it is done is indicated, but also outside the struggle of interests that go beyond, overwhelming the human being outside the object of capital, the power of wealth limiting growth and development . Great discusión, thank


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