The resilient city of the future

Extreme weather events such as Hurricane Sandy show the importance of cities like New York being resilient to climate change

Making sustainable, low-carbon cities will not safeguard urban areas from the effects of climate change. The Fifth Assessment Report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) emphasised that flooding, storm surges and heat waves will become more intense and more frequent in the future – with significant risks for cities, their inhabitants, infrastructure and other assets. 

Events such as Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and the flooding in Thailand in 2011 demonstrated that cities are at the forefront of climate change-induced severe weather events – bearing the brunt of losses and damage.

The UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) reported in March 2013 that, for the first time in history, the world has experienced three consecutive years where the economic cost of natural disasters has exceeded US$100bn. In order to address this problem, cities will have to complement a low carbon sustainable development path with measures to improve their resilience. Not acting today will cost cities dearly in the future.

To be resilient, a city must adapt to new conditions and recover quickly from disasters, without putting medium and long-term development at risk. Resilient technologies for energy, transportation, water and building systems are usually based on advanced IT and communication services. Such a focus requires new skills and new approaches to planning, designing, managing and maintaining infrastructure. Training local officials to understand and master the requirements of resilient infrastructure solutions has to go hand in hand with their implementation.

Moreover, resilience also requires new approaches to governance. More coordination and knowledge sharing between different parts of a city administration from the planning stage onwards is indispensable. Involving citizens will help improve resilience because people will understand that their choices matter.

There are additional benefits to the implementation of resilient infrastructure solutions. In the area of energy they mean fewer power outages and increased reliability, not least for critical infrastructures such as medical and emergency services; decreased transmission losses in the electricity system; and improved system energy efficiency which reduces the need for additional generation capacity.

According to Shaun Donovan, US Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, who led a Presidential taskforce in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, for every US$1 spent on hazard mitigation, at least US$4 of costs are avoided when disaster strikes.

A recent study by Siemens, Arup (an engineering company) and the Regional Plan Association (a civic organisation devoted to the urban planning of the New York-New Jersey-Connecticut region) on New York City’s electricity grid identified a roadmap for how to increase its resilience and what the business case would look like.

The work analyses three investment options: First, it considers a do nothing scenario where the city just rebuilds after each projected future hazard. Second, it looks into making key equipment more robust and better protected, for example by flood proofing key subway stations. Thirdly, it looks into demand reduction programmes to reduce peak electricity demand, e.g. through the use of advanced metering infrastructure and energy management systems, it maps out the development of a smart grid, to bolster flexibility and responsiveness. This includes, for example, automated demand management, which connects buildings to the grid and can automatically power down non-critical appliances.

The findings of the study are clear. Taking no defensive action at all implies future costs of approximately US$3bn over a projected 20-year period. Investing about US$400m in increased robustness would cut the costs of repair and response by some US$2bn. If all suggested steps were implemented the cost would be about US$3bn but numerous co-benefits could be achieved. Future losses would be cut by US$2bn, and at the same time a net gain of US$3bn would be generated through enhanced grid capacity, stability and increased energy efficiency.

Unfortunately, we are still lacking reliable figures and analyses from cities in China or the EU. Similar studies for Chinese and European cities will enable a business case to be made for the implementation of resilient infrastructure solutions.

For many emerging market cities, resilience can become a differentiator when competing for foreign direct investment. When deciding on major investments international companies will inevitably favour locations offering robust and reliable infrastructures, efficient services and sustainable living conditions. Thus, in a globalised world, only the most resilient cities will remain economically competitive and keep thriving.