Good Resilience Planning Involves More Than Building Barriers – It’s About Making Connections

This year’s theme for UN World Cities Day – building sustainable and resilient cities – holds enormous potential for urban areas across the globe. Visceral reminders of our generation’s greatest challenge are becoming more and more frequent; Hurricane Michael earlier this month being the most recent example. Recent climate studies indicate we may soon hit a dire tipping point in global warming, with far-reaching implications for our communities.

The concept of urban resilience is gaining in popularity, though the hard work still lies ahead. Funding models are varied in their scope and projected outcomes, best practices are emerging and evolving, and measurable results are still being determined. Coordination on how to prepare communities for the next storm or shock will be key. Whereas the conventional appeal is for higher walls, thicker concrete, and bigger barriers, it is essential to question the de facto response of creating an impenetrable line of defense. A resilience approach instead seeks to address the underlying challenges, designing systems that allow quick recovery back to normalcy following a shock – whether that’s a swift restoration of utility services or getting an assembly line back online.

One thing we’re learning as we continue to take projects from concept to reality is that a siloed approach that prioritizes higher walls is not always the answer. While hard infrastructure-based solutions certainly have a place in resilience planning, they can be many times more effective and achieve broader community benefits when crafted holistically.

Enhancing Resilience and Quality of Life

On August 5, 2017, a deluge of rain brought catastrophic flooding to New Orleans in the space of just two hours. In the post-Katrina era, the city is actively focused on proactive resilience-building efforts. To begin, the city and its Chief Resilience Officer initiated an assessment of how to better address future extreme weather events. Through that assessment, Stantec worked in close partnership with 100 Resilient Cities and community leadership to identify strategic pathways and specific projects to advance community resilience. One representative project included the implementation of a community-focused drainage infrastructure project in the diverse Gentilly neighborhood.

The solutions developed, known as the Gentilly Drainage Pathways project, combine grey and green infrastructure through underground water storage and rain gardens, allowing for the creation of park and public space, while reducing the community’s risk of flooding. The project is currently under construction and will improve flood resistance, while enhancing quality of life in the area. Importantly, more than 70 percent of residents surveyed agreed or strongly agreed that the project maximized community benefits. The success of the project is not confined to a single metric (flood resistance) but to a wider scope that benefits the community as a whole. A second representative project currently under design is the Blue & Green Corridors that will take an integrated approach, using economic resilience and enhanced mobility as success factors.

Community engagement is key to the success of the Gentilly Resilience Development in New Orleans.

Mobilize, Monitor, and Measure

The results of a resilience approach are becoming clearer with each project completed. Take, for example, Philadelphia’s Green City, Clean Waters initiative, a long-term plan to control sewer overflows keeping in mind environmental sustainability. As part of the initiative, our team supported the city in implementing green infrastructure that mimics the natural environment and advances the city’s priorities to embrace enhancements that are cost-effective, scalable, and which drive local job creation. Social benefits from the project include expanded public space, improved quality of life, and a reduced heat island effect, while environmental benefits have included ecosystem restoration, improved air quality, reduction in energy demand, and offsets to climate change.

Through this approach, the Philadelphia Water Department (PWD) is treating each project much like a pilot – monitoring and testing consistently to understand performance and opportunities for improvement. Six years since its launch, the initiative has greened an excess of 1,000 acres of land, which translates to approximately 28 million gallons of storm water runoff that is mitigated during a one-inch rainfall event. This equates to billions of gallons of polluted water being diverted from waterways.

Community Stewardship in Resilience Efforts

As we continue to evolve thinking around resilience planning, a clear case can be made that it should be baked right into community design, not saved for an afterthought. A holistic strategy that crosses social, economic, environmental, and organizational systems is not only more cost-effective, but increases livability in our cities. This is the approach that Stantec is using in the Tottenville Beach Reconstruction in New York’s Staten Island.

Superstorm Sandy brought water well inland on Staten Island, causing extreme damage to neighborhoods and property.

Staten Island, like much of the Eastern Seaboard, suffered significant damage as a result of Superstorm Sandy. The storm brought 16-foot tides and six-foot waves to the borough’s shores, sweeping structures from their foundations and tragically killing 24 people.

In partnership with Rebuild by Design, the project team took a layered approach to enhancing resilience in Tottenville. Redundant structural elements, ecological enhancement, and green infrastructure will work together to allow the area to resist an influx of water, and to recover more quickly when inundated. A critical element in the design process has been extensive community engagement. This meant taking the time to understand the needs and desires of a diverse range of stakeholders and incorporating feedback into the design. The evolving design emerged as a result, as did a sense of ownership and stewardship from the community, which helps increase social resilience. The design also protects the value of homes as well as accessibility to Tottenville Beach, adding to the neighborhood’s sustainability.

Engaging the community not only made the Tottenville project more suited to its residents, it also increased a sense of stewardship and social resilience.

Defining a Path Forward

Though we are still in the early stages of defining a path toward resilient cities, Stantec is proud to be part of the growing urban resilience movement and share our lessons learned. It has become clear that we need, for example, to use available funding more wisely to deliver projects that make our communities safer and more livable, and to advocate for expanded funding for projects and programs which breaking down traditional siloes.

Additionally, we need more research, and more evidence of the benefits of resilience thinking in planning and design. By integrating resilience thinking into our higher education curriculums, we can furthermore prepare the next generation of planners, landscape architects, and engineers, and by adding resilience as an evaluation metric in city procurement, we can reward holistic solutions that add value to projects and enhance a community’s resilience.

As we expand our partnership with 100RC beyond our water engineering practice, we look forward to opening up cities’ access to all of our professional sectors, including transportation, community development, buildings, power and environmental services. The more we work together in a systems-based approach, the better the outcome for the communities we serve.