How to Assess Your City

Developing the Toolkit

In a matter of hours, Superstorm Sandy turned New York City from a center of commerce connected to trade and industry throughout the world to a city struggling to meet its most basic needs: power, water, shelter, and transportation, to name a few.

Superstorm Sandy is estimated to have caused more than $50 billion in overall damage to the greater New York area, and that’s only one piece of the global picture. The United Nations estimates that natural disasters between 2000 and 2012 have caused $1.7 trillion in damages around the world. That is nearly the size of Africa’s total GDP.

Since 2012, Siemens, Arup, and the Regional Plan Association, an urban research and advocacy organization, have been exploring ways to enhance and ensure the resilience of critical urban infrastructure systems with the goal of preparing cities more effectively for major weather-related events. Based on the findings, researchers developed the Toolkit for Resilient Cities.

What’s become clear is that there are active steps cities can take to influence their resilience, whether through sector-based investments in infrastructure and technology, or cross-sector policy making and coordination. The first of these steps is to assess the resilience of a city’s infrastructure.

It’s not as difficult or large a task as it might appear. One of the most important aspects of the Toolkit is the identification of a series of common, technical characteristics in the architecture and components of resilient systems. Researchers have used these characteristics to create a framework through which cities can be assessed, allowing them to make informed choices about how and when to implement new technologies.

It is our belief that an assessment of this type ought to be the foundation of every urban resilience or adaptation action plan.

Assessment Case Study: New York City’s Electrical Grid

In order to test our findings, we undertook a high level review of the vulnerabilities of the electrical grid of New York City. We investigated the impacts of four, projected natural disasters on the generation, transmission and distribution of electricity. We used this data to quantify the potential damages and economic losses from each climate-related event, as well as the actions and technologies that could ensure continuous electricity supply.

Three scenarios emerged for the development of New York City’s power grid over a 20-year period.

In the first scenario, the City pays to respond and repair the damage done by projected weather events over a 20-year period, with total costs amounting up to $3 billion USD. This is how repairs and upgrades are managed in New York City today.

In the second scenario, flood and wind protection measures for critical assets are implemented within 3 years (on an accelerated schedule) with cost up to $400 million in order to increase the robustness of the system immediately. These measures reduce the cost of repair and response from the $3 billion in the first scenario, down to $2 billion. However, even after factoring money saved from infrastructure upgrades, this scenario still leaves the City with a net loss of up to $1 billion .

The last scenario is the most longterm of the three. First, the city implements a 12-year roadmap for introducing smart technologies to improve the management of the power grid. In the following years, city agencies and utilities spend approximately $3 billion implementing solutions that will not only reduce the impact of future events, but provide longterm added benefits to the city, its residents, and its businesses. According to our projections, the financial value of these benefits— such as energy efficiency, capacity gains, and improved environments—could reach as much as $4 billion.

The hope is that New York City will use this assessment to adjust its action plan so as to maximize effect and minimize cost.

In Closing

The idea behind our work was to provide policy makers with examples of how assessments can identify the most cost-effective measures for cities. Cities need solutions that provide a positive outcome in terms of avoiding damage as well as maximizing economic investment.

As with urban resilience metrics in general, a standardized methodology for this type of evaluation has not yet been established. While the scenarios will be unique for every city, we hope the Toolkit for Resilient Cities provides a place from which to begin.

Our next steps will be to have a closer look at how the cost and the benefits, from the New York City business case, accrue to various parties i.e. utilities, tax payers, electricity users etc. This would enable us to be increasingly specific on how to implement the necessary investments.

We will keep you posted as our research continues.


Photo: Angelo DeSantis, WikiCommons