Planning for Resilience: Innovative Land Use Policies for Building a Resilient City

On December 8, Amy is in Santa Fe, New Mexico (USA), where she is facilitating the Resilient Cities Summit hosted by the National League of Cities, the Urban Land Institute and the U.S. Green Building Council, and where she is sharing some of these findings with Mayors from across the United States.

Many cities in the 100RC network have begun to explore new and creative approaches to land use planning for achieving their holistic resilience goals.  Precisely because management of the built environment has the potential for significant economic, social, and political consequences, cities are—and should be—crafting their land use policies to achieve a “resilience dividend,” which provides multiple benefits for the city and its citizens, and jointly addresses social, environmental and economic challenges.

For municipalities with serious financial constraints, land use tools—from comprehensive plans to zoning, incentives and building codes—can present a path toward great impact at relatively little cost. Thoughtful attention to the location, type, density and timing of land use through regulations, public infrastructure investments, market incentives, and conservation of natural resources, make land use planning one of the most powerful tools a city has for regulating day-to-day activities and setting a vision for the future.

100RC’s global network of cities provides a valuable vantage point for understanding the variety of challenges and solutions its cities present. From this global vantage point, we have identified three emerging themes of creative ways to apply land use tools to advance resilience goals. They include designing and deploying land use to:

Below we profile projects from several cities that illustrate the kind of creative planning that addresses these themes. They present solutions that may resonate with other cities in our network, and beyond.

We recognize this as an important body of work for the future and plan to continue to engage our member cities as well as you, our broader community of readers, in the dialogue of how to best utilize land use tools to plan for a city’s resilient future.

Land use tools regulate the use of physical spaces, often in pursuit of larger economic, social, or quality of life goals. As such, cities commonly manage development by restricting height and density, shifting development out of coastal zones or seismic areas to reduce risk of flood and erosion, and creating commercial and retail centers to target investment. Creative design of a city’s physical plans can engender both the explicit outcome of the plan, as well as realize other types of multiple benefits through single regulatory actions.

Christchurch: Building capacity to source food from the local and urban environment

Christchurch, NZ wants to renew its relationship to the natural environment while making use of properties left vacant after the 2011 earthquake. The plan—released in concert with the city’s resilience strategy—stimulates development on still derelict lots (both public and private), to cultivate community gardens, edible forests, and rongoa (medicine gardens).  In rethinking how to use vacant properties, the city hopes to stimulate a re-emergence of local food supply chains and a local food economy.  The resulting large scale communal gardening will foster greater social cohesion, with the community garden as an emerging social hub, ensuring that sustainable return to nature includes the engagement of the community and their central part in it. The work has already begun, with Ōtākaro, the city’s first community garden and food hub, built with the support of Christchurch City Council and the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority.

Mexico City: Social cohesion as a byproduct of flood prevention measures

In Mexico City, several projects currently underway plan for flood prevention alongside the creation of green public space. They include various green and blue infrastructure methodologies and technologies that can capture rainwater, retain it for later use, and infiltrate it into aquifers. By building public space in concert with flood protection measures, the city is achieving the multiple benefit of creating the key public good of open space while also advancing flood mitigation.  One example is the development of “Parque de la Viga,” a blue green infrastructure project that aims to utilize the park for flood prevention, storing and reusing rainwater, recreation and public health, greater social cohesion, and spreading awareness of water conversation issues in cities.

There are limits to what city governments can do on their own.  To build a more resilient future, stakeholders from across the city need to commit to resilience goals. Cities can help achieve this through land use policies that encourage co-investment between the public, private and non-profit sectors, and incentivize certain behaviors while discouraging risky ones.

Land use policy that distributes and shares risk with other city stakeholders helps institutionalize resilience by integrating it into the planning and policy of various sectors across the city, not keeping it the preserve of public authorities. Fortunately, planning that leverages land use to shift and share risk and responsibility with a variety of stakeholders is gaining traction across the globe.

New Orleans: Requiring private landowners to retain storm water on their properties

In New Orleans, USA the City Planning Commission recently updated its Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance (CZO) to better reflect the city’s resilience goals. A key update to the CZO was requiring most new development projects to manage the first 1.25” of stormwater on their site (and to submit their design plan for managing stormwater with their development permits). By making stormwater management a regular requirement of private parcels of land, the city is sharing the risk and responsibility of effectively managing stormwater—building additional redundant capacity citywide and resulting in a more effective approach to managing one of the city’s key threats.

Medellin: Anticipating informal settlement and designing for collaborative self-management

The City of Medellin, Colombia is urbanizing at a rate faster than the city can plan or build appropriate infrastructure. In response, it is designing new ways to share risk and responsibility for new developments through collaborative self-management in informal communities. These communities predominantly settle on the high parts of the city’s hillsides which are particularly prone to natural disasters, like landslides and earthquakes. The City wants to mitigate risk and prepare for housing in these high-risk areas through the implementation of green infrastructure and the consolidation of a green landscape—providing community amenities while reducing the amount of risky areas available for building. The plan places the community as the central agent in the implementation process, investing in the belief that the communities’ control and governance of its land ensures the future sustainability of the interventions and also the communities’ own empowerment. To further mitigate risk, Medellin has formed a partnership with Build Change to pilot earthquake retrofits for at least 600 houses. This leverages the earlier work of Build Change in Bogota, where it succeeded in seeking modifications to the national building code that would permit this work.

Rethink scales of influence

100RC member cities acknowledge that the resilience challenges they face often extend beyond jurisdictional borders. These range from regional watershed issues, to heat waves that affect migration patterns across a large area, to economic downturns at the national level. In response, cities have begun to reconsider how resilient land use policies and practices can cross natural and political boundaries, respond to a variety of physical scales, and consider different time horizons to assess future risk.

Da Nang: Learning from past development to plan for flood management in the future

In Da Nang, Vietnam, rapid urbanization has outpaced plans to maintain flood corridors, with urban growth extending to the riverbanks. This development has had an impact on flooding within and outside of the city boundaries. As part of its resilience strategy, the city has developed several initiatives to address this challenge. One initiative involves the development and expansion of floodwater drainage corridors and the increase of drainage capacity of the Vua Gia-Han river basin beyond city boundaries.

Paris: Using watershed analysis to restore land and prevent flooding

After the destructive floods of 2016, Paris recognized the need to rethink its relationship to the Seine. 100RC Platform Partner Amec Foster Wheeler is working with the city to assist it in understanding the characteristics of its natural watershed, which exist well outside the city boundaries. Through a satellite mapping and analysis of land use and topography, they will identify places where they can restore land upstream of Paris back to a more natural state in order to store water and reduce the flow of water into the city to reduce the impact of floods. 

The Future of Resilient Land Use

Unlike disaster preparedness, urban resilience accounts for more than planning for a specific event. It entails strengthening a city’s systems to better manage any disruption that may occur.

Traditional land use planning attempts to address known disruptions, and operates on assumptions about a future state, from population growth, to car use, to demand for certain kinds of development. However, the introduction of any number of chronic stresses or acute shocks could significantly change the trajectory of those assumptions.

Innovative land use should better account for this uncertainty, and build adaptable methods that can respond to changes in assumptions about the city’s physical, economic or social conditions.

One of our member cities, Norfolk USA, has shown leadership in answering this challenge of uncertainty and formulating land use plans that better advance its broader resilience goals. Last month, the coastal city unveiled its Vision 2100, an initiative of its resilience strategy, that sets forth a plan for how the city can adapt itself for the 22nd century while being a model for other coastal cities.

Norfolk’s Vision 2100 applies new planning tools to advance the city’s holistic resilience strategy; it advances integrated thinking on the interplay between shocks and stresses, and applies a risk and asset lens to how the city should manage its land. A particularly innovative approach is the creation of four “vision” areas, which look at the city’s neighborhoods through both a risk and asset lens. The plan organizes the city based on neighborhoods’ risk and asset profiles and proposes distinct strategies for each, including for example: transferable development rights for homeowners in chronic flood areas; reduced development in high risk areas; and re-focusing investment in “high and dry” areas that have the potential to increase economic opportunity for the city’s poorest residents. While other cities continue to rebuild in the same high risk areas, Norfolk has outlined a more thoughtful approach, that is honest about the risks and opportunities for the city’s future.

This remapping of the city’s intentions, both literally and figuratively, presents a bold example for how a city can plan for resilience, incorporating each of the above principles: achieving multiple benefits, sharing risk and responsibility, and rethinking scales of influence.