Using Resilience Thinking, Cities are Doing More with Less

It’s no secret that cities sit at the nexus of a growing host of challenges—yet in the face of growing populations, aging infrastructure, shrinking local budgets, and the accelerating and uncertain impacts of climate change, they also remain our greatest hopes for change. While most cities would welcome a big check from a donor or private sector investment to help solve these challenges, they also know that’s very unlikely. Instead, we are seeing cities tackle many of their biggest challenges by thinking creatively about how to leverage existing resources or authorities to create solutions that don’t break their budgets. In fact, by applying resilience thinking to infrastructure design and management, revisiting guidelines for awarding existing funds, and partnering with responsible private sector investors, cities have begun to build resilience while actually saving money.

Here are three ways cities are using resilience thinking to maximize the value of new and existing projects:

New Orleans: Creative use of regulations to improve infrastructure management and design

The City Planning Commission outlined various performance-based Best Management Practices (BMPs) and updated the CZO to require most new development projects to submit comprehensive landscape and stormwater management. They intended to reduce the urban heat island effect, decrease the incidence and severity of flooding, reduce strains on the drainage and pumping system, improve water conservation, and protect public health, safety, and welfare.

Essentially, they wanted to tweak existing ordinances to meet their resilience challenges.

They used this prioritization to outline various performance-based Best Management Practices (BMPs) and updated the CZO to require most new development projects to submit comprehensive landscape and stormwater management plans demonstrating compliance with the requirement to manage their stormwater on-site. This created an opportunity to apply these performance standards to all future construction. In doing so, the city recognized that individual projects need latitude to integrate resilience in a way that best suits the character of a project. This approach recognizes that land use tools are one of the existing regulatory frameworks cities can use to achieve resilience outcomes without a lot of additional cost. While developing and paying for additional stormwater management systems is still an option, using existing tools to share risk with citizens and land owners in a way that achieves many additional benefits is a resilient approach—and one cities around the world should consider trying.

The City of New Orleans is taking a multi-pronged approach to addressing resilience needs through stormwater management. While the city is working on policies for integrating stormwater management into the public realm, the city zoning ordinance is, at the same time, requiring private development meet that same standard. Because each development project requires a unique, place-based design, the stormwater regulations are performance based rather than prescriptive. Essentially, this means that as long as the development demonstrates compliance with the requirement to manage the first 1.25” of stormwater on their site, how they manage their stormwater is up to them. This performance-based approach allows landscape architects and engineers to develop creative, flexible systems that can be adapted to the specific characteristics of each site.

San Francisco: Promoting new ways to access existing funding streams

Three-dimensional view of downtown San Francisco with 108-inch inundation, which shows sea level rise expected by 2100, combined with a 100-year storm.

One of the ways San Francisco is grappling with the menacing reality of sea level rise is by requiring all large capital funding requests to include a sea-level-rise vulnerability assessment and a plan to address any vulnerabilities identified. The city has identified sea level rise as a vital resilience challenge—sea levels are projected to be 2 to 12 inches higher in 2030 than they were in 2000. So thanks to the leadership of the San Francisco Capital Planning Committee (CPC), the city has integrated this resilience priority into the very mechanics of how the city funds capital projects.

The guidelines identify four key steps for assessing and adapting to the effects of sea level rise in capital planning: a  Sea Level Rise Science Review; a  Vulnerability Assessment; a Risk Assessment of vulnerable assets; and an Adaptation Plan for increasing the resilience of those assets .

In short, any projects that leverage capital funding now must include a resilience lens—turning exiting funding streams into resilience building tools.

New York City: Partnership with Industry Expert to Identify Efficiencies and Revenue Enhancements

Innovative partnerships between cities and private sector firms can also increase resilience without requiring the city to spend additional money or cede control of public utilities. New York City signed a “paid-for-performance” contract with Veolia in 2012 to evaluate opportunities for cost-savings and operational improvements to the city’s water and wastewater systems.

The project is already saving the city $84 million each year in cost-oriented improvements and enhanced revenue collection initiatives. By tying Veolia’s earnings directly to NYC’s savings—Veolia’s payment comes directly from those savings—this approach delivered private sector expertise without any long-term costs. The consultant-led services included training and the development of systems and tools to continue the program directly by New York City using its own personnel.

We know that cities need to act now to not only build more infrastructure, but more resilient infrastructure. We also know that the price tags typically attached to those types of projects are out of reach for many municipal governments. Funding resilience is not only about finding more money, it’s about designing solutions that leverage existing money or regulations in ways that can have a greater impact. And by creatively considering resilience during the planning process today, cities are also reducing their financial burden in the future. New Orleans, San Francisco, and New York City have all found creative ways to integrate and elevate resilience priorities into existing city processes.

How is your city promoting resilience without accessing additional funds? Let us know here.