Codes and Standards: Building Safety and Urban Resilience

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The Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities (100RC) program is a network of 100 cities around the world committed to building urban resilience. While the engineering community typically defines resilience as the ability for a system to rapidly recover from a shock such as an earthquake or flood, 100RC uses a more holistic definition. We view the inevitable acute shocks and chronic stresses cities endure as opportunities to improve and enhance the quality of life of their citizens by investing in initiatives that not only reduce the negative impacts of these events, but also generate social, environmental and economic co-benefits for society.

Increasing the resilience of cities throughout the built environment is a priority for cities across all regions of the 100RC network. As 100RC cities design and implement their resilience strategies, 100RC collaborates with them to develop initiatives that improve the safety of their buildings and infrastructure and generate these types of co-benefits.

The first step involves developing a thorough understanding of the risks posed by both the acute shocks infrastructure is exposed to, including natural and man-made hazards, and the more chronic stresses that increase the vulnerability of the built environment such as poor construction quality or lack of regulatory enforcement. Many of these stresses are driven by underlying social and economic factors that must also be identified and addressed. A resilience-building initiative requires developing creative solutions that improve the health, prosperity and well-being of a city’s inhabitants, as well as reduce physical risk. These may be technical engineering solutions for specific assets or neighborhoods, policy changes that improve the enforcement of technical solutions, economic solutions that influence the quality of building materials and trades, or financial solutions that incentivize action, transfer risk or support implementation. In many cases it is necessary to pursue a combination of strategies.

100RC cities vary significantly in natural hazard risk profile, demographics, population growth and local capacity. Cities in the United States typically have an established building regulatory ecosystem and relatively low urban growth. Even so, in cities with multi-hazard risk such as Los Angeles, we know we must continue to strengthen the built environment and leverage investments in it for community benefit. Initiatives such as Building Forward LA—in collaboration with Rebuild By Design, a partner of 100RC—aim to improve built environment resilience by identifying and addressing policies that hinder the implementation of technological, engineering and architectural innovations.

Many cities in the 100RC network face more severe resilience-building challenges, particularly in buildings with a confluence of high natural hazard risk, a limited history and culture of building regulation, and significant urban growth.

They also represent a significant opportunity. The 100RC program aims to influence resilience on a global scale by working with motivated cities to introduce and pilot solutions that can be scaled across these cities and regions.

The following are just a few examples of the collaborative efforts underway with both our network cities and implementing partners to improve the resilience of cities and communities through the built environment.

  • The World Bank, a 100RC Platform Partner, has developed a Building Regulatory Capacity Assessment through its Building Regulation for Resilience Program that aims to evaluate the maturity and functionality of a city’s building and land use regulatory ecosystem. The World Bank is piloting the assessment methodology in Quito, Ecuador, with the city’s Chief Resilience Officer David Jacome Polit.The methodology consists of document review, written surveys and interviews with key stakeholders, including the city’s building, planning/zoning, emergency management, fire, public health, social services and historic preservation departments, national-level ministries, local universities, and real estate and construction unions. The assessment identifies shortcomings and opportunities for improvement related to the legal foundation for and development and maintenance of satisfactory building codes and standards and, most critically, the capacity at the city level to support compliance and enforcement of these regulations.The methodology serves as an excellent initial diagnostic for cities interested in reducing the vulnerability of their buildings from which specific solutions may be identified and implemented. In the case of Quito, which for the most part has appropriate and high-quality building standards, a major focus is recommending ways to extend the benefits of regulation to the informal communities on the periphery of the city. Through 100RC’s partnership with the World Bank, we hope to replicate the assessment methodology in other cities in Latin America, Africa and Asia with the aim of creating a network of city officials across the globe committed to improving the quality and safety of their buildings and with improved capacity to do so.
  • In Medellin, Colombia, the city and Chief Resilience Officer Santiago Uribe Rocha are collaborating with Build Change, another Platform Partner in the 100RC program, to retrofit homes to resist earthquakes. Through earlier work in the region, Build Change recognized the potential that retrofits could have to improve the safety of housing on a large scale, particularly in informal settlements, because of the relatively low cost associated with the technique.As a result Build Change developed a set of technically appropriate guidelines and worked with the national government to adopt them. Adopting the guidelines at the national level, however, was only the first step in the process. At the local level, first in Bogota and now in Medellin, Build Change is helping to implement these guidelines on several fronts through collaboration with the city.First, they are helping to streamline the permitting process for retrofits by working with local building department officials on the retrofitting procedures. Second, they worked with university students, city officials and local contractors to perform rapid building evaluations, develop simplified retrofit designs, and implement the retrofit solutions with high-quality materials and construction techniques.Finally, they are advocating for the use of a local subsidy through Social Institute for Housing and Habitat Medellin (ISVIMED) for these retrofits. The subsidy program has customarily been used for improvements to kitchens and bathrooms even though its original intent was for seismic retrofits, which were not possible to pursue due to the lack of legislation for retrofits at the national level.

    Build Change recommends using the subsidy to incentivize homeowners to pursue seismic retrofits, for example, by providing extra funds for kitchen and bath improvements if a homeowner chooses to undertake a seismic retrofit. Build Change is working with the city to pilot the retrofits on 50 homes and hopes to soon expand the program to 1,000.Once operational and at scale, this initiative will not only significantly reduce the risk of damage and mass casualties from a major earthquake (and possibly reduce the cost of insurance products the city may plan to pursue), but also build the capacity of the construction sector, improve the local economy and bring attention to and investment in informal settlements and their inhabitants.

  • Pursuing initiatives to improve the resilience of the existing built environment is one critical component of our work. However, considering that by some projections the total area in cities will double by 2070, 100RC is also working with high-growth cities in our network to prepare for urban expansion proactively and collaboratively across disciplines so new urban areas are developed to more resilient standards from the start.Failure to plan and organize the expansion areas of cities is the root cause of a number of serious resilience challenges, including housing affordability, lack of basic services—such as water, sanitation, and electricity—traffic congestion, poor formation and access to labor markets, lack of access to public space, natural hazard risk to communities, and loss of natural environment and ecosystems. Furthermore, the cost of bringing critical infrastructure into existing communities is three to nine times higher than the cost of installing the basic trunk infrastructure in planned communities, incrementally, in advance of development according to New York University’s (NYU’s) Marron Institute.100RC is partnering with the Marron Institute to develop urban growth projections for 20 rapidly expanding cities in its network. These projections will visually demonstrate the expected growth in the footprint of each city over the next 30 years, which in many cases is expected to have as much as a ten-fold increase in area.NYU will also assess the quality of urban expansion over the past 30 years in each city, using metrics related to land use and zoning through the analysis of historical satellite imagery. 100RC plans to share these data with high-growth cities in our network and develop related planning methodologies and tools that these cities can use to design initiatives that acknowledge and are informed by the anticipated growth.

    These initiatives represent a multi-faceted approach to resilience building through enhancements to the existing built environment and informed, proactive planning for anticipated new urban areas that together promote physical, social, environmental and economic resilience in cities.

    Once piloted in these cities, we hope to scale these initiatives and their impact by sharing ideas and best practices across the 100RC network of cities.