Article - Building climate-resilient communities: why it matters |

Building climate-resilient communities: why it matters

Extreme weather events — and the climate-related risks that come along with them — have ravaged lives and local communities around the world. Heat waves, flooding and a rise in sea level are just a few of the effects of climate change that are being felt across the globe.

Farsighted cities and towns are adapting to protect residents and mitigate the coming effects of a warming planet. In the coming decades, building resilience at the city level will be an essential part of urban policy and wise economic strategy.

There is much to learn about climate-resilient cities. How can local communities work together to increase equity and inclusion? Why are partnerships so important? And what are some actionable steps that we can take now?


Subject matter experts around the world are addressing these new challenges with innovative strategies that are worth emulating. In the United States, cities such as Houston, Texas, and Los Angeles, California, have recognized the importance of climate resilience in cities, and are working to embrace innovative solutions and reduce their vulnerability to disaster.


Building a climate-resilient city


A resilient city is able to survive, adapt and thrive in the face of chronic stresses and acute shocks. This includes slow-moving stresses like aging infrastructure or lack of affordable housing.


Today, cities must deal with the increasingly frequent and more extreme effects of climate change like flooding and wildfires. Facing these challenges requires climate resilience, which requires a holistic approach that addresses how we prepare for a changing climate and looks at it with an integrated lens both for mitigation and adaptation. It involves curbing greenhouse gas emissions while understanding the impacts of climate change that are already being felt around the world.


Sabrina Bornstein, Principal and Head of Climate Resilience at Buro Happold, an engineering and consulting firm that works to help cities and other clients prepare for the changing climate, explains: “The more that we mitigate, the less we're going to have to adapt. That's why it's really important to look at an integrated approach. It's not about one or the other.”


Being proactive in Los Angeles


Climate resilience often focuses on being reactive. Sabrina, who was formerly the Deputy Chief Resilience Officer for the city of Los Angeles, says it is time to take a proactive approach to the challenges that cities will be facing in the future. That's exactly what she did in LA, where she helped draft and implement the city's first resilience strategy.


The city focused on four major themes that were specific to LA: climate adaptation, infrastructure modernization, disaster preparedness and recovery, and economic security. The strategy was written to be intersectional in nature, to break down the traditional silos that could hinder meaningful progress. Stakeholders from different departments were brought together to help create a strategy that looked at the impact on the individual and business level, the neighborhood level, the city level and the regional level.


An important part of LA’s resilience strategy was the creation of resilience hubs. These facilities serve the community and are there to support residents and provide resources before, during or after a major climate event.


Climate resilience strategies like resilience hubs must be adaptable because it’s difficult to predict the future. As Sabrina says, “The actions we take today can change what the future looks like. It's important to show the future is not set.”


Community stakeholders have a role to play


While governments, businesses in the private sector and other policy-makers play an important role, resilience works best when it is an inclusive practice that serves diverse communities and meets the needs of underserved groups.


Christopher Westley, Senior Vice President of Strategic Services at Skanska USA Commercial Development, reminds us that communities are as dynamic as the environment because they're always, always changing. Skanska USA projects are designed and built so that they can withstand those changes. Christopher’s team works closely with communities and various stakeholders to address their needs.


The Skanska team engages with the community through volunteering, mentoring and educating people about the project development process. Efforts to get a more diverse representation of the community involved in projects include hiring a firm that brings minority students on board.


When the Skanska team undertakes a new project, it begins with studies to look at the acquisition or the land it plans to build on. It uses many different tools to measure and assess the potential risks of a pending development, including environmental risks.


Christopher gives the example of a project in Houston, Texas, called 1550 on the Green. After performing its assessment, the team determined that there was a flood risk. He says, "The way the team mitigated against that was to plan a project that was elevated as high as it could be from the ground floor plane. We looked at it, we studied it, and the finished floor elevation, or FFE, was raised slightly to address future potential for flooding."


Community stakeholders are becoming more aware of resilience and what it means in the built environment. Often, the conversations are driven by the cities Skanska is part of developing. City leaders who have the power to write or change legislation are key partners in the process.


Building a more climate-resilient city: Houston, Texas


Houston's mayor, Sylvester Turner, and his team were valuable partners with Skanska on the 1550 on the Green project. Mayor Turner, a native Houstonian, has been in office since 2016.


The city was historically built with oil and gas, and as a result, it produces a lot of greenhouse gas emissions. With Mayor Turner's leadership and resilience initiatives, the city has been moving away from fossil fuel and embracing sustainable development.


Houston is located near the Gulf Coast and, in the past seven years alone, has faced seven events declared as disasters by the federal government. Heavy rains, hurricanes and flooding are happening with a greater frequency and intensity, and cleanup and rebuilding costs are rising.


When a disaster hits, Mayor Turner says, "Don't build back, because if you build back, you build for failure." He believes in building forward with resilience to avoid putting people back in the same position when the next storm hits.


Mayor Turner is a member of a global network of mayors working toward sustainability called C40. He has created a framework for resilient development that focuses on mitigation and adaptation solutions to move his city forward after disasters.


Adaptation solutions to inspire


In February 2020, Mayor Turner and his team put forth the Resilient Houston plan which is centered around four pillars: to be a leader in energy transition, electrify the transportation sector, decarbonize building optimization, and create buildings with a circular economy as it relates to recycling. The city also recognized that it had to do things differently and work in collaboration with the major greenhouse gas emitters in the city.


Mayor Turner is proud of the progress his city has made, sharing that: “The city of Houston now purchases more renewables than any other city in the US. All 550 of our municipal buildings are 100 percent powered by renewables.”


The city works with entities like Greentown Labs, which expanded from the East Coast to Houston in recent years. They aim to build 50 “Energy 2.0” companies by 2025. They are already ahead of schedule. Another Houston company called Ion is heavily focused on innovation and has a plan that involves planting trees across the city. One of their goals is to plant 4.6 million trees by 2030, or two trees for every Houstonian. Mayor Turner affirms that there is a great deal of emphasis on parks and green spaces. Additionally, he is urging developers to build higher as the city is at risk of flooding.


Challenges in the face of change


These are just a few examples of actions that Mayor Turner has taken since he’s been in office. His efforts haven’t been without challenges. When he began to move forward with the Resilient Houston plan, there were no federal mandates, funding, policy or federal agencies to support his efforts. He also mentions that there were no state mandates or climate programs in the state of Texas either.


For the plan to be successful, Houston had to partner with the energy sector to build consensus. The Resilient Houston plan was underwritten by BP, a major player in the energy industry. BP was able to provide financial support so that Mayor Turner could make fundamental changes in his city.


An initiative that he is very proud of is a community solar farm in an underserved area called Sunnyside. In the 1930s, a 240-acre landfill opened there. It finally closed in the 1970s because it was becoming dangerous for the surrounding community.


When it closed, those 240 acres were contaminated and therefore unusable. It quickly became an issue for the community and was left untouched for nearly 50 years. When Mayor Turner took office, he knew he wanted to reimagine the space so that it would enhance the neighborhood, not devalue it.


The mayor put out some requests for proposals to get fresh ideas for the site. The city chose a proposal to turn the space into a solar farm. When the construction is finished it will generate enough power for 5,000-10,000 homes. It will also remove 120 million pounds (54,000 tonnes) of emissions per year, which is the equivalent of a $70-$75 million investment into that community. It will also create sustainable jobs for the people who live nearby.


This one project has the potential to transform an entire community and serves as a wonderful example of what climate resilience in cities can do. As Mayor Turner says: “To have climate mitigation, you have to have resilience, and you can't have that without equity. Everybody needs to be at the table.”


Looking toward a resilient future


Cities like Los Angeles with its resilience hubs, and Houston with its Resilient Houston plan, show that a proactive approach to resilience not only works but is critical for the future of those communities. A number of goals and climate resilience strategies have already been achieved, but there is more work that needs to be done.


When cities take a hard look at their current built environment and learn how it is impacting the community, residents and workers, they can then explore the best ways to move forward. Equity and community involvement are essential. Houston and LA provide excellent examples of ways to shift the focus away from fossil fuels and toward sustainable resilience.


To find out more, listen to our episode Making our cities climate resilient and subscribe to the Shaping Sustainable Places podcast.