Prepare for the multiple threats of the 21st century.

One of the key failings of the Federal Government’s Homeland Security mandates is that, after 9/11, they prepared New York City for the last threat, a terrorist attack, not the next threat, climate change. Although we must prepare for sea level rise, that is not the only natural threat facing our cities. We also have to prepare them for other natural systems issues such as drought, heat, earthquakes and sunspot cycles. Cities also need to prepare for risks in human systems- degraded trust from social inequity, the contagion of diseases, massive urban migrations, cyber attacks, power outages and financial volatility. And there are rising threats from interactions between human and natural systems which are degrading and salinating water supplies, polluting air, and undermining and adding toxics into the food system. All of these threaten our cities’ viability. And there will be many more that we cannot conceive of. We are challenged with the task of planning for an uncertain future.

Planning for an Uncertain Future

The first step is to clearly define the risks to a city and their likelihood of happening. Making a list from the three catagories above- natural risks, human caused risks, and human/ natural interactions risks is a start. Normally we think of risks to systems, such as water or electrical systems. But that limits our ability to think broadly.

We cannot predict all of the outcomes of these risks.

The interactions between them are extremely complex. And each risk has implications for human, natural and economic systems. The key is to focus on solutions that have the most co- benefits and that enhancing the capacity of human and natural systems to be the most positively adaptive. Adaptive capacity is the best inoculation against uncertainty.

But there are a few risks that are very clear, and we need to begin to address them.  For example, prior to Hurricane Katrina, the insurance company FM Global guided 500 commercial clients on hurricane preparedness- as a result, these businesses experienced 85% less property damage from the hurricane then similar properties that were not well prepared.  A $2.5million of investment prevented $500 million in damages. The National Institute of Building Sciences states that every dollar spent on mitigation saves four dollars of losses.

Start Designing for more than a century of Sea Level Rise now.

Eighty per cent of the world’s GDP take place in rivers and coastal based cities. Their infrastructure was designed to function at a sea level that will dramatically change over the next century. Every single urban water, sewer, electrical and transportation system will have to be raised, or changed to accommodate new sea levels. That will take a great deal of time and investment. Cities need to start planning and investing in this work now. They also need to be designing the new dynamic, responsive systems of the future, not simply raising the static systems of the past.

Storm barriers, harbor versions of New Orlean’s levees may help in transitions, but over the long run, the risk of cities functioning below sea level or high surge levels is too high. We need to make the investments to adapt to new sea levels.

Recognize limits and establish buffer capacity

Each city faces different limits. Many are facing future water shortages, and will need to recycle more water and consume less.

They may also have to limit their growth. Others will suffer from too much water, and need to establish natural buffers and absorption areas. Others might be straining at the limits of their regions electrical generation, others may have maxed out their transportation systems, and be facing huge traffic issues. The key is to recognize that cities at the edge of any resource or impact limit are fragile- the solution is to develop a buffer to accommodate increased volatility.


Redundancy increases resilience.

Higher density cities need to develop multiple lines of defense for sea level rise- restoring natural conditions on both the water and land side, constructed barriers, elevated streets and infrastructure, and storm ready buildings.  Cities facing droughts need to combine multiple water sources with conservation strategies. Cities with more diverse energy sources will be less vulnerable to fuel shortages of any one. Redundancy is inherently in- efficient. During low risk times, the cost of developing and maintaining multiple systems seems excessive. During times of stress, they will seem essential.

Integrate Natural and Technical systems.

Much of The Netherlands has been developed on land reclaimed from the sea. With whole communities lying below sea level, it is extremely vulnerable to rising sea levels.  Rotterdam, its second largest city, and Europe’s largest port is the country’s most economically important city. Swamped by a devastating storm in 1953, Rotterdam responded by constructing hard infrastructure- dams, barriers, and seawalls.  But in the 21st century, the city’s planners began to develop the architecture of accommodation- floating buildings that can rise with storm surges.

Rotterdam is re-thinking of itself not as a city resisting water with levees, dykes and pumps, but rather, as a city living with water, integrated with the water flowing through it. Its goal is to have fully transformed itself by 2035, planting green roofs and parks to absorb and detain water, and reduce climate rising temperature.  Its new codes require building façades, garages, and ground-level spaces to be designed to be waterproof. Its power grid is being encased in waterproof underground pipes, and the entire system is being re-designed to withstand high seas and winds.

Rotterdam’s approaches include both hardened infrastructure, and also much softer natural systems, woven together.

With the movement of shipping from the heart of cities to more remote container ports, cities around the world are reconfiguring their waterfronts to serve as storm barriers, parks and bike and walking corridors. The architecture firm Weiss Manfredi recently designed a “Wandering Ecologies” park for Toronto’s Don Riverfront, creating marshlands with boardwalks for runners and cyclists. James Corner Field Operations has designed a water permeable park and walkway system on the land side of Seattle’s Elliot Bay, while enhancing salmon breeding grounds on the water side.

In 2010 New York City’s Museum of Modern Art invited a group of younger, forward thinking architects, landscape architects and planners to generate plans for New York’s future with higher sea levels. Many of the proposals in the Rising Current’s exhibit included regenerating natural edges between the land and the water, in some cases building out into the harbor, in others, eroding the land back. (Image 12) The oyster beds, barrier islands and marshy edges that protected much of Mannahatta and the Mississippi Delta are not only inexpensive ways to soften storm surges, but they naturally adapt to rising sea levels, rising with them. And, like land based parks and gardens, they have many co- benefits, including naturally cleaning urban waters of chemical and biological toxics.

The old Islamic cities were designed to provide naturally cooling breezes and shade to the summer’s heat.  The new town in Umm Al Quwain, in the United Arab Republics, designed by City Planner Peter Calthorpe updates those technologies, using shade, thermal mass and the cooling of the desert in the evening to create comfort passively.

Plan where to Retreat from Risks

New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo, describing high risk waterfront property said “ There are some parcels that mother nature owns. She may only visit every few years, but she owns the parcel, and when she comes to visit, she visits !” ( 61)


These are the areas, like the lower 9th Ward, the low lying area’s of Rotterdam and on New york City’s barrier islands that are very poor places to occupy, but if returned to their natural role, add to a city’s resilience. Each city should map its known natural risks and figure out a plan for how to retreat from them, converting them into resilience reserves.  This applies to all kinds of risks- for example, it makes no sense to keep operating nuclear power plants near known fault lines.


Lower Manhattan’s real estate and infrastructure may be worth more than a trillion dollars. It would be very costly to relocate. But it is also very concentrated, and so it may be cost effective to build a substantial sea wall around the area. But there are many coastal areas that are neither so concentrated nor so valuable. Currently, the Federal Government provides below cost insurance for home and business owners in areas that for profit insurance companies won’t insure. The government looses money every time there is a flood, paying to rebuild in high risk areas. This makes no economic or ecological sense. Even worse are voluntary buy back programs, which offer to buy back homes in high risk areas from those who are willing to sell them. This will lead to replicating the spottily resettled Lower 9th Ward.  If two third’s of the residents of the ocean facing blocks of a coastal community choose to sell, the city will still have to provide water, sewer, roads, police and fire protection to the remaining one third. And they will not be able to replace those blocks with a natural edge of dunes and wetlands which could benefit the rest of the city.

Federal and local governments should not have to bear the ongoing burden of funding the costs of a few high risk areas. Buildings in lower density higher risk locations need to be purchased at fair market value, and their residents given an opportunity to re- locate.

Retreat from the risky water’s edges should be planned over time,staged in conjunction with the rising sea levels of the coming century.

Robust, Resilient, Repairable and Responsive

In 1989, the Loma Prieta earthquake  caused the collapse of the San Francisco- Oakland Bay bridge. The original bridge was designed to be stiff, to resist the seismic movements of the earth. But when the earthquake exceeded its design strength, the bridge failed, a perfect example of being robust but fragile. The bridge’s replacement has been designed to be ductile- strong, but also flexible enough to absorb almost any shock. Its lead engineer, Marwan Nader says “The idea is to build a structure that can stretch and deform without breaking.” (59)

The bridge was also designed to be easily repaired if broken. For example, the bridge’s shock absorbers can be restored in a few hours after an earthquake.  And sensors allow the bridge to be continuously monitored, and adjusted to loads and stresses. The bridge is robust, resilient, repairable and responsive.

These principles should be applied to all infrastructure improvements.

Plan the Human Operating Systems

When Katrina struck New Orleans, the City, State and Federal operating systems failed causing and exacerbating hardships. When Superstorm Sandy struck New York City, the coordination between agencies was much more effective. Information collection was generally accurate, and shared in real time, leading to dynamic decisions. Interagency co-ordination, data sharing and planning are critical behaviors needed to increase a city’s resilience.

New York City was also willing to “fail safely.” Understanding that power lines would come down in the winds, and that the transit system would be disrupted, the subway system was closed so that it could be more rapidly restored. Teams of linesman were brought in from around the country and stood by, ready to swing into action as the storm abated.

And because the storm only damaged the City’s coastal areas, most of its leaders’ homes survived, leaving them untraumatized, and thus capable of thinking more flexibly. But the next disaster may effect the entire city, or region. City leaders need cognitive training in resilience thinking under stress.

Design for Islandization.

Battery Park City sat closest to Lower Manhattan’s water’s edge, and yet it survived the best of all. By having a power grid that was linked to the rest of the region, but separatable, it was able to disconnect from the failure that blanked out the rest of the city. As utilities  repair and replace 20th dumb century grids, they should be re-conceived of as networks of smart, interconnected micro grids- smaller, localized electric grids serving a collection of buildings or a neighborhood.  These can draw power from the larger grid, but also generate enough power from cogeneration, solar or microturbines. By adding sensing and operating intelligence, these systems can balance predict and their loads. The US Military is rapidly introducing micro- grids into its installations to increase their resilience.

The economies of cities is increasingly dependent upon internet connectivity, which, for example, ties the New York Stock Exchange to global markets. As cities and their industries move their data to the cloud, they access more robust systems- but they are are ignoring the fragility of their connection to these systems. Cyber attacks, or even worse, a cyber war could cut them off from their data and operating systems. Cities must also store their data and operating systems locally, and keep the duplicate capacity to function as data islands if necessary.

The same strategy can apply to buildings. Grid connected Solar photovoltaic systems should be able to disconnect from the larger system and provide power for building’s essential services. To do so they will need battery or other energy storage systems. Local food and water systems also help buildings or neighborhoods through disruptions. As we read in Chapter five, designing buildings for passive resilience enhance the ability of buildings to provide adequate comfort and water without requiring a significant energy supply.

We also need to design our social system’s for islandization. Chicago’s most resilient neighborhoods during its heat wave were able to self organize, separately from the larger city. Andrew Zolli’s emergent self organizing adhocracy is an essential component of a city’s resilience. When the very low income community of the Far Rockaways lost all power, food and water as a result of Sandy, the members of the Rockaways Surf club sprung into action. These were mostly Brooklyn Hipsters who had gotten together a shack by the sea as a place to gather, change and store their gear. Prior to the storm they had been viewed as odd outsiders, but after the storm, when they self organized and brought resources and visibility to the Rockaways, they were embraced. The locals described it as the hipsters becoming helpsters !

To do this effectively required the pre-existing strong ties of the surf club membership, but also the ability to rapidly form new bridging ties, as the surf club made with its public housing neighbors.

Passive Resilience

As cities and buildings become smarter they become more dependent on energy and data systems to operate. However with increase weather volatility, cyber attacks and other large scale threats, pervasive energy and data systems are more likely to go down. This requires cities and buildings to be able to function in the passive, or manual mode.

Although its currently very difficult to make dense urban buildings that can survive entirely independently from urban infrastructure, in a world of increasing weather and energy volatility, it is essential to design buildings that will perform sufficiently when the power goes out or the temperature hits extremes. They may not be the most comfortable, but they need to be livable. Their passive resilience will be enhanced by better insulation to reduce energy needs, and local generators, to keep core functions such as boilers, hallway lights and and elevators running.

One of the aftermaths  of both Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy was that oil refineries were shut down, fuel storage and pumping facilities lost power, and as a result, gas stations ran out of diesel and gasoline. Diesel fueled generators ran out of fuel, and ceased working after a few days. This raises a key element of resilience.  People, buildings, communities and cities thrive when they are connected into larger networks and systems. But they also need to be designed to function when they are disconnected, although perhaps at a less effective level. They may thrive when part of an energized, complex system, but they need to be able to survive when the system goes down.

Smart Cities also need a manual mode- a way of functioning when  automated systems fail. In manual they may be less efficient, by at least they will work. Gravity powered water supply systems such as the system that feeds New York City function even when the pumps are down.

Networks of Neighborhood Centers

Social efficacy is key generator of strong neighborhoods, and it is generated by strong not for profit and voluntary institutions. These need to be anchored in community centers such as TheArc and The Educational Alliance. Cities need to invest in a network of prepared neighborhood centers. These can be settlement houses, schools, libraries, churches or hospitals, designed to serve neighborhoods with shelter, food, water, electricity and communications when disruption comes. Their leaders should be trained to deal with the range of climate and health events that will come in an increasingly volatile era.

Resilience restores human and natural systems well being

In the beginning of this chapter we noted the interdependence of human and natural systems. We also observed that resilient strategies are evolutionarily successful when they restore their own wellbeing and increases the wellbeing of the systems that they are  interdependent with. Thus, the most valuable strategies will enhance the wellbeing of human and natural systems together. For example, greening streets and enhancing their biodiversity provides the many human and natural benefits described in chapter 5. As we will discuss in chapter 10, we need to develop measures of human and natural systems wellbeing, and measure our progress towards increasing them.

The most effective strategies will also enhance the ability of urban systems to adapt to future, unanticipated changes. They encourage positive evolution.

For societal wellbeing, solutions need to be equitably distributed.

Disasters and climate change hit the poor the hardest. They often live in the most vulnerable and most toxic neighborhoods. Lacking resources, they have the fewest options. 9/11 dislocated every resident of Lower Manhattan- the well off were inconvenienced, many moved to their second, weekend homes. The poor had to choose between homelessness and doubling up with already overcrowded relatives. Globally, the urban poor are even worse off- Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh is a city of 7 million people, living no higher than 13 feet above sea level. As the sea levels rise, they will have no where else to go- and India is building a wall to keep them out.

After 9/11, a great deal of thought was put into protecting the New York Stock Exchange from a future loss of power- no thought was given to protecting residents of nearby public housing projects, whose elevators and heat could have operated after Sandy with just a few generators.

Low income families and communities have the least resources to deal with the stress of climate change. Columbia University professor of Clinical Psychiatry Mindy Fullilove describes low income families as living in an environment of unmitigated disaster- unmitigated trauma, health and educational deficits. With low levels of auto use and resource consumption, they have contributed the least to the causes of climate change. If we envision civilization as providing more equal opportunities and responsibilities for all, then we must plan to equalize our preparations for the coming volatility.

The degree of social inequality shown the world during Katrina was deeply disturbing. But distribution of wealth and wellbeing in New York City is also increasingly unequal. If social efficacy is a key element of a community’s wellbeing, then our rebuilding efforts must aim to increase equality of opportunity for all of a city’s residents and workers.

Does it take a disaster to rebuild our cities?

The destruction and rebuilding of Lower Manhattan and the Gulf Coast raise several questions that America, and perhaps all nations need to ask.

The first is, can we rebuild our cities without them first having to be destroyed?  Is our collective status quo bias so strong that we cannot re- imagine our cities, and make the tough political decisions to move them towards a better future while they are still functioning? Wouldn’t it be better to rebuild the decaying physical and civic parts of our cities now, without having to wait for an external destructive force?

And the second question is, if we as a nation believe that our cities are too important to be destroyed and not rebuilt, than what should we be doing to build up the planning and funding capacity for this reconstruction? Our current policy is another version of “too big to fail”. Our Federal government has been the rebuilder of last resort.

But with the increased climate change ahead, we cannot afford to respond incident by incident. We need a national strategy that integrates Federal resources and credit with State and Local initiatives, and that harness’s private capital. These resources need to begin making our cities more resilient now.

To answer these, we have to re- think the way that we plan.

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