Resiliency: A realist’s approach to climate change

A few weeks ago, when a friend and I were chatting at Marco & Luca’s, I noticed that my friend had forgone the classic pork dumplings in favor of their veggie bun. “I went vegetarian a few years ago,” he explained, “because raising livestock has such a huge negative impact on the environment, and I didn’t want to be a part of that.”

I shrugged. “We’re doomed to climate change anyway, might as well eat some meat.”

He called me a fatalist (I was only half serious!), but as it turns out, many architects, engineers, and planners have a similar opinion—from flash floods, hurricanes, and freak snow storms across the country, increasingly bizarre weather patterns signal that we’re already facing the consequences of climate change. But instead of throwing their hands up in the air and continuing the same building practices that have been used for decades, many building professionals are trying to change new construction and existing infrastructure alike for what may lie ahead.

New York's proximity to the waterfront and dense population makes it vulnerable. Image from
New York’s proximity to the waterfront and dense population makes it vulnerable. Image from

With severe weather damage on everyone’s mind, there’s a new architectural buzzword in town—architects and engineers are now attempting to build not just for “sustainability,” but also for “resiliency.” If you’re like me and consider “sustainability” to encompass much more than what’s least environmentally taxing, building for resiliency is a no-brainer. Instead of merely designing for what uses the least amount of material resources and energy, resilient design aims to create buildings that are functional in the event of catastrophe and minimize the impact of disaster. At an elementary level, resilient architecture or infrastructure is something that won’t fall down in the event of a major weather occurrence such as a hurricane—but to truly be resilient, the built environment must also be functional in the event of a long-term power outage or resource crisis.

Moving forward, this can partially be addressed by improving building codes for new construction. But it would be incredibly wasteful to tear down all the buildings, roads, water systems and energy lines that already exist in order to construct new, “resilient” ones. One more thing is clear—retrofitting our existing systems will require large investments from the government and private building owners. Many adaptation plans which have already been put into use are responses to natural disasters, after which city estimators predicted that continually repairing damage from extreme weather events would be more costly than pro-actively investing in improving conditions for better resiliency.

One approach to developing better resiliency is to create a multi-level plan with options for varying levels of urgency. After spending over $1.2 billion on building and infrastructure water damage reparation from flash floods in 2010, the city of Copenhagen created a Climate Adaptation Plan to guide planners and designers in creating better stormwater infrastructure. The plan features design solutions to either prevent damage, reduce damage, or reduce the city’s vulnerability. The solutions are chosen for implementation based on probability of extreme damage and cost of the retrofitting project. The solutions range in difficulty of implementation from simply moving important functions to less vulnerable spaces to raising building elevations and increasing stormwater sewer capacity. Because the use of concrete stormwater sewers cannot handle the level of flooding that the city has experienced in recent years, the plan also encourages municipal designers to incorporate low-impact development such as increased green corridors and parks, as well as more typical emergency preparations for storm damage such as dikes or sandbagging.

A rendering of greenspace-based water systems, based on solutions proposed by the Copenhagen Climate Adaptation Plan. Image from
A rendering of greenspace-based water systems, based on solutions proposed by the Copenhagen Climate Adaptation Plan. Image from

A recent American example, borne out of tragedy but taking advantage of the opportunity for renewal, is the New Orleans Urban Water Plan. After widespread devastation in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2006, the city exerted a massive effort to rebuild and welcome its population back into their homes—and many architects and engineers called out the need for improved infrastructure. Just last year, an improved water system plan was released from collaboration between Dutch water infrastructure experts and New-Orleans-based firm Waggonner and Ball Architects. The plan features pairing wetlands as a first line of defense against stormwater with improved levees to create a better method of managing water internally before depending on storm sewers to weep water back out to the Gulf. The plan will be implemented through a series of demonstration projects in the greater NOLA-metropolitan area once adequate funding is procured, and will attempt to not only preserve but enhance traditional New Orleans vernacular architecture and culture.

Rendering of proposed New Orleans Urban Water Plan. Image from
Rendering of proposed New Orleans Urban Water Plan. Image from

Want to learn more about resiliency projects that are being carried through right now? Just last year, the Rockefeller Institute announced 100 Resilient Cities, a challenge for cities around the globe to reduce their vulnerability to various contemporary urban challenges, including extreme weather damage, disease outbreaks, worsening pollution, and building housing for increasing populations. In December of last year, they announced a list of 100 cities which they will monitor throughout 2014 for progress of various projects. Sign up to receive updates, and watch resiliency projects develop around the globe!

For more reading on resilient architecture, check out:

*featured image from


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