Navigant Research Blog

Preparing for the Worst, Cities Seek Resilience

Eric Woods — August 7, 2014

The Rockefeller Foundation is asking cities to apply for the latest phase of its 100 Resilient Cities Centennial Challenge.  This challenge aims to enable 100 cities to better address the shocks and stresses of the 21st century.  The selected cities receive support from the Rockefeller Foundation to create and implement resilience plans and to hire chief resilience officers (CROs) to oversee strategies.  Thirty-two cities – including, for example, Bangkok, New Orleans, Durban, Mexico City, and Rotterdam – were selected in the first phase of the competition.  San Francisco appointed the first CRO in April 2014.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2014 report on the impacts of global climate change highlights the particular vulnerability of urban infrastructures.  The impact of climate change on cities can take many forms – including increased temperature, drought, and storms – but the most direct threat comes from rising sea levels.  Approximately 360 million urban residents live in coastal areas less than 10 meters above sea level.  China alone has more than 78 million people living in vulnerable, low elevation cities.  Miami, New York City, and Tokyo are also among the top 20 cities at the highest risk of coastal flooding, along with Asian megacities such as Mumbai, Shanghai, Bangkok, and Dhaka.   The 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in Japan and Hurricane Sandy off the East Coast of the United States in 2012 demonstrated how even the most advanced cities can be devastated by extreme events.

After the Flood

The threat to American cities is further emphasized in the Third National Climate Assessment from the U.S.  Global Change Research ProgramMiami, in particular, is developing into a test case for the impact of the climate changes on U.S. cities and the ability of civic and business leaders to collaborate in response.

Resilience can be characterized as the ability of cities and communities to bounce back from catastrophic events, as well as respond to more gradual changes that threaten well-being or economic stability.  Resilience is not just a question of identifying and acting on specific climate change impacts; it also requires an assessment of each city’s complex and interconnected infrastructure and institutional systems.   New York, for example, initiated a major study of the how the city’s infrastructure and services can be better designed to cope with events like Hurricane Sandy – including more resilient, distributed energy grids and new approaches to land use policy in flood-prone areas.

Urban Sensitivities

Resilience is also a driver for new technology adoption.  The Sensing City project in Christchurch, New Zealand is an interesting test case for how smart city technologies can support resilience planning.  Christchurch was devastated by an earthquake in 2011 that left 185 people dead; the rebuilding project is estimated to eventually cost around NZ$40 billion ($35 million) in total.  The aim of Sensing City is to use sensor technologies and data analytics, including smartphones and sensors embedded in new construction, to lay the foundation for a healthier, more sustainable, and more resilient city.

Coping with the threats and uncertainties of the 21st century will require a deeper understanding of the normal operations of a city and its vulnerabilities.  That’s why resilience is becoming one of the key attributes of any smart city and a significant driver for the smart city market.

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