22 MAY 2018
“We’re on the cusp of another period of great change,” said RICS President John Hughes as he launched the RICS Summit Series Americas 2018 New York Summit. Panelists throughout the day confirmed this assertion whether they were talking about PropTech, climate change, the construction industry or real estate investments, the cities of the future will not function in the status quo.
Change is coming and the management of this change cannot be relegated to one planning department, explained the keynote speaker Daniel Zarrilli, Senior Director of Climate Policy and Programs and Chief Resilience Officer at the NYC Office of the Mayor. Whether you think of it as resilience or planning for climate change, urgent action is required and it is going to take an all-hands-on-deck approach.
“What happened during Hurricane Sandy was an eye opener,” he said. With open eyes, his department took a wider look at climate change predictions to build a resilience strategy for the city.
Looking ahead to 2050, climate-related risks come from chronic hazards and extreme events. In New York, there will be more rain and that rain will come at an increased intensity. It will be hotter by approximately five degrees Fahrenheit. Sea levels will rise by one or two feet and eight percent of the city’s shoreline will become flooded on a monthly basis.
In response to this crisis, New York has a $20 billion plan, which includes investing in neighborhoods to build social cohesion, upgrading building codes, elevating homes, investing in multi-family residences and heat mitigation, upgrading infrastructure systems and building coastal defence from storms.
“We’ve identified the worst polluting buildings in New York that account for nearly a quarter of emissions from burning of fossil fuels onsite,” he explained. Those 1,500 buildings will be targeted for fossil fuel retrofit mandates.
And in the face of federal inaction, New York City, along with almost 400 cities across the United States, has signed an executive order to align with the Paris Agreement. For New York, this means transitioning to more solar and wind and other investments in carbon neutrality, working to keep organics out of the landfills, building the infrastructure to support electric vehicles and divesting from fossil fuel investments by 2022.
“It’s hard to ignore the politics right now,” he said, “but there’s a lot of normal work that’s happening in order to pursue the goal we’ve set for ourselves. Climate change has somehow, because of deliberate misinformation, become political and we need to call it out.”
Later in the day, a panel tackled the subject of resilience head-on with President of the National Institute of Building Sciences (NIBS) Henry Green setting the context and moderating the panel.
NIBS recently released a study that found investing in mitigation pays the bills. For every dollar invested, there’s a six-dollar return. But the panel stressed that it wasn’t primarily interested in saving money – mitigating against disasters is about saving lives during weather events that are on a scale unlike anything encountered so far.
"The disaster is worse than we think it will be because we’re looking back to prior experiences, but for people to be protected, we need to have an adequate strategy that is forward-looking in its scope. We can generate solutions, but how do we get active implementation on the ground?" said Dale Todd, Executive Director at J.P. Morgan Asset Management.
Climate-related risks are localized with waterfront and low-lying areas at the highest risk but when disaster hits, the effects are felt nationwide. People who don’t have the money to rebuild are forced to leave the area to resettle in other cities or states. The panel stressed that resilience plans should be made on a larger scope rather than having a patchwork of solutions that leave gaps and vulnerable groups.
"We tend to focus on the high rises. That’s not what this is about. It’s about safeguarding communities that are in dire need. We have a lot of work to do and at the same time, we need to be honest," said Edgar Westerhof, National Director for Flood Risk and Resiliency at Arcadis.
The panel suggested the insurance industry be included in bringing about mitigation action. As an expert in risk mitigation, it is in a good place to steer change by refusing to insure high risk areas. If people want to live in high risk areas, they will have to be wealthy enough to mitigate the risks themselves. On a broader scale, insurance companies can require developers and building owners to invest in materials that will lower risks.
Stuart Brodsky, Clinical Assistant Professor at the New York University Schack Institute of Real Estate gave an example of a developer who was considering putting submarine-quality doors on the lower floors when rebuilding the World Trade Center. Vulnerable underground electrical rooms will leave the entire building in the dark during a flood. According to Brodsky, the insurance company stepped in and required the developer to install the submarine doors to ensure a resilient World Trade Center.
The insurance industry can provide incentives and disincentives to mitigate risk but the stakes are too high to leave solutions to one industry. To adequately prepare our cities for the future, we need public engagement and the political will to more forward.
"We should be changing the view of politicians who have control over the buildings that are built, how they are built and for whom they’re built. Get out and vote to make sure we have the right people there who are making those decisions," said Henry Green.