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News & opinion

2 MAR 2018

What makes for a resilient city?

When the subject of resilience came up in San Francisco, there was no major hurricane or weather event to bring a sense of immediacy to the subject. Rather, those in attendance brought up climate change as the underlying cause of all the extreme weather we’re experiencing globally to predict the most likely threats to the region.

The term “climate change” was thrown around with familiarity and a sense of urgency in California – it was one that didn’t come up in Texas.

In Houston and again in San Francisco, Ryan Colker opened the resilience discussion with some stark facts from the 2017 Interim Report by the National Institute of Building Sciences (NIBS). The report highlights the benefits of implementing two mitigation strategies: using mitigation funding and designing new buildings to exceed provisions in the current building code. For every dollar spent on hazard mitigation, mitigation funding can save six dollars in future disaster costs. Boosting building codes can save four dollars for every dollar spent on these improvements.

Implementing these two strategies would prevent 600 deaths, one million nonfatal injuries and 4,000 cases of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in the long term. Designing new buildings to a more robust code would result in 87,000 new, long-term jobs and support domestically-produced construction material manufacturers.

Colker stressed that some of the benefits of investing in resilience measures can not be defined.

Mitigation must be a group effort. The key is to focus on the most cost-effective approach and look at the investment from a wholistic perspective. If one home is a fortress against natural disasters, the residents are still trapped if they can’t go to the store or return to work. Instead, efforts should be made to make the infrastructure resilient – with everyone doing their part.


Stan Lew is an architect, Principal at RMW architecture and interiors and Executive Director at San Francisco 2030 District, an interdisciplinary public-private collaborative tasked with creating a high-performance building district in downtown San Francisco. The 2030 Districts Network is establishing a global network of communities working to mitigate and adapt to climate change. In San Francisco, 10 million square feet and over 2,800 buildings have been committed to the initiative. Lew gave examples of the kinds of innovation resulting from the collaboration.

A hotel in San Francisco 20-storeys tall has built a colony of four beehives on the rooftop with 250,000 bees. The colony produces 1,000 pounds of honey per year and provides a local food source – the emissions required to transport honey into the city.

One of the tallest office buildings in San Francisco has 30,000-gallon blackwater treatment on site. This water treatment facility reduces water waste and can provide emergency water in a crisis if a process is built to share resources between buildings.

Another example given is a building with the first evacuation elevators. They’re built to a different standard so that if there’s an earthquake, you go to your elevator. “Most people understand investment is worth doing but we still have trouble doing it,” said Lew.

A virtual model of San Francisco was designed to build bridges between buildings that currently act as islands of resilience to increase collaboration and sharing. “Resilience is a community effort,” said Lew.

Mind the gap

Building on the concept of bridging islands of resiliency, Peter Wijsman, Vice President at Arcadis, reminded those in the room that in 2050, the majority of the world’s population will live in Coastal Cities. He spoke about integrating resilient infrastructure into city planning.

For coastal cities, preparing for floods may require an evolution of thinking as the doomsday scenario becomes increasingly likely over time.

“Part of the evolution is a certain level of acceptance that some cities need to accept that some parts of the year, there will be nuisance flooding,” said Wijsman, “but part of resiliency is on the education side too. What are acceptable impacts and how do we live with them in society?”

Rebuild or abandon?

Once of the attendees asked whether people are starting to question whether in some areas prone to flooding, efforts to rebuild after disasters should be abandoned. Perhaps some neighbourhoods are just too vulnerable to justify the cost of investment.

Colker cautions against a simplistic view on the subject since often it’s the poor communities that are more vulnerable to natural disasters. He also stressed that communities cannot rely on the government to take on the cost of rebuilding – rather, we all need to take opportunities to improve resiliency.

Insurance policies aren’t written in a way to provide support in these efforts, he noted. “Policies only allow you to build back to the same level you were at before. That’s hampering those challenges.”

Standardizing resilience

Despite the importance of keeping resiliency in mind, however, there are no common standards with which to measure a building or a community’s level of resilience. This is something, Lew pointed out, the industry is working towards.

Once we’re able to measure resilience, and therefore flaunt it and reinforce it, we may be able to encourage more participation in mitigation efforts. In the meantime, there’s a misalignment between the one who pays the cost of mitigation and the one who benefits from it. Recouping six dollars for every dollar spent is a great ratio but if the person who pays the cost doesn’t reap a reward, there’s not much of an incentive to make the investment.