Cutting through the noise on urban resilience

Lisa Dickson recently joined Arup’s Boston office to lead the firm’s climate risk and resilience work in the Americas. She spoke with Doggerel about the state of the urban resilience field.


What do you consider the most exciting things happening in the city resilience arena today?

Just the fact that we’re having more discussions about it than we were able to several years ago is exciting. It’s no longer a fringe subject; it’s evolved into a mainstream tenet of urban planning and design. And that there are so many more voices engaged. It’s not only about coastal flooding, but extreme events like heat waves, droughts, heavy downpours. There’s also a growing focus on social vulnerabilities, public health, and economic impacts. The emphasis has grown beyond traditional infrastructure.

Sacramento’s California State Capitol in summer 2014

There’s also a real push to start to move beyond the planning phase — which is still very important — and start actually implementing changes. That’s an important shift, and something that was bolstered by the significant post–[Hurricane] Sandy work coming out of places like New York and New Jersey. You see it not only in the climate preparedness studies but also in more traditional projects that are starting to incorporate resiliency considerations.

There’s also a growing recognition that climate change acts in unison with other drivers and that impact analyses need to be more inclusive. Climate change shouldn’t be viewed as its own silo, but as one of many risks our clients are faced with — social risks, economic risks, etc. That means clients need to first identify what their climate risk looks like, then integrate that into their overall plans, policies, and design guidelines.

How does this happen? When city governments come to you wanting to know how to deal with climate change, what do you do?

The extent of data and information can be overwhelming, and it’s difficult to know where to start. Often, it’s easier for clients if we parse it into three distinct steps.

The first step focuses on determining what the climate is going to look like in 20 to 50 years in the client’s geographical area. Sometimes we work with academic experts to figure this out. Other times there’s sufficient data from previous studies to develop a climate baseline.

Map showing Boston-area flooding probabilities between 2070 and 2100

The second phase involves working with the city to understand what its critical resources are and overlaying the expected climate change impacts on those resources. For example, let’s say the city identifies a bike path as a critical resource. The bike path might be quite sensitive to flooding but not so sensitive to heat events.

Manhattan bike path

And then you think about adaptive capacity. That gets to whether or not there’s redundancy in the system. Let’s say that first bike path is flooded. If there’s another bike path on higher ground there’s redundancy in the overall system, and that reduces the system’s vulnerability.

So we would go through each of the resources identified by the city and understand which are most vulnerable. And we’d be looking at more than just the built environment. We would also analyze the natural and social environments as well, with a particular emphasis on vulnerable populations.

Once we finish that, we bring the more vulnerable resources to the next step, the risk assessment. The low-vulnerability elements drop out; we focus on the high-vulnerability assets.

The risk assessment brings in aspects of probability and consequence. What’s the probability of failure, what’s the consequence of failure? And that’s what tells you the overall risk. In many cases, human health and safety and continuity of services are the primary things we consider when thinking about the consequences of failure for a particular resource.

Take the bike path: Think of a flooding scenario — the path might be highly vulnerable and have a high probability of flooding. Compare that with a substation. That also has a high vulnerability — a high probability of flooding — but it has a higher consequence if it were to fail. A failed substation will cause the city more problems than a failed bike path.

So that’s how you start to break out the more at-risk assets, focusing on the probability and consequence. In this example the substation would be carried forward through to the third stage for the adaptation preparedness focus; the bike path would drop out.

We also consider assets that may occur outside of the city’s geographical boundaries but that could still present significant vulnerabilities if they were to fail. Think of transportation and energy systems, as well as telecommunications.

At the end of this assessment we take the list of resources that have been identified as having the highest probability and consequence of failure and use that group as the focus for the last step: climate adaptation and preparation.

Sea level rise projections from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

It’s one thing to agree in theory that one resource is more vulnerable than another, but if powerful interest groups are more concerned about bike paths than substations, for example, how would that affect this scenario?

One way to ensure a balanced approach is stakeholder engagement — and, importantly, meaningful stakeholder engagement — throughout the study.

And stakeholders often include not only the public and community members, but also strategic advisory committees that can be tapped for technical advice. For example, a municipality may partner with local academic experts to gain additional insights about the latest climate science.


Four scenarios for projected temperature change by 2071 to 2099, depending on emissions levels

A technical advisory committee consisting of key infrastructure owners and operators would also be valuable, especially when trying to figure out the extent of vulnerability and overall dependence on systems that are outside of the city’s jurisdiction but will have a huge impact on the overall resiliency of that area during extreme events.

Meaningful community participation is equally important, as is engagement with vulnerable populations and groups that aren’t traditionally represented in these types of forums — youth, for example.

There’s a tendency to focus on the technical attributes of this type of work, but a well thought-out stakeholder engagement process is as important to successful implementation as the technical analysis itself.

A well thought-out stakeholder engagement process is as important to successful implementation as the technical analysis itself.

Resilience is a relatively new concept for most people. Since most engineers, architects, etc. didn’t learn about it in school, who’s leading the charge on efforts like this? How have processes like the one you just described evolved?

Various aspects of resiliency are addressed in many classrooms, but the evolution of theory into practice can only really happen in the field. People have to learn how to translate the more abstract training into actual projects.

Resiliency is really the inverse of risk, so I think anybody who’s involved in risk already has an inclination toward this field. It is fundamentally about maintaining an acceptable level of service and livability in a dynamic and changing environment.

Two scenarios for projected temperature changes from 2071 to 2099

On the climate change side, a lot of the work that I’ve been involved with in the past several years has been around building a methodology. How do we translate the uncertainty of climate data into something that can be used to determine current and future risks? That’s been fun, applying my prior experience to this challenge. My academic training is as a paleontologist. I studied mass extinctions, attempting to isolate the two or three variables that were responsible for the majority of the observed data. In many ways it’s very similar to what’s going on with climate. Where do you start? There’s a lot of noise.

Where do you start? There’s a lot of noise.

I then worked for the Maine Department of Transportation, doing large-scale environmental impact statements and working through the National Environmental Policy Act, which required detailed alternative analyses involving careful consideration of impacts not only to the built environment but to the social, economic, and natural environments as well. This was extremely valuable training since it allowed me to understand how development could be advanced in a balanced way.

Maybe the biggest influencer for me, though, was the evolution of the carbon market and the concept of monetizing environmental attributes. That was an essential step in truly integrating the concepts of economic value and risk with respect to the natural environment. It laid the groundwork for similar approaches evolving within the resiliency field today.

Scientists measuring a glacier’s terminus, information used in climate change research.

I’m assuming that your colleagues in the resilience world also come from disparate fields.

They really do. Some are engineers, some are scientists, some are architects, and some are planners — there’s not one particular arena where more people come from than another. And that is probably because risk itself cuts across all these sectors and a truly successful solution will require input from all these disciplines.

Resiliency is very much like sustainability: it can mean a lot to different people. So we need to be clear about our reference points when we talk about it. Resiliency is really about understanding your key risks and being self-sufficient regardless of which one may come to bear.


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