On resilient infrastructure

Over the past few years, the impacts of climate change have become evident. Storms are more frequent and powerful, resulting in large monetary losses along with tragic human costs. Hurricane Sandy, which hit the East Coast of the United States in 2012, and Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan), which decimated parts of the Philippines in 2013, provided grim reminders of the ravaging force of these events.

Over the past 40 years, a very clear and alarming trend of ever-increasing storms and floods has become apparent.

DisasterTrendsWide_HOR_EM-DATTheinternationaldisasterdatabase

This becomes an issue of epic proportions when one considers that 75% of the world’s cities (with a population of almost three billion people) are in coastal areas vulnerable to flooding from storms and tidal surges.

Resilient infrastructure can no longer be seen as optional. The time has come to upgrade old infrastructure in existing cities — and to plan and design robust infrastructure in the regions now being developed in response to urbanization.

Bouncing back

By definition, resilient infrastructure must be able to recover quickly from difficulties. In the context of the built environment, this means that transportation systems; grids (electrical and smart); information and communications technologies; energy and water systems; and buildings all need to have this “bounceback” ability after a storm or other event.

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Flooding in New York City Subway tunnels following Hurricane Sandy

This is particularly significant for the grid of the future, which will integrate many functions needed for the built environment. Failure of this infrastructure would be disastrous, impacting all aspects of life.

Everything, all the time

What must we be resilient to? The answer, really, is  everything. Slowly changing stressors: climate change, sea-level rise, erosion, greater rainfall, stronger windstorms. Sudden shocks: earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, tornadoes. Social change: revolution, demographic change.

When do we need to be resilient? The answer is always. But, to be more precise, we must be resilient before, during, after, and long after an event.

Resilience before means having a plan and social connections, knowing what plan B is, and understanding what might befall us.

Riding out the storm, earthquake, or even tsunami, is quite often the easy bit — as long as one is alive at the end. Resilient infrastructure can go a long way in preventing detrimental impacts. For example, sea walls can mitigate tidal surges. Putting critical infrastructure outside the floodplain will keep buildings and transportation systems in operation.

What must we be resilient to? The answer, really, is everything

Right after a disastrous event, the focus is on staying alive. Very shortly after, the priority is staying healthy. Disaster recovery is about providing food, water, shelter, and sanitation as quickly as possible. Robust infrastructure (transportation, communications, etc.) makes this much easier.

Long-term resilience is all about learning from extreme events and adapting plans and systems for the better.

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Typhoon Yolanda’s aftermath in the Philippines

Preparing for an uncertain future

In summary, we need to be resilient to a wide range of things, at all stages of their occurrence. We must be aware that the future will be different while recognizing that we cannot predict how different it will be.

The basic characteristics of a resilient system can be summarized in the following six key points.

Redundancy or flexibility. Providing multiple pathways in a system; making sure there are many ways to get things done.

Capacity. Making sure that systems are not stretched to their breaking point.

Safe failure. Designing and planning so that the failure of a single piece of equipment does not result in failure of the entire system. This can be achieved through flexibility or extra capacity.

Rapid rebound. Making a system that can be brought back quickly if it fails or has to be shut down for its own protection.

Constant learning. We always have to learn from the last event so that procedures, systems, responses, and so on can be made more efficient and effective.

Looking ahead. Anticipating, planning, and designing for the predicted future impacts of climate change.

Stronger, better — now

One school of thought suggests that resilience and livability are mutually exclusive. That is simply not so. In fact, it’s clear that resilient infrastructure will ensure livability in the very long term, making life a great deal better and safer for the billions of people living in coastal areas that will experience storms, tidal surges, and sea-level rise.

Now is the time to build and rebuild infrastructure in vulnerable areas. Waiting is not an option.

Adapted from Arup’s contribution to Creating Resilient & Livable Cities, a publication highlighting insights from the Pacific Cities Sustainability Initiative’s 2014 Annual Forum. To learn more about the Pacific Cities Sustainability Initiative, a partnership of Urban Land Institute and Asia Society, visit www.asiasociety.org/PCSI.

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