Estuary in Guntersville, Alabama | Nathan Anderson

Innovations in planning, design, and construction offer a compelling vision of a world of resilient communities:

  • Ecological planning was set forth by Ian McHarg’s Design with Nature in 1969. It represents a visible and understandable process needed to gain support of complex conservation and development choices.
  • Built projects ranging in scale from small site to regional scales demonstrate that sustainability and resilience can be achieved through economical and equitable means.
  • Information and communication technologies enable urban planning, building and operations to be more coordinated and accessible to achieve broad public participation and community engagement.

Ecological planning

Some fifty years ago, Ian McHarg illustrated a planning methodology by mapping elements of land and natural systems, with examples from the landscape practice of Wallace, McHarg, Roberts, and Todd (WMRT). The projects show recommendations that support ecological values by mapping natural system assets—vegetation, soils, drainage and geology, hydrology, and wildlife habitats, alongside cultural features of historic, scenic, and recreational value. Once mapped, each element is ranked in priority. Overlays of the maps reveal mutual support or conflict, making the process of planning transparent and easily understood, even to the untrained eye. [1]

Site analysis of climate-related elements (wind, sun, vegetation) have been part of site planning since the Bauhaus era (Hannes Meyer). Other ecological planning criteria documented in the WMRT studies were not commonly part of mid-century land planning—wildlife habitats, riverine areas, and alluvial soils are examples. Even more remarkable for its time are the overlays documenting elements of “health and pathology,” disease, pollution, and social indices such as poverty that contribute to risks of environmental health.

In the decades that followed, “design with nature” continued in influence, variously called energy-conscious design, bioclimatic design, ecological design, regenerative design, circular design, and green design. Although few of these approaches were adopted in planning regulations and building codes (they were commonly dismissed as “unaffordable”), they were represented in “best practice” guidelines. By the 1990s, “sustainable design” checklists contained hundreds of design and construction recommendations represented in special awards, certification and rating systems. [2]

Since Hurricane Katrina, the increasing frequency and magnitude of disastrous storms events—floods, tornadoes and earthquakes—and lessons learned in recovery have been expressed in the concept of “resilience,” represented in new requirements for planning, urban upgrading and climate action investments for localities and nations across the world.

“Resilience” is defined, in U.S. Presidential Policy Directive-8 (PPD-8) initiated by President Obama in 2011 still current as a guidance document for national preparedness, as: “Resilience, in terms of mitigation planning, means the ability to adapt to changing conditions and prepare for, withstand, and rapidly recover from disruptions caused by a hazard.” This directive is commonly implemented in local and state Natural Hazard Mitigation Plans (NHMPs) as a condition to qualify for the National Flood Insurance Program, typically revised every ten years, and annually updated. [3]  

Resilience policies, plans and actions are seen around the world. Recommended best practices  are represented by the International Standards Organization document, “Indicators for Resilient Cities.” Indicators for resilient cities include floods, earthquakes, hurricanes, wildfires, volcanic eruptions, pandemics, chemical spills and explosions, terrorism, power outages, financial crises, cyber-attacks and conflicts.  A resilient city is one that is able to prepare for, recover from, and adapt to these shocks and stresses. [4]

Detailed guidelines are promoted by the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR), established in 2005 and devoted to implementing the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030. UNDRR’s framework of “essentials for making cities resilient” is a set of ten steps that include organizing for disaster, identifying current and future risk scenarios, resilient urban development and infrastructure, and building back better. The UNDRR framework sets a high standard by listing as an “essential” to include future risk scenarios in planning for resilience and to plan for most severe “worse-case events.” [5]

From small sites to regional scales

Thousands of projects have been undertaken in the past decade that demonstrates that sustainability and resilience can be achieved through economical and equitable means.

1. Building element
Rainwater harvesting, food production

Eagle Street Rooftop Farm, Greenpoint, Brooklyn, NY, operating since 2010, occupies a 6,000 sq. ft. roof. It produces organic, and heirloom fruits and vegetables and flowers and honey from bee apiculture, serves neighbors (who may also contribute compost), and open on Sundays to visitors as well as educational workshops.

2. Building/site
Zero carbon and energy, water, and food production

The Brock Environmental Center, Virginia Beach, Virginia, Headquarters of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, is a “zero carbon” and resource-positive design by SmithGroup, Architects. Roof-mounted solar panels and two wind turbines produce twice the energy it uses. The water captured by rainwater recovery is purified and used for on-site water uses, including irrigation. The bayside site includes a demonstration mobile oyster production facility estimated to have the potential to double Virginia’s annual oyster production.

3. Landscape/campus
100% rainwater harvesting and zero-discharge of run-off

UWM Campus as a Zero-Discharge Zone, is an on-going project of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee led by Prof. James Wasley and Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District to reduce and eliminate campus stormwater run-off rates and volumes comparable to its pre-settlement state, including demonstrations of rainwater harvesting and stormwater management best-practices.

4. Landscape/neighborhood
72% reduction in urban stormwater

The New Haven Downtown Watershed Project was undertaken as a “living lab” experimental project by the Yale Hixon Center for Urban Ecology to test the effectiveness of bioswales to reduce and cleanse stormwater overloads draining into New Haven Harbor and Long Island Sound. Continuous monitoring of results of “before and after” bioswale installation indicates an average of 72% reduction in stormwater flows in the stormwater system.

5. Municipal district
42% reduction in flood-prone properties

Harbor Brook Flood Control Project was initiated in 1996, Meriden Connecticut for the Harbor Brook watershed that drained through the town, ravished by frequent floods, including derelict sites and brownfields from the town’s industrial past. The project by Milone & MacBroom Engineers included numerous improvements, including culvert replacements, bridge elevations, and river bed lowering throughout the 13 sq. mi. area. The downtown has been transformed by the creation of a flood park, traversed by a pedestrian bridge connecting surrounding neighborhoods to a multi-nodal transportation center. The sum of interventions have reduced the city’s Special Flood Hazard Area by 42%.

6. Large municipal infrastructure
Water recycling, reuse of bio-solids and methane

San Antonio Water System (SAWS) has constructed a water treatment plant that purifies and recycles wastewater, and through public/private partnerships recovers organic biosolids for landscape soil, as well as methane biogas delivered to a nearby commercial pipeline. Recycled water is distributed through 130 miles of pipeline for use in municipal parks, commercial and industrial customers, as well as San Antonio’s River Walk.

7. Regional/Watershed
300-mile watershed remediation and stewardship

Hudson River Sustainable Shorelines is a multi-year project of New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation and Hudson River National Estuary Reserve, including research, project cost-sharing, and outreach to communities along the River’s 300 miles. Case studies and pilot projects include “living shoreline” measures and restoration of aquatic and near-shore habitats.

8. Metropolitan/state government
Metropolitan and state governmental operations

Rio de Janeiro Operations Center serves as a hub to monitor and coordinate real-time functions of more than 30 municipal and state agencies. Prototype for urban systems with IBM and the Municipality of Rio de Janeiro following a devastating earthquake in 2010.

Climate action projects ranging in scale from small sites to regional watersheds

Information and communication technologies

The capacity to undertake master planning to the level of rigor required to model future climate scenarios is made possible by current-day Information and Communications Technology (ITC), combining video, computer simulation, and interactive map visualization. With the advantage of coordinating normally separate components of urban infrastructure, these capacities are commonly utilized in emergency operations centers and “smart city” operation centers.

Rio de Janeiro’s Center has received wide acclaim as well as cautions and critiques. In a 2016 article in Journal of Urban Technology, the Center’s operations are credited with improving rapid response, traffic, and waste management but given poor marks for failure to create inclusiveness and public access (the Center is housed in a fenced and secure limited-access zone). It also faults the Center’s lack of longer-term future planning since it is primarily an emergency and city management hub rather than a planning unit. [6]

Such limitations are typical of emergency operation centers, where access to data has to remain privileged due to security, public safety, and rights to privacy. The critique of what is privileged vs. public can be resolved by data management, sorting data normally made public for planning purposes. Meetings to engage a broad public, evident in current worldwide use of distance learning, make it feasible to gain full outreach and public participation. These solutions are familiar community engagement practices. ITC advantages are thus potent, enabling public participation and engagement in longer-term planning.

The ability to monitor, model, and simulate future scenarios of urban systems offers the strongest case for ITC applications to planning, design and operations, with special capacity for the critical services of health and safety, food, and water infrastructure that serve as community lifelines.

“Lifelines” is a term of art for sustainability and resilience planning, describing essential and critical services in urban systems and human settlements as “Life support networks, composed of civil infrastructure … fulfill fundamental roles for the proper functioning of a society by ensuring essential services concerning the health and safety of populations and the proper functioning of the economy.” [7]

Among the highest priority actions to achieve resilience, critical lifeline services predominate. A definition of “community lifelines” is at the core of U.S. FEMA recommendations for natural hazard mitigation planning, required of U.S. communities that take part in the National Flood Insurance Program. [8] As listed in the FEMA website:

A lifeline enables the continuous operation of critical government and business functions and is essential to human health and safety or economic security.

  • Efforts to protect lifelines, prevent and mitigate potential impacts to them, and build back stronger and smarter during recovery will drive overall resilience of the nation.
  • Lifelines are the most fundamental services in the community that, when stabilized, enable all other aspects of society to function.
  • The integrated network of assets, services, and capabilities that provide lifeline services are used day-to-day to support the recurring needs of the community.
  • When disrupted, decisive intervention such as rapid re-establishment and response solutions is required to stabilize the incident.  

A report by C40 lists numerous categories of “adaptation actions” complied from approximately 10,000 projects undertaken between 2011-2015 by cities participating in the international C40 Cities Climate program. Individual project costs ranged from $100,000 to $10 million, with a majority of actions carried out costing under $500,000, 70% of which were funded by the city’s own budget or savings. The projects are listed in the figure below from top to bottom, in rank order of actions most frequently undertaken. [9]

The C40 list is representative, but not exhaustive, of the hundreds of climate actions that contribute to sustainability and resilience. Many projects support critical services and community lifelines across all scales, with multiple disciplines addressing multi-hazards, representing the power and scope of “Rainbow Resilience.”

Rainbow Resilience: Community Lifelines realizable thru DRR / Climate Actions


Get Involved

Support Our Work

Learn more about our interdisciplinary network.


Reflections from the 2024 Gala