We focus on prevention a lot when we talk about sustainability. Common sense sustainability techniques prevent and repair damage to the planet’s natural resources.

But as someone once said, there’s no force greater than the force of nature. So while we can do our best to slow the increase in climate volatility, we also have to focus on the fact that our buildings, campuses, and communities will be expected to withstand the forces of nature one way or another.

Whether it is wind, rain, flood, heat, or just the brutal assault of time, sustainability strategies in real estate and urban development must include resilience.

Resilience Defined for Appropriate Action

100 Resilient Cities breaks down resilience into two categories: Chronic Stresses and Acute Shocks.

Chronic stresses include unemployment, inefficient public transportation systems, endemic violence, and chronic food and water shortages. Chicago State University’s recent layoff notice to 900 employees due to a budget crisis is a prime example.

Acute shocks include natural disasters like earthquakes and floods; climate change induced extreme weather; disease outbreaks like the zika virus; and terrorist attacks like the shootings in San Bernardino, or the recent gun violence in Hesston, Kansas.

And in those cities that have chronic stresses, the response to acute shocks is that much more important to be swift and to get right. Consider how the lead poisoning in Flint Michigan would have had a different outcome in a city with lower unemployment and a stronger infrastructure.

What both have in common is that they are generally unforeseeable crises. Therefore, through proper infrastructure and proactive planning, we must be prepared to act and recover quickly.

Why Resiliency Matters

Hamid Moghadam, CEO of San Francisco-based Prologis, was quoted at ULI’s Building the Resilient City: Risks and Opportunities conference in September of 2014,

“A very important aspect of resiliency is customer service and reputational risk. If you can’t get to your tenants in a reasonable time and meet their needs, your reputation is trashed. People will remember how your organization reacted in a time of difficulty and whether you had the capability of getting your customers back on line.”

Prologis was able to directly benefit from resilience planning during Hurricane Sandy – an acute shock to the city – when 23 of the company’s warehouses in the region were impacted. Through proactive planning, including developing and reviewing their emergency response, inspection of their building’s infrastructure, and contacting and informing employees and customers, they had their facilities back up within 48 hours and had resources to spare, which were used to help neighboring facilities. (Source)

By comparison, many of the 1.5 million other affected businesses took months to get back on their feet, with damages averaging $250,000 or more. With help from the NYC New Business Acceleration Team, businesses shuttered due to Sandy reopened in 138 days, on average. Without this assistance, businesses opened in 216 days on average.

Caption: The lower levels of a building in Manhattan’s Battery Park area is submerged under floodwaters following Hurricane Sandy on October 30, 2012. (Source)

 “Companies are now banking on extreme events like floods, hurricanes, and 100-year winter storms,” said Kim Pexton, regional director for Paladino and Company, “and it’s not limited to reacting to singular events – the built environment needs to adapt to climate change as an ongoing challenge.”

Building for the Future

This increase in climate related extreme weather has also led to new incentives to build sustainable and resilient buildings. There are municipal incentives such as incentive zoning, and insurers are starting to look more closely at the resilience of buildings when setting insurance rates.

How do you make a building resilient?

  1. Elevate building controls
  2. Co-generate heat and power
  3. Protect ground floor windows with tall planters
  4. Plant saltwater-tolerant native plants
  5. Edible landscaping
  6. Clustered resources with a high density of talent, resources, and tools
  7. Modular systems that have interchangeable parts – so that a failure at one point doesn’t dismantle the entire system
  8. Optimized stormwater control
  9. Inclusion of safe rooms and community shelters

But changing infrastructure for resilience is not enough. One of the best things you can do to increase a building or campus’ resilience is to introduce the requirement into your planning process. Meaningful change can be achieved when the proper plan and training is in place. To jump start this, consider the following:

  1. Create a task force or group that reaches beyond your own organization to include other community members and groups
  2. Assess current vulnerabilities
  3. Make a plan for education and communication
  4. Identify metrics for tracking progress

Resilience allows us to reach beyond building and campus boundaries, engage the community and prepare us for what is ahead, even if it is unknown. Rather than thinking of resilience as the “next” sustainability, consider resilience thinking to be necessary companion to sustainability thinking.


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