Can Resilience Save Tomorrow’s Cities From Climate Change and Disaster? A Future Tense Event.

In the coming decades, cities will be bigger than ever, energy more expensive, and the climate more volatile. These new challenges, to use the politician’s favorite euphemism, will make it harder than ever to meet electricity demands, run transportation systems smoothly and keep buildings safe. The answer? Resilience, say some experts. But what does that really mean?

To define the term and learn how the concept is being applied today, Future Tense—a partnership of Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate—and Scientific American co-hosted a discussion called “Can Megacities Be Resilient?” on Wednesday night at New America’s SoHo office. SciAm associate editor David Biello was joined by Leah Cohen, New York City’s climate resilience advisor, and Steven Koonin, inaugural director of NYU’s new Center for Urban Science and Progress and former undersecretary of energy for science. Though most of the conversation focused on how New York City is working to build up its resilience, its actions can be instructive to other urban areas. Indeed, many of its efforts were inspired by partners around the world.

First things first: defining resilience. In her role at the New York City mayor’s office, Cohen said resilience is “really about risk management” and the capacity to “withstand and recover from environmental changes.” The mayor’s office is focused on protecting critical city infrastructure, safeguarding development on the shoreline that could threatened by climate change-induced sea-level rise, and keeping people safe by strengthening emergency response. Koonin added that these efforts aren’t motivated solely by climate change—the city’s systems also need to be resilient in the face of blackouts, terrorist threats, natural disasters, and other events—foreseen or not.

This all sounds eminently reasonable, but implementing it—especially, as Biello pointed out, in a time of budget constraints—is tricky, to say the least. The key components: intensive planning and priority setting. Those, in turn, require good, strong data.

Koonin calls himself “at heart a hard-core data geek.” He hopes to wire cities so that they constantly generate information about how people actually live, thus allowing for resources to be allocated in a much more targeted, efficient manner. He cited one proposal that may seem extreme—requiring that all cars that enter city limits have a GPS navigator, so that traffic information can be dissected. “You can feel the 1984 vibe,” Biello said as people in the standing-room-only audience murmured. But Koonin stressed that individual privacy will be respected from the outset of any such initiatives. Furthermore, he emphasized, companies already have much of that information. At least government would put it to good use.

Jarring as it may sound, there’s a logic behind pinpointing where resources are needed, especially as populations boom. According to Cohen, New York City may have an additional 1 million residents by 2030, even as it faces effects of climate change —like more hot days and an increased risk of flooding. But they aren’t thinking about “going in and getting rid of neighborhoods and restoring them to wetlands,” she says. Instead, they are looking to “green infrastructure” and how to do things like retrofit existing buildings.

Koonin and Cohen agreed that one of the best ways to help cities like New York develop resilience is to work with other places facing the same problems. For instance, if you’re worried about earthquakes, Koonin said, look to the seismic codes of Japan, which requires gradual upgrades to its buildings. Cohen pointed to some efforts of the Dutch as models for how New York City could address sea-level rise. The NYC mayor’s office is involved the C40 group of dozens of cities—originally 40, but now more than 50—that are engaged in discussion about climate change. Perhaps the biggest hurdle, aside from budget, is bureaucracy. Koonin believes that when it comes to inefficiencies, “We do a lot of this to ourselves, the way we divide up governmental authorities.” Too many departments are involved in the same areas—like energy policy.

Which gets to a fundamental issue here. Resilience requires seemingly disparate fields—fiscal policy, national security, environmental protection, infrastructure—to work together to create robust systems. But only when they work together properly, instead of engaging in turf disputes, will things get better instead of worse.