Making Today’s Cities Resilient for Tomorrow

Image credit: Flickr Contributor Ben

In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, the world learned an important lesson about the vital role of cities in coping with environmental challenges. As a result, today’s mayors, NGOs, and philanthropic organizations have increasingly shifted their focus toward urban resiliency in the face of climate change, pollution, and natural disaster. Programs such as The Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities initiative or Mayors’ National Climate Action Agenda signify the extent to which cities have taken these environmental concerns to heart — even as the Trump Administration threatens to cut funding for science and conservation.

As the State Director of The Nature Conservancy in Texas, Laura Huffman is one of many experts working to protect the world’s landscapes and natural resources in today’s uncertain political climate. Huffman also serves as the Founding Director of The Nature Conservancy’s North America Cities program, helping to integrate natural infrastructure into urban planning and development initiatives. I caught up with Huffman to find out why resiliency matters for cities and which practices are working best in today’s urban areas.

What is causing cities to think about future resiliency?

Our current global population of 7 billion is projected to jump to 9 billion over the next 50 years. The growth of cities creates a great deal of economic promise, but it’s also putting enormous pressure on water supplies and other natural resources. Cities are no longer self-contained and can no longer afford to address large-scale challenges like air pollution, water pollution, and flooding on their own. Demand for food, energy, and water will continue to grow, requiring dramatic improvements to city planning and financing structures.

What’s the difference between sustainability and resiliency?

I see them as related, but on the same continuum. Sustainability is the idea of striking the right balance between all our competing interests — food production, water usage, population growth, etc. — so people can have a good quality of life. Resiliency takes that a step further. Not only is it finding the right balance so that we don’t exhaust our natural resources, it’s also altering our cities and aging infrastructure so they’re better able to shoulder human impact and climate change. Resilience also takes into account the increasing frequency and intensity of disruptions like floods and droughts, and the need for cities to recover quickly.

“We can’t build our way out of this challenge.”

What are some of the major issues impacting cities?

Cities are facing an incredible set of challenges exacerbated by population growth. As more people move into urban areas, cities are developing previously untouched green space at an astonishing rate, which is having unintended and far-reaching impacts on our natural resources. Additionally, aging infrastructure has had an immense effect on resources like drinking water, as we’ve seen most notably in Flint, Michigan. It’s also quite expensive to fix using traditional solutions such as new pipelines and water treatment plants. A 2015 survey by the U.S. Conference of Mayors found that maintaining, operating, replacing, and upgrading our country’s water infrastructure could cost $2.8 trillion to $4.8 trillion through 2028. This shows that we can’t build our way out of this challenge.

Why does the Nature Conservancy care about resiliency?

The three major reasons are climate change, a rising global population, and increased migration to cities. Nature plays a critical role in helping cities adapt to their new reality. The Conservancy works with communities to integrate natural infrastructure into their planning through projects like urban tree canopies, intact vegetation surrounding rivers and lakes, rain gardens, ‘green’ rooftops, and healthy oyster reefs and coastal prairies. The Conservancy also recognizes that nature has the power to help urban residents lead healthier lives. Research has shown that something as simple as a walk in a park can reduce stress, anxiety, and the risk of obesity.

Image credit: Nature Conservancy / Devan King

Is there a city that’s a standout in the space? What are they doing and why?

For decades now, Austin and San Antonio have invested millions in protecting the Edwards Aquifer, the primary source of drinking water for more than 2 million Texans. The Conservancy has also partnered with the city of Louisville, Kentucky to plant 155 trees in under-invested neighborhoods through our Healthy Trees, Healthy Cities Initiative. And in Washington, D.C., we worked with district leaders to expand green space throughout the city and improve water quality in the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers.

How are cities paying for these efforts?

There’s no one-size-fits-all solution, but that leaves us with a lot of room to get creative. According to the National Association of Water Companies, more than 2,000 municipalities have entered into public-private partnerships for all or part of their water supply systems. Here in Texas, a key priority is fresh water. We’ve done a good job of institutionalizing conservation through our State Water Plan, but now we need to institutionalize implementation. Most Texans support the goal of conservation, voting several years ago to set aside 20 percent of our water plan funding for conservation and reuse projects. The next step is syncing the science and drafting legal frameworks to fully integrate the good work happening across the state.

How can cities work with the Trump administration to advance these initiatives?

Investing in nature is not optional. City leaders must organize and advocate for strong conservation and science funding in the form of federal programs like the Land and Water Conservation Fund and the Farm Bill. Together, these programs and others like them account for just one percent of the federal budget. Cutting them will contribute little to overall budget savings, but cost a great deal for the Americans who benefit from them.

I also encourage leaders to seek out creative collaborations with municipalities, private industries, NGOs, and other organizations to integrate natural solutions into existing, man-made infrastructure. It’s important to remember that mayors have a lot of leeway to be proactive on climate change, despite the federal administration’s plan to roll back regulations. Cities can form coalitions or act on their own to make their communities more resilient.

STEVEN PEDIGO is the Director of the NYU SPS Schack Institute of Real Estate Urban Lab and a Clinical Assistant Professor for Economic Development at the NYU School of Professional Studies. He is also the Director of Research for the Creative Class Group. Follow him on twitter @iamstevenpedigo.