Municipal Governments Working to Make Their Cities More Resilient

Posted by on May 13, 2015

Attendees at the Resilient Cities Summit in Aspen. Photo: Alex Wilson

Attendees at the 2015 Resilient Cities Summit in Aspen, Colorado. Photo: Alex Wilson

Last week I participated in the Resilient Cities Summit at the Aspen Institute in Colorado. Co-sponsored by the U.S. Green Building Council and the National League of Cities and ably facilitated by Michael Lesnick of the Meridian Institute, the two-day meeting was organized to bring a couple dozen mayors and other city leaders together with experts on resilience to work on teasing out strategies and solutions for making our cities more resilient.

Mayors or top city officials were attending from Salt Lake City, Boulder, Nashville, Des Moines, Mercer Island, WA, Snoqualmie, WA, Multnomah County, OR, Fort Collis, CO, Edgewood, NM, West Palm Beach, FL, Pinecrest, FL, Santa Monica, Waukesha, WI, Hastings-on-Hudson, NY, Cleveland, Little Rock, and Aspen. San Francisco’s Chief Resilience Officer was on hand and described that city’s initiatives relating to earthquake threat.

Among the 40 or so non-city-leaders were resilience-focused representatives of various federal agencies (including the alphabet soup of FEMA, HUD, DOE, EPA, and NIST), along with experts from more than a dozen leading organizations whose work touches on resilience: the Urban Land Institute, World Resources Institute, Trust for Public Land, Rocky Mountain Institute, The Clinton Foundation, C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, STAR Communities, Global Green, and yours truly from the Resilient Design Institute.

The Summit was unlike any other I have attended. There were no PowerPoint presentations. The only “presentations” at all were six pre-arranged, 8-10 minute context-setting “ignite” comments that led off in-depth, facilitated discussions on the following:

  • The complexity of resilience;
  • Resilience as a leadership opportunity;
  • Lessons in city resilience;
  • Making the next resilience investment;
  • Transforming conversation into action; and
  • The global implications for U.S. city leadership

In my words of wisdom on “Making the Next Resilience Investment,” I started by addressing how resilience is often thought of as bouncing back, but that I prefer the bouncing forward idea of ending up with something better as an outcome of whatever the disaster or disturbance might be.

I used some examples to show how creating safer buildings and communities can be the driver, but that in doing so we can achieve multiple benefits:

  • If we’re elevating mechanical equipment after basement flood damage, we can upgrade the performance of the replacement equipment;
  • If we’re repairing roadways we can incorporate bicycling infrastructure—helping people get around if there’s a shortage of gasoline or an inability to pump it, but also creating a better, more vibrant, healthier city;
  • If water lines are damaged by an earthquake, we can replace those lines with new, lower-friction pipes and include controls and leak-notification sensors that will save water—and the energy used for pumping it;
  • If we’re putting in emergency power generation, we can come up with solar-power systems that, during normal operation, supplement a building’s power needs, but during power outages can provide islanding capability.

A comment had by this time been made by several participants that a dollar invested in enhanced resilience or disaster preparedness saves $4-5 in avoided repairs. I pointed out that with many resilience investment, that dollar of investment can save in other ways, such as through reduced energy consumption.

A running visual archive of the meeting was created. Photo: Alex Wilson

An awesome running visual narrative of the meeting was created as the discussions happened. Photo: Alex Wilson

Passive survivability as a win-win resilience strategy

I concluded my brief ignite presentation with the story I have told many times about our work in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Those of us involved in organizing the series of charrettes that led to creation of The New Orleans Principles had observed that older homes in the Gulf Coast that weren’t flooded but had lost power for weeks or even months remained generally habitable, because they included design features that made sense in the hot, humid Southeast.

These vernacular design features included wrap-around porches that shaded windows from direct solar gain, design for ventilative cooling through window placement and building geometry; tall ceilings to aid in ventilation, and outdoor living spaces for the hot winter evenings.

Newer homes, meanwhile—homes built since the advent of air conditioning—had lost these vernacular design features, and without power to operate air conditioners, those homes generally were not habitable.

The resilient design solution is to incorporate passive survivability into the home. The best design features from our grandparent’s generation could be combined with high levels of insulation, passive solar heating, natural cooling, and other strategies that are key components of good green design today to product a home that would not only protect its occupants but also save energy and other resources throughout it’s life.

A home incorporating such features will maintain habitable temperatures in both simmer and winter. It may not maintain the levels of comfort we are used to and that are defined by ASHRAE, but it will be far more likely to maintain conditions that will keep people safe during power outages or interruptions in heating fuel.

Saving energy saves money, so this important resilient design strategy (passive survivability) directly benefits homeowners while delivering a home that will be much safer to live in during a power outage. City officials have an opportunity to address this through building codes and incentive programs.

On the building code front, we discussed how mandating high levels of energy efficiency can be presented as a life-safety feature, not simply a way to save energy and help the environment. As such, it may be far more saleable to a conservative city council.

Exciting initiatives from around the country

Throughout the Summit, I continued to be impressed by the initiatives I heard about. I had no idea that Fort Collins had a more aggressing goal for reducing carbon emissions than California, or that Boulder’s bike path network serves in flood control. We learned that San Francisco’s mandatory seismic retrofits can be financed through PACE (Property Assessed Clean Energy) loans, and that Santa Monica now has a Wellbeing Index along with a Sustainable City Plan.

We heard plenty about existing initiatives relating to resilience and sustainability, but much more of the focus was about the obstacles and opportunities relating to resilience. There was widespread recognition that Cities need to go further in protecting their residents, but I came away optimistic that the attendees in the room weren’t going to simply sit by and wait for action; they were going to make it happen.

More on the Resilient Cities Summit can be found in this blog by Jeremy Sigmon, the U.S. Green Building Council’s Director of Technical Policy.

I look forward to following the progress of this initiative and continuing to engage in efforts to make our cities more resilient.

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Along with founding the Resilient Design Institute in 2012, Alex is founder of BuildingGreen, Inc. To keep up with his latest articles and musings, you can sign up for his Twitter feed. To receive e-mail notices of new blogs, sign up at the top of the page.


  1. Due to an oversight on my part I did not attend the recent Aspen meeting. Your description and comments made obvious it was a mistake on my part.
    RealView has a pre-incident plan program that is being offered across the country and Canada. Your comments on the importance of a city being more resilient supported the importance of a pre-incident plan for every city. Responce is made possible by a pre-plan and knowledge of all information required to respond. Knowledge overcomes the costly trial and error approach which is so often the case. Thank you for your report and I would welcome an opportunity to discuss in greater detail if you have a moment. Again sorry I did not attend the Aspen meeting which was a mistake on my part.

    Stephen Nardi

  2. Sounds like some good progress in the resiliency arena! Would love to see publicly available, such as conference proceedings.


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