Innovations in urban resilience: examples from the US

Europe's World

Citizens' Europe

Picture of Jessica Grannis
Jessica Grannis

Adaptation Program Manager for the Georgetown Climate Center and staff attorney and adjunct professor at the Harrison Institute for Public Law, at Georgetown University Law Center

Picture of Melissa Deas
Melissa Deas

Institute Associate at the Georgetown Climate Center

The importance of urban resilience initiatives was brought into sharp focus in August 2017 when two of world’s largest cities – Houston, Texas and Mumbai, India – endured catastrophic flooding, while cities in Europe experienced a heat wave so severe it earned the name “Lucifer.” The disruption, devastation and loss of life remind us that these types of extreme weather events will occur with greater frequency and severity in the future as the climate warms. Rising sea levels, more-intense downpours and more-severe and prolonged heat waves will threaten the health and well-being of growing urban populations and interconnected city economies. Ageing infrastructure in many cities will be unable to withstand these impacts, and rapid urbanization and changing technologies will further strain the ability of city leaders to protect people and property.

Cities will be critical to societies’ success or failure in addressing climate change. City officials are our first responders in disaster events and cities have the primary spending and regulatory powers to take measures to reduce risks. In the United States, cities contribute 85% of the nation’s GDP and 80% of Americans live in cities. Thus, urban efforts to both reduce greenhouse gas emissions and manage these impacts will be critical to ensuring a robust response to climate change, as well as our future ability to safeguard lives and economies.

This article showcases efforts underway in many US cities that have recognized that climate change poses life-and-death threats to their residents, businesses and economies, and are taking action to prepare. Forty local governments (municipalities and counties) have adopted stand-alone adaptation plans, and more than 100 have incorporated considerations of resilience or climate preparedness into other city plans, such as local land-use and hazard-mitigation plans. All 10 of the largest metro regions in the US have adaptation plans or have started thinking about climate resilience.

While cities are assessing their vulnerabilities and developing plans, more needs to be done to turn those plans into action

Still, progress on adaptation within US cities is piecemeal and insufficient. Most planning activities are happening within larger, coastal cities, where there is strong political support for climate action. While cities are assessing their vulnerabilities and developing plans, more needs to be done to turn those plans into action and increase the scale, scope and ambition of adaptation activities on the ground.

Despite these challenges, many promising practices are being developed and implemented in cities across the US and can serve as models for other cities.

Mainstreaming Adaptation – Rather than develop stand-alone plans, many cities are beginning to incorporate adaptation into existing planning processes. This is important in order to ensure that policies are embedded in city decision making and that they cut across city agencies. For example, in Baltimore, Maryland, the city integrated adaptation planning into its All Hazards Mitigation Plan through Baltimore’s Disaster Preparedness and Planning Project (DP3). In Austin, Texas, the city integrated climate considerations into its local land-use plan and involved a wide range of city agencies responsible for transportation, health, disaster preparedness and emergency response, as well as the city’s electric and water utilities.

Prioritizing Equity – Cities are increasingly integrating social justice into climate priorities, recognizing that climate change will not affect all people equally. For example, Cleveland, Ohio’s Tree Plan addressed disparities in the city’s urban tree canopy by prioritizing tree planting sites using socioeconomic, public health and neighbourhood revitalization criteria. In Seattle, Washington, the city facilitated a community-led planning process to ensure that residents who are most vulnerable to the heat impacts of climate change (for example low-income communities and communities of colour) could determine the city’s response. This process emphasized the importance of addressing gaps in trust between city residents and government agencies through honest dialogue and transparency. It also promoted a continuous engagement process with city residents rather than one-time transactional interactions around particular plans or initiatives.

Moving into Implementation – Cities are finding creative ways to use existing authorities to encourage resilience in private development and to fund adaptation initiatives. Portland, Oregon, adopted an Ecoroof Incentive in 2008 to create financial incentives for property owners to install green roofs as a method for managing storm water. Boston, Massachusetts, adopted a zoning checklist to prompt developers to consider the long-term effects of climate change on large-scale new development projects and to design projects to reduce future impacts from climate change. In Washington, DC, new storm-water regulations encourage the use of green infrastructure to reduce flooding and manage storm water, and a storm-water credit trading system gives developers flexible, market-based mechanisms to help them comply.

Linking Adaptation and Mitigation – Cities are considering the synergies and trade-offs between policies designed to enhance resilience to climate change and those designed to reduce emissions. For example, after Hurricane Sandy, New York City is assessing the feasibility of deploying renewable-energy-powered microgrids that will ‘island’ to stay online during wider power outages, thus providing both mitigation and adaptation benefits.

Collaborating Regionally – Local governments across the country are increasingly banding together to create regional climate collaboratives to pool resources and build capacity to address the impacts of climate change across jurisdictional lines. For example, four counties in Southeast Florida created a regional compact to work together to collectively tackle climate goals; and similar initiatives are being pursued in many other metropolitan and even rural regions throughout the US.

Cities are already leading and must continue to lead

Although many cities are showing incredible leadership, they cannot do this work alone. To accomplish the transformational changes that are needed, national and state governments also play a critical role. The Obama administration sought to spur adaptation and support local action by providing new tools (U.S. Climate Resilience Toolkit), financial resources (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Regional Coastal Resilience Grants and the Center for Disease Controls’ Building Resilience Against Climate Effects (BRACE) grants to city health departments) and technical services (The Partnership for Energy Sector Climate Resilience). Many of these programs, however, face budget cuts and shifting priorities under the Trump administration. In the short term, this will make it much more difficult for leading cities to find the funding and technical assistance they need. It will also leave other cities with fewer incentives to take on the challenge.

This means that new ways to build local capacity will also be needed. In particular, state governments can serve as a resource for local governments, as can be seen in California’s Cal-Adapt tool and Climate Ready Grant Program, among other programs. States can also leverage their university systems to support research and local pilot projects, as Connecticut is doing through its Connecticut Institute for Resilience & Climate Adaptation (CIRCA).  Finally, some urban areas are working with the private sector to promote resilience. For example, Prince George’s County created a public-private partnership to finance green infrastructure and improve water quality.

These promising examples show how cities can begin to take action to address the grave and mounting threats they face because of climate change. But much more work will be needed over the coming decades to ramp up efforts both to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to prepare for climate-related impacts that are already unavoidable. Cities are already leading and must continue to lead. However, a proactive response at the scale and scope needed will require all levels of government, non-profit organizations, universities, and the private sector to work together to prepare our communities for the coming changes.


This article is from Friends of Europe’s discussion paper ‘Cities – the new policy shapers in the energy transition’, in which international experts, policy-makers and entrepreneurs report from cities and regions all around the globe acknowledging cities’ evolving and prominent role within the energy transition. Cities are teaming up, creating coalitions and sharing knowledge on the most advanced and innovative solutions to tackle climate-related risks.

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