Experts in resilience discuss efforts to protect communities from disaster, enhance recovery efforts, increase awareness about the value of incorporating resilience, and implement resilience projects that provide additional benefits to the community.

OutlookMJHow would you rate awareness in the real estate development community about the value of incorporating resilience?

Jason Hellendrung: We’re pretty early on in the process. I’d compare it to how long it took sustainability to take hold. With sustainability, there was the environmental movement in the 1970s, which was tied to the Clean Water Act and energized by high oil prices. Things got quiet in the 1980s, and then environmentalism reemerged in the early to mid-1990s. But the real switch was around 2002 to 2003, when the message shifted to embrace the triple bottom line: people, planet, profit. It wasn’t just about doing what’s good for the environment; it also had to do with financial sustainability. Resilience is approaching a similar tipping point. The key is for people to understand that resilience is about better long-term planning so communities can withstand the shocks that come from future disasters.

Bill Halter: We’re in the early stages, especially in the architecture community. It’s not front of mind in a lot of our conversations with our clients. For large infrastructure projects, we’re still in a reactionary mode, in the wake of the damage from Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Sandy. A lot of coastal communities are talking more about how to prevent disasters like those and perhaps even create, in the process, an improved quality of life at the coastal edges—for example, by fortifying the estuaries and incorporating public parks as a part of that refortification.

Peter David Cavaluzzi: I believe there’s an urgency from a marketing standpoint. It seems we’ve turned a corner, where clients and tenants expect that their buildings have resilient and sustainable features as part of the amenities. It results in better design.

Kristina Ford: After Hurricane Sandy in 2012, citizens were more aware of resilience issues than they were after Hurricane Katrina. People saw climate change as a real threat. Elected leaders have taken notice of citizens’ attitudes, particularly in such cities as Boston, whose mayor realized it would be prudent to pay attention to projected sea-level rises, to take seriously the probability of disastrous coastal flooding, and to make vulnerable areas resilient in advance of catastrophe, rather than waiting until neighborhoods had been destroyed. To this end, Boston initiated a design competition, “Boston: Living with Water,” which solicited ideas for how the city could continue to thrive despite floods projected to occur near Boston Harbor. That competition found three winning designs, and the city is now writing plans for how to use them. With a similar prudent take on the future, and being aware of citizens’ concerns about coastal flooding, many real estate developers in Boston have included resilience features in new projects and advertised those features, and their projects have been successful. As that success becomes more widely known, the development community throughout the country will readily learn the value of projects built to be resilient.

What are some particularly exciting efforts or strategies aimed at creating resilience?

John Shardlow: Innovative partnerships are being formed, with increased involvement from philanthropic organizations. For example, the National Disaster Resilience Competition’s Resilience Academies, funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, have been held around the [United States]. They required communities that were interested in submitting a grant application to try to figure out how to monetize social and environmental benefits and perform a so-called nontraditional cost/benefit analysis. They also promoted resilience dividends through investments that had multiple benefits, like flood control that added trails that, in turn, provided health benefits for community residents.

Hellendrung: “Rebuild by Design,” the competition that came out of the Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force, and the National Disaster Resilience Competition, organized by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, have both been great examples. The National Disaster Resilience Competition invited cities, counties, and states to compete for funds to recover from natural disasters they had experienced. The municipalities involved went through a rigorous process to help them shape their proposals to consider all the aspects of resilience. It wasn’t just about bouncing back from a natural disaster, but also about fostering leadership within the community and engaging different citizens within the community. The process looked at economic resilience to help build jobs and create growth.

Ford: Clearly, the Boston: Living with Water competition was exciting, as was the federal government’s Rebuild by Design initiative that was undertaken after Hurricane Sandy, to help cities see how efforts to rebuild destroyed areas could also ensure they’d withstand future flooding. Rather than try to come up with a resilience design formula that would work everywhere, Rebuild by Design tries to educate developers, architects, and municipalities so they can tailor the suggestions to the particular topographical and financial circumstances of different cities. There are many good ideas for achieving resilience, but making them work requires a citizenry’s support. Regulations can be passed that require resilience features in new construction, but the real estate development community will be more likely to include such features if [it] realizes that, for example, seaside condominiums that offer resilience features are what prospective clients are seeking. Competitions like those I’ve mentioned, as well as educational efforts aimed at Realtors and members of the public, are the most promising ways to achieve resilience.

Halter: Resilience is coming in by way of sustainability and quality-of-life issues. The trend toward reurbanization is making better use of land. With urban infill projects, there is greater awareness of the benefits of creating green roofs and park spaces that can better manage stormwater, and greater awareness of the value of providing public transit and minimizing the area we pave over with roads. There is a lot of focus now on turning back to cities where the infrastructure exists already, rather than building on greenfields and extending infrastructure farther and farther from the city. Architects are thinking more holistically. The conversation is no longer about the building only; it’s about the building and its impact on the area, the district, the neighborhood.

Cavaluzzi: Designing buildings that are adaptable [and] flexible and have mixed programs is a great strategy. I can think of no better example than structures that are adaptively repurposed, such as traditional loft buildings. This is the hallmark of warehouse districts in urban areas like SoHo and the Meatpacking District in New York City. The design DNA in these buildings is/was flexibility. I call it “adaptive design,” because it is not always about historic preservation. They can house an apartment, a live/work environment, a storefront, or a restaurant. By taking this design point of view, you make the city more resilient, because buildings can adapt to changes in the market. We are also seeing new structures like parking decks that are being designed with the right floor-to-floor heights so they can easily be adapted to other uses down the line as consumer needs and preferences change. Another great trend is the new interest in linear pedestrian space, like the Indianapolis Cultural Trail, the High Line in New York City, the Midtown Greenway in Minneapolis, the BeltLine in Atlanta, the Katy Trail in Dallas—these go beyond the standard walking/jogging trail to become bona-fide addresses for residential, commercial, and cultural development. Creating a robust public realm with active public spaces makes the urban environment more flexible, more adaptable, and more attractive to the best and brightest, and that makes the city more resilient economically.

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Classic New York City architecture can be seen along the High Line park in Manhattan. (Andrew F. Kazmierski/Shutterstock.com)

What are some of the challenges of incorporating resilience into the built environment?

Cavaluzzi: There is a tendency for people to look for the magic bullet, like building big walls or berms to control flooding or sea-level rise. It’s almost like building infrastructure based on fear, as opposed to integrating these elements into a new public realm so that they almost disappear—“hidden in plain sight.” The key is to repurpose and adapt the design criteria so that [the design] results in an environment that is safe and inviting for people. If you design buildings and public spaces so that they provide resilience while at the same time become promenades, boulevards, and terraces, you’ll invite more people to enjoy them. But if you build more walls and berms, you’ll cut people off from the wonderful environments that exist along the coastline. It’s better to integrate resilience strategies into the fabric of new mixed-use development and into the public spaces, rather than to block views and pedestrian access.

Shardlow: Planning for resilience has to be considered through the whole life cycle of a project, and there are countless factors that make it hard to finance project features beyond a shorter time horizon. Another challenge is the scale of projects. Larger areas often present the best opportunities for stormwater management, flood prevention, and similar weather-related objectives. These opportunities frequently cross jurisdictional boundaries, and this can present barriers to collaboration and shared funding.

What strategies are too often overlooked in resilience efforts?

Ford: I’ve been a planner for a long time, and have always loved my profession for its contributions to healthy, vibrant, and equitable community life, and for its ability to imagine solutions to land use problems. But I’ve noticed that as good as planners are at coming up with plans, what we don’t do very well is get our ideas implemented. I’m including myself in this generalization, by the way! There are many reasons for planners’ difficulty with implementation—I’m writing a book about them, in fact—but a very important reason is that while planners know how to engage citizens’ participation as they set about creating a plan, we have yet to figure out a reliable way to make citizens feel that the plan has such importance to their ordinary life that they’ll stay involved in its execution. Without a citizenry’s dedicated involvement, plans lose importance in the ongoing affairs of civic life; and as time passes, elected leaders increasingly make decisions inconsistent with what a plan had supposed would be a city’s developed future.

Halter: In Atlanta, we have our BeltLine, a wonderful greenbelt that runs around the perimeter of our urban core. It’s the biggest infrastructure project the city has witnessed since MARTA [the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority system], and it’s a huge success. City leaders understand that projects like these are great ways for cities to create green space, get people to walk more, and provide a context for new development. If you invest in certain kinds of infrastructure to increase the value of the land in the area, and you promote more development in the vicinity, that creates a bigger tax base. If you build a new water treatment plant, for example, it can also be a park or a reclaimed wetland or something that brings beauty as well as function, and that encourages other types of development nearby.

Shardlow: One of the biggest challenges is the time horizon that developers are forced to work within and the investment returns that are demanded by their lenders and investors. If they are pursuing a one-off project, it is very hard to justify investment that will pay long-term dividends and offer social or environmental benefits. Developers who are investing in coastal areas or places that have experienced significant natural disasters and those who are building a project that they plan to keep in their portfolio for a long period of time tend to have more interest in protecting their investment over time. We are always striving to think about resilience from the very conception of a project to make sure that resilience is “baked in,” not “bolted on” later. If we think about strategies to better absorb and recover from adverse events early in the design process, we find that we are often able to avoid the additional costs that limit clients’ willingness to make those investments.

Hellendrung: The best strategy is to focus on the cobenefits of resilience efforts, not on single-use solutions to a natural disaster. How can we create resilience in a way that also improves the community? That might mean identifying ways for people to communicate better with each other during a disaster, or building stronger social networks so that people have a safety net that they can rely on during a challenging time. When we worked on improving the flood infrastructure for Cedar Rapids, Iowa, after a major flood destroyed downtown, we integrated a community amphitheater into the project. We located it on the opposite side of the river from downtown to help bring together people from one side of the river to the other and create a new destination that people would come to after work or on the weekends and that would help support downtown businesses. We also looked at a downtown riverwalk that could support economic development in the downtown—during a flood, demountable walls could help protect the city. This is an example of the cobenefits of resilience.

Ron Nyren is a freelance architecture and urban planning writer based in the San Francisco Bay area.