Summary

Mayors are on the front lines when natural disasters and other catastrophic events threaten lives and property. The National League of Cities (NLC) and the Environmental and Energy Study Institute (EESI) held a briefing about what cities throughout the United States are doing to protect their communities by investing in resilience. Infrastructure dollars are only part of the story. Equally important is funding for planning that accounts for new weather patterns with more severe impacts than we’ve seen in the past and preemptive action to keep people and structures safe and functional. Coordinating land use; updating building codes; and strengthening social networks, lifelines and communications are just a few examples. These investments are resulting in additional community benefits: lower monthly expenses for households, businesses, and the city itself; the protection and restoration of natural resources; and local economic growth and job creation.

Highlights

 

Mayor William Peduto, City of Pittsburgh (PA)

  • Mayor Peduto discussed the long history of his city and how resiliency and environmental issues have resonated throughout its development. The city responded to these challenges with progressive environmental policies. In 1979, Pittsburgh's economy shrank and the city lost much of its population, providing an opportunity to develop fresh economic resiliency strategies.
  • Pittsburgh currently has a resiliency plan called "OnePGH," in part to implement more green infrastructure and better deal with storm water. New approaches to vacant properties, such as selective redevelopment, can help to fulfill the goals behind a community plan or achieve superior storm water management.
  • Mayor Peduto noted that resiliency involves many factors, including environmental and economic issues, infrastructure, and racial injustice. Cost is a limiting factor. Planners are advocating for integrating features that enable preparedness into new buildings.
  • Mayor Peduto stated that the future of energy will likely be neighborhood-based and much more efficient than today's grid technologies. He also emphasized the need for improved building standards to provide an incentive for sustainable buildings and a market for advanced materials manufactured in the United States.

 

Nicole Antonopoulos Woodman, Sustainability Manager, City of Flagstaff (AZ)

  • Woodman led off with a description of the city's role as a regional economic hub for northern Arizona, with a strong tourism industry.
  • Projections for the region anticipate rising temperatures, more intense storms, reduced snowpack, drier forests and more frequent and severe forest fires, and an increased risk of extreme flooding.
  • Following a series of severe natural disasters in 2010, including a severe forest fire, Flagstaff undertook a year-long assessment of its climate risks, including how vulnerable the city's operations, infrastructure, and economy are to future events.
  • The city found that a holistic systems approach was needed to address these issues, with an eye toward the interdependence of individual systems.
  • The Flagstaff Watershed Protection Project was developed as a multi-million dollar bond initiative to prevent catastrophic flooding and to protect the city's water supply. The project involves coordination among multiple federal, state, city, and academic offices. The project was successful due to the enhanced public awareness of fire and water hazards, earlier education efforts, synergy with concurrent projects, investment in community assets, and a focus on cost avoidance.
  • Woodman emphasized that Flagstaff is focusing on developing a climate mitigation and adaptation plan with input from the community.

 

Cooper Martin, Program Director, Sustainable Cities Institute, National League of Cities

  • Martin distinguished sustainability as the ability to limit the negative impacts that human activity will have on the environment, while resiliency limits the impact of the environment on a community.
  • Martin noted that the National League of Cities represents 18,000 communities and encourages more sustainable policies across the country. Martin spoke about NLC's Leadership in the Community Resilience program. The goals of the program are to collect and share ideas and best practices that will help advance local resilience efforts. The program also provides models for NLC to engage with elected officials, and directly supports 10 communities seeking to enhance and expand their resilience initiatives.
  • The Leadership program has a presence in several cities across the country, with each city facing its own unique challenges. For instance, in Annapolis, MD, they are working on a historic preservation effort to adapt the city's scenic downtown to economic and environmental changes, including increased flooding. In San Antonio, TX, the major issues include heat, flash flooding, and air quality. As one of the fastest-growing regions in the country, San Antonio is working to get a handle on these future environmental impacts through planning today and by working with NLC on solutions.
  • NLC recommends four areas for the federal government to contribute to: 1) preparedness (such as the National Flood Insurance Program), 2) mitigation (retrofit existing structures in cities to reduce energy use and emissions), 3) relief (continued emergency disaster relief), and 4) recovery (rebuilding after a disaster). For every federal dollar that is spent on these areas, four dollars in savings are generated. Experts even estimate the actual benefits are closer to ten dollars of savings per dollar invested, if one includes insurance costs, property loss, and other factors.

 

The United States is experiencing more heat waves, more heavy downpours, more floods, and more droughts, according to the 2014 National Climate Assessment. Tropical cyclones cause the most damage—more than $580 billion since 1980, followed by droughts ($232 billion), severe storms ($200 billion), and inland flooding ($118 billion). More than 9,600 Americans have lost their lives in the 212 largest weather disasters since 1980. Certainly the enormous disaster in Texas is weighing heavily on the hearts of Americans across the country.

This briefing's speakers showcased some of the concrete, actionable steps their cities are taking to reduce their vulnerability to extreme weather and the costly and deadly impacts of these events, and shared lessons learned.

Selected as one of the Rockefeller Foundation's 100 Resilient Cities in 2014, Pittsburgh was able to hire a Chief Resilience Officer, who is tasked with implementing the city's resilience plan. In 2012, Flagstaff, AZ, completed its Resiliency and Preparedness Study to assess the vulnerability of 115 of its critical, weather-impacted operations and has begun work on a Climate Action and Adaptation Plan. NLC’s Leadership in Community Resilience Program provided technical assistance in 10 cities to help strengthen local resilience initiatives.

This briefing was the fourth in a series in partnership with the National Association of State Energy Officials (NASEO) on "Building Resilient and Secure Infrastructure." Other briefings will examine building materials and methods, the role of national labs and federal R&D spending, and coastal resilience.