Climate Change Preparedness: Cities Planning for a Rising Tide

Hurricane Sandy and other recent events have highlighted the vulnerability of coastal cities to the effects of climate change, which appear to include more frequent and more extensive coastal flooding. In the wake of these events, coastal cities such as Boston and New York City have undertaken comprehensive climate change preparedness planning processes to review the vulnerabilities of each city’s built environment and to assess potential measures to enhance the resilience of both public and private infrastructure. Set forth below is a brief summary of each city’s initial climate change preparedness plan released this past summer.

New York City Plan

In June of 2013, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced “A Stronger, More Resilient New York”, a comprehensive plan that contains 250 “actionable” recommendations for rebuilding the communities impacted by Sandy and increasing the resilience of infrastructure and buildings citywide. The lengthy report details the impact of Hurricane Sandy on New York City and evaluates the potential for future damage given the predicted effects of climate change. It then details recommended improvements to the citywide infrastructure and built environment, specifically coastal protection, buildings, and critical services (including utilities, energy, telecommunications, transportation, water and wastewater) as well as healthcare and insurance. The final section of the report describes the community rebuilding and resilience plans for different neighborhoods in the city. The report’s chapter on buildings notes that, while the coastal protection measures will be a critical part of the improvement in resilience for buildings, they will be insufficient to meet the immediate needs and larger impacts from climate change. As a result, the plan’s recommendations include initiatives, several of which identify as their completion milestones the adoption by the end of 2014 of changes to the City’s construction codes and zoning, to facilitate upgrading existing buildings and outlines flood-resistant techniques for new construction and major renovations. These recommendations are intended to augment earlier recommendations made in 2010 by the Green Codes Task Force (conveyed at the request of Mayor Bloomberg and City Council Speaker Quinn to propose changes to construction codes and regulations to promote green building strategies) to ensure “passive survivability” or the maintenance of habitable conditions in buildings in the event of loss of power or utility outages.

Boston Plan

In Boston, the Green Ribbon Commission (“GRC”) has been tasked with providing advice and counsel to the City on the design and implementation of the City’s Climate Action Plan. Specifically, the GRC’s Climate Preparedness Working Group has been charged with supporting the City of Boston’s climate preparedness planning process by: reviewing and recommending actions that institutions and businesses can take to reduce their vulnerability to climate change hazards; recommending actions that the City and its related authorities can take to encourage and support institutions and businesses in taking such actions; and recommending how property owners can work with the City to address key aspects of resilience that are outside the scope of institutions and businesses (such as critical infrastructure planning and land use zoning) but have a significant impact on their resilience. In July of 2013, the GRC’s Climate Preparedness Working Group released a report prepared by the Boston Society of Architects entitled “Building Resilience in Boston.” This report details strategies for improving the resilience of existing buildings in Boston to the forecasted effects of climate change. Specifically, the study compiles a selection of “best practices” to improve the resilience of buildings to current and emerging hazards related to climate change. It also provides a framework for future actions by the City of Boston, including a range of municipal actions for resilience planning which are currently being implemented in the U.S. and internationally. The GRC’s Climate Preparedness Working Group plans to further discuss the strategies proposed in this July report with Boston building owners and facility managers to determine what may or may not be feasible and plans to issue final recommendations to the City of Boston this fall.

Stakeholder Participation

As coastal cities continue to review strategies and develop recommendations to increase local resilience to the anticipated effects of climate change, commercial real estate owners and managers should remain actively engaged in the public discussion and debate related to the implementation of these strategies. As many such climate change preparedness planning processes are still currently reviewing potential strategies, developing final recommendations and/or reviewing actionable recommendations for future incorporation into local building and zoning codes, now is the time for interested stakeholders to seek opportunities to review locally proposed recommendations and comment on the feasibility and cost of implementation of their city’s climate change preparedness recommendations. In particular, interested stakeholders should try to weigh in on the costs associated with proposed mandatory upgrades for existing privately-owned buildings and mandatory building resiliency standards that may become required for new private developments, as well as attempt to proactively influence the public/private allocation of such costs.

Related topics: Environmental, Municipalities, Retail, Risk Management