Building Resilient Infrastructure In The Face of Climate Change

12.14.12 | “Often crisis is what pushes things from a report on a shelf to action,” Rockefeller Foundation President Judith Rodin told Mother Jones this week.

Rodin was speaking about her work co-chairing New York State’s new NYS 2100 Commission tasked by Governor Cuomo in the wake of hurricane Sandy to ensure New York State is planning for a resilient 21st Century infrastructure.

“We don’t like the opportunity to do that on the background of so much human suffering,” Rodin said. “But the moment is right, attention is on this, and for the first time, regrettably because of the storm, there will be massive resources available.”

NYS 2100 is one of three commissions announced by the governor last month in response to hurricane Sandy’s devastation in the tri-state region. The two other commissions are charged with more direct recovery functions and pre-emergency response preparedness. But Rodin says that in addition to focusing on preventing natural and manmade disasters and mitigating the effects of climate change, a focus on resilience can help metros be prepared for events that “we can neither predict nor prevent.”

As BRR researchers write about often, the commission is defining resilience as the ability to rebound and recover more effectively from those shocks that may not be preventable.

This is a perspective environmentalists may not like all that much, as journalist Brian Lehrer pointed out in a recent interview with Rodin on WNYC radio. All this attention on resilient infrastructure and how we can better adapts our cities and regions to the changing climate inevitably takes attention away from prevention — policies to reduce carbon emissions and protect our planet.

But Rodin says it’s not an either or situation. She argues that there are strategies that are overlapping  – like climate sensitive land use and climate sensitive planning — that can work to both reduce the effects of climate change and prepare cities to be resilient to a changing climate at the same time.

Her commission is focusing on an integrated systems approach, to try to understand how hard and soft infrastructure systems work together and how any vulnerability to the system could take it down.

“The goal is to protect and increase efficiency of existing transportation, energy and environmental infrastructure systems,” Rodin said in the WNYC interview. “We hope to strengthen the institutional and informational networks that service our infrastructure and allow us to rebound more quickly from disaster, and to install and instill resiliency characteristics into these systems and identify long-term options for the use of both physical and natural protective systems.”

Rodin will co-chair the commission with Felix Rohatyn, former Chairman of the Municipal Assistance Corporation. The Rockefeller Foundation will also provide expertise and support in putting together the commission’s report and recommendations that are expected in January.

Specifically, the commission is tasked with coming up with:

  • Strategies to protect existing transportation, energy, environmental, and other infrastructure systems to withstand natural disasters and other emergencies;
  • Priority projects to replace damaged infrastructure or to diversify or make more resilient our infrastructure;
  • Long-term options for the use of barriers and natural protective systems;
  • Opportunities to integrate infrastructure planning, protection and development into New York’s economic development strategies; and
  • Reforms in the area of insurance and risk management related to natural disasters and other emergencies.

Rodin says cities in the US and around the world are “woefully unprepared” for the climate change we now face. She plans to draw on her work at the Rockfeller Foundation funding projects in the developing world where up till now the effects of climate change have been more severe. Residents in cities in Southeast Asia and Africa, for example, are facing serious issues like demographic changes, flooding and threatened food security. But like New York City, many of these cities are on vulnerable coastlines and river deltas and Rodin says that lessons from working on issues like hydrology mapping, infrastructure planning , and vulnerability assessment are ones they can bring back and apply to New York and other US coastal regions.

“The principals are the same regardless of the geography,” she said.

Watch Rodin in the video below.

Photo/ Lisa Bettany

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