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Radhika Khosla’s Blog

Creating Resilient Cities to Tackle Climate Change

Radhika Khosla

Posted July 2, 2013

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In the last few weeks, extreme weather events struck cities across the globe. Rains at least twice the average caused horrific flooding and destruction in India, and on the opposite side of the globe Canada’s rivers flooded to six to seven times their usual volume. These unseasonal events underline the massive toll that extreme weather is already taking on peoples’ lives. They also serve as examples for the urgent need for cities to be resilient in the face of increasing climate change risks.

The recent 2013 Resilient Cities Congress in Germany was an opportunity to think ahead on how cities across the world can incorporate resilience into their development plans. Prioritizing resilience is especially relevant in India, where the urban population will more than double from 377 million in 2011 to 865 million by 2050. Indian cities face a widow of opportunity to act now and protect their communities for decades by building right from the start.

What makes a city resilient? A few core characteristics of resilience that allow cities to survive, adapt and thrive are:

  • Redundancy. A city that relies exclusively on a single source for resources such as food or electricity will find itself in trouble if that resource fails. In contrast, a city with alternative resources and spare capacity for critical goods and services prevents damage from such resource failures.
  • Flexibility. Cities should have the ability to change, evolve and adapt to disasters. For example, if above-ground power lines are increasingly subject to powerful storms the city can reduce widespread power outages by moving its power lines to water-resistant pipes underground.
  • “Safe” failures. The interconnectedness of a city needs to clear, so that a failure in one part of the system, such as power, does not cause cascading failures across other systems, such as water or sewage.
  • Fast rebound. Cities should have contingency plans in place to quickly restore safety and normal functioning after a disaster without long periods of inaction.
  • Constant learning. Cities need to routinely recognize and react to new challenges and opportunities to create innovative solutions.

Indian cities recognize the need for resilience and some cities are already implementing plans for the future protection of their populations. For example, the western city of Ahmedabad launched India’s first heat action plan in April this year. The heat action plan empowers the city’s populations, especially vulnerable groups and health professionals, to effectively respond and adapt to the city’s deadly high temperatures. Another example of incorporating resilience is implementing energy conservation building codes. The southern state of Andhra Pradesh is en route to implement an energy code that will reduce energy use and costs in buildings, improve electricity gird reliability and reduce the need for polluting, expensive back-up generators, all without decreasing occupant comfort.

A range of other opportunities exist for city resilience. Using green infrastructure is typically cost-effective and has many benefits. For example, developing parks, green spaces and walkways can save water resources by reducing run-off during excess rainfall and increase depleting groundwater levels. More resilient food production, such as improved growing practices, better distribution techniques through diversified and local sourcing, and reduced food waste protects during increasing droughts, floods and storms.

One of the most attractive aspects of resilience is that it enhances economic development. In fact, investing in cities to cope with extreme events will save billions of dollars because incorporating resilience is more cost-effective than failing to prepare and then dealing with the aftermath. According to the London School of Economics, 93 percent of cities report that green development initiatives already provide economic benefits.

With increasing impacts of climate change on cities and the global urban population shift, now is the window of opportunity to focus on improving city resilience. India is already experiencing floods, extreme cold and extreme heat in the course of a few months. The World Bank recently warned that climate change will cause India to face a tenfold increase in monsoon frequency, drops in crop yields, and the cities of Mumbai and Kolkata will become hotspots for extreme weather. By developing cities with flexible systems that quickly rebound from disasters, India can protect its population for the next many decades.

Co-authored by Ian Kelly, NRDC Stanback Fellow

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