Climate Change Resiliency Planning: Tools, methods and techniques to address risk, mitigation and sustainability

by Gretel Follingstad, Santa Fe, New Mexico

Resiliency seems to be gaining ground as a new catchphrase, frequently used to discuss the challenges associated with climate change. Critical infrastructure such as water and sewer systems, transportation networks and energy grids and storage are at risk while also becoming obsolete in many cities. These are the veins of our cities and the roots of our communities. It is essential that they are safeguarded and perhaps retooled to become resilient to current and predicted climate change impacts.

Emerging from the field of ecology in the 1970s, resilience describes the capability of a system to recover functionality from a disruptive event; defined in the American Heritage Dictionary as the ability to recover quickly from illness, change, or misfortune; buoyancy; elasticity.1

I think we (humans) are habitual creatures and, therefore, feel safe in the comforts of the routines and systems we have learned, adopted or even created. Though, one of the most unique and inspiring elements of humanity is our ability to create, innovate and extrapolate in order to evolve. There are many accounts in human history of how we propelled forward to new heights and new circumstance, becoming resilient despite our comfort zones.

Climate change presents new challenges which require amplified attention to resource vulnerabilities and threats. Tree-ring data, climate model projections, and other sources of climate information indicate that the climate system of the future could be quite different from the past 100 years. Global climate change trends, such as increasing temperatures, altered precipitation patterns, and rising sea level are expected to continue, and the rate of change is expected to increase.2 Our comfort zone is changing around us, demanding a transformative period that will require new outlooks, strategies, tools and roles. The development of innovative technologies, science and routines will help reveal our future and how we coexist with the natural environments on earth.

Today’s cities, worldwide, are all subject to the future shocks and stresses associated with climate change, energy scarcity, income disparity, sociopolitical and environmental degradation and global population growth. Climate resiliency planning recognizes these threats and the need for a conscientious response. As we embark on this new era, we need better-informed methods to conserve the resources needed to live symbiotically on earth and address the imbalance of the inter-relationship between urban areas, the energy used (infrastructure, food and transportation network) and the ecosystem services that provide those assets.

This article looks at the methods and tools available to help cities become resilient for the imminent changes ahead. Urban resilience involves awareness of how changes in conditions can impact a community’s critical resources. Capacity building for greater resilience will allow our cities’ infrastructure to withstand this changing environment. ‘City Resiliency’ is defined by the 100 Resilient Cities Program (highlighted later in this article), as the ability and capacity of individuals, communities, institutions, businesses, and systems within a city to survive, adapt, and grow no matter what kinds of chronic stresses and acute shocks they experience.3 The overarching premise is to increase the adaptability of city systems and infrastructure through effective urban planning and design.

 Outlook from a Few Experts and Bold Communities

This article explores highlights from innovative and bold communities, planners, designers and international non-governmental organizations (NGO), which are formulating common sense and cost-effective policies to reduce the vulnerability of human and natural systems.

100 Resilient Cities: Pioneered by the Rockefeller Foundation

100 Resilient Cities (100RC) is an on-the-ground program sponsored by Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, an independent 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that provides governance and operational infrastructure to its sponsored projects. 100RC is a global project, helping cities worldwide to become more resilient to the physical, social and economic challenges that are a growing part of the 21st century.4 100RC is guiding selected cities to create the capacity to evaluate exposure and vulnerability to specific shocks and stresses, and develop a proactive and integrated plan to address those challenges.

A keystone component of the 100RC project was the development of a City Resilience Framework.5 Supported by the Rockefeller Foundation, the Arup6 company put together this unique framework based on extensive research in cities. It provides a lens to understand the complexity of cities and the drivers that contribute to their resilience. Looking at these drivers can help cities to assess the extent of their resilience, to identify critical areas of weakness, and to identify actions and programs to improve the city’s resilience. The City Resilience Framework includes the following dimensions designed to develop a roadmap to resilience:

  1. Health and Wellbeing: The health and wellbeing of everyone living and working in the city: Meeting basic needs, supporting livelihoods and employment, and ensuring public health.
  2. Economy and Society: The social and financial systems that enable urban populations to live peacefully, and act collectively: Promotes cohesive and engaged communities, ensures social stability, security and justice, fosters economic prosperity.
  3. Infrastructure and Environment: Enhances and provides protective natural and man-made assets, ensures continuity of critical services, utilizes natural infrastructure and protects urban citizens.
  4. Leadership and Strategy: Promotes leadership and effective management, empowers a broad range of stakeholders, fosters long-term and integrated planning, reliable communication and mobility, and inclusive decision-making.

The program is set up to help 32 cities (worldwide) per program cycle; the first cycle started in December 2013, and a second set of 32 cities were selected in December 2014. Each city in the program is given the opportunity to fabricate resilience in a tangible way. Cities apply and are selected based on meeting the criteria of having an innovative mayor, a recent catalyst for change, a history of building partnerships and an ability to work with a wide range of stakeholders. Examples of selected cities includeBoston, Massachusetts, Boulder, Colorado and Berkeley, California in the U.S.; Bangkok, Thailand; Barcelona, Spain; Surat, India; and Durban, South Africa.

Once a city is selected, 100RC funds and helps hire a Chief Resilience Officer to lead and manage the city’s resilience efforts by streamlining different city agencies and departments to create an integrated vision. The 100RC funds also provide technical support to develop a holistic resilience strategy, reflecting each city’s distinct needs and an innovative financial strategy to fund integration and implementation. One of the most significant elements of the 100RC program and the City Resilience Framework are the tools provided to address issues such as high unemployment, overtaxed or inefficient public transportation systems, endemic violence, or chronic food and water shortages. These strategies are important to assimilate into the framework in order to strengthen the fabric of a city on a day to day or cyclical basis. The goal is to refurbish cities so that they can respond to adverse events while also being able to deliver basic functions in both good times and bad to all populations.

The World Bank’s 2013 Report: Building Urban Resilience: Principles, Tools, and Practice

The World Bank’s 2013 Report, Building Urban Resilience: Principles, Tools, and Practice, is an excellent reference for understanding the breadth of urban resilience for cities worldwide, varying in socioeconomic and technical levels of advancement. The report provides direction for building resilience through effective urban management, critical infrastructure investments, and disaster and climate risk mitigation measures. While this is not a program that cities can apply for, it is a great guiding document that considers the complexities of cities and varying physical and social attributes. A noteworthy priority in this report is the importance of investing in quality data on risk and tools to employ that data across sectors and jurisdictions. The idea is to create better-informed cities that are more prepared to communicate and manage the complexities of natural disasters. In addition, the application of tools that integrate risk-based approaches with urban governance and planning processes helps create innovative and sustainable decisions to increase resilience. Similar to the 100RC program, the report prioritizes key sectors including water, energy, and transport systems as vital assets to a community’s flexibility and adaptability.

Some of the most notable highlights of the report include identifying a city’s risk profile and using risk-based land use planning to locate and prioritize the safest areas for urban development and infrastructure projects. Once the low-risk areas are identified, a cost-benefit analysis is performed to consider the probable impacts of climate change and disasters, by quantifying the economic consequences of these events. In addition, the report emphasizes utilizing the ecosystem services of a natural landscape to significantly decrease the cost of urban infrastructure projects through merging land use planning with ecosystem management approaches.

The Symbiotic Cities Network:

The Symbiotic Cities Network is a credible website that hosts an open network of contributing urban planners, architects, engineers, ecologists, and economists. The mission is to convene a discussion, connect individuals and organizations, and initiate projects and develop ideas that facilitate fundamental change in how communities coexist with the planet.8 The website is a forum of professionals to bounce ideas and gain new knowledge. The focus is on creating a regenerative and symbiotic relationship with the natural systems that support life on earth. The network of contributors provides suggestions and opportunities for our cities to become positive ecological contributors, using regenerative urban planning, design, engineering technology, and policy. Similar to 100RC and the report by the World Bank, the initiative is focused on planning for the severe shocks and stresses generated by climate change, population growth, and climate-induced migrations.

Echoing the same top priorities identified by 100RC and the World Bank, the Symbiotic Cities Network recognizes the primary challenges cities should plan for in the future.

  • Growth: How to plan for the growth of cities while at the same time reducing the city’s negative impact on the ecosystems they are embedded in
  • Resilience and Adaptation: How to develop and implement strategies for both adaptation, and increasing the resilience capacity of cities in the face of future shocks and stresses associated with increasing anthropogenic climate change
  • Regeneration and Symbiosis: How to regenerate the damage that has already been done to existing ecosystems and move towards a state of symbiosis with local and regional ecosystems

The Symbiotic Cities Network is inspired by work done by thinkers like James Lovelock, Richard Register, William McDonough, Bob Rodale, Bill Reed, Ray Cole, David Madox, Tim Beatley, Thomas Elmqvist and others who pioneered the conception of the inter-relationship between the built environment and the surrounding ecologies. Craig Applegath (founder) and the Future Proofing Cities Working Group developed the following definition of a Symbiotic City:

“A Symbiotic City has mutually beneficial relationships with its macro and micro ecosystems. It produces ecosystem services that are equal or greater than its net use of those services. The transition to a symbiotic city requires a cultural and economic recognition that we are embedded in and dependent upon our ecosystems. A symbiotic city enhances the natural environment, economic activity, and quality of life.”9

Symbiotic Cities contributes to resiliency planning with an ecologically sensitive approach to re-tooling our cities to meet all the basic needs of human habitation - shelter, food, energy, access to resources, mobility, and ecosystem services - while positively contributing to the health and regeneration of local and regional ecosystems. Their nine elements for the effective transformation of cities include:

  1. Zero-Carbon Energy Economy: Transforming from a carbon intensive energy economy to a net-zero carbon energy economy
  2. Ecosystem Services Infrastructure: Developing ecosystem services infrastructure to support the generation of ecosystem services
  3. High-density Planning: Planning for high-density, complete communities to reduce our per capita ecological footprints
  4. Regenerative Building Fabric: Transforming building fabric to be regenerative and support and produce ecosystem services
  5. Urban Food Production: Transforming food production to create a sustainable local urban food infrastructure
  6. Infinite Water Recycling: Infinite recycling of water to significantly reduce our water use burden on surrounding ecosystems
  7. Infinite Material Recycling: Infinite material and resource recycling to significantly reduce our resource extraction burden on surrounding ecosystems
  8. Zero-Carbon Mobility: Transforming from fossil fuel powered transportation to zero-carbon mobility
  9. Economic Transformation: Transforming from an economic system that “externalizes” natural capital and ecosystems services to a “whole system economy” that internalizes them

Dr. Austin Troy: The Very Hungry City

RESOURCE: Dr. Austin Troy discusses the complexities of restructuring our urban footprint on our natural resource in this book.

RESOURCE: Dr. Austin Troy discusses the complexities of restructuring our urban footprint on our natural resource in this book.

Another informative resource on the complexities of restructuring our urban footprint on our natural resources is a book by Dr. Austin Troy, The Very Hungry City. Dr. Troy is an expert in urban environmental management at the University of Colorado Denver, School of Architecture and Planning and principal and cofounder of Spatial Informatics Group, LLC.10 The Very Hungry City explains the concept of a city’s energy metabolism as an important element for environmental stewardship and economic competitiveness. In essence a high “urban energy metabolism” describes a city that needs large amounts of energy in order to function, leaving the city with an economically competitive disadvantage.

Dr. Troy explains our perilous levels of dependence on the global energy market and the ever increasing need to curb the exceptional consumption of resources to apprehend a more sustainable urban existence. This is not a book about resiliency planning, but rather the concept of how our urban energy use has evolved to a level that represents the antithesis to resiliency.

The Very Hungry City weaves together the history of urban development and policy, environmental science, and economic theories, which have all contributed to the expansion of our cities and our intrinsic infrastructure, that require copious resources (land, water, energy-oil, gas, uranium, coal). Dr. Troy’s analysis shows the need to shift our perception of energy efficiency; essentially that environmental stewardship is critical to our future economic vitality. He employs theories of Ecological Economics, a view that abstains from classical economic assumptions that financial growth is indefinitely sustainable through technology and expansion.

Dr. Troy gives a fascinating analysis of how a city’s energy consumption is tied to its economic vitality and as energy prices rise due to increased global demand and diminishing supply, a city is then more bound by its energy needs. This challenge is recognized by 100RC and Symbiotic Cities, who provide methods to refurbish this paradox.

I interviewed Dr. Troy to gain more insight into his research and the concept of the urban energy metabolism. He explained that one of biggest obstacles to reforming energy policies, energy use and the general energy footprint was that calculating the energy use for a community is very complicated due to the variations in a city’s energy portfolio: electricity, gas, oil, energy used for water and transportation energy.

Dr. Troy studied various cities and suburbs in the United States and Europe, including Los Angeles, Denver, Copenhagen, and a Swedish urban redevelopment project, Hammarby Sjöstad.11 His findings revealed various elements that contribute to energy use and a city’s energy metabolism: location (geographic), size (population and span), climate, water supply, building quality, transportation systems, and urban form. In addition, he noted that utility data is usually privately held, difficult to acquire, and it isn’t recorded in one consistent fashion. In light of the World Bank’s priority of having more and better data to aid in creating adaptability, this insight reveals some of the complexities involved in creating resiliency. Transforming our energy policies and technologies is riddled in intricacies and is an enormous component of a city’s resiliency.

There are many informative elements to Dr. Troy’s book, and I found his reference to the time period when regional planning was ‘trending’ toward suburbanization particularly interesting for planners. He explains how urban sprawl and the advancement of automobile dependent transportation systems have a direct correlation to creating higher energy consumption. Urban sprawl has proven to be extremely expensive to service and maintain, with large quantities of land, roads, pipes, and infrastructure required per capita. However, the notion of regional planning has since shifted towards a coordinated approach to maximize efficiencies of infrastructure and zoning for the sustainable growth of a region. This echoes the methods for resiliency planning mentioned by 100RC, Symbiotic Cities and the World Bank paper. In fact, some of Dr. Troy’s primary recommendations include strengthening regional governance to improve energy metabolism, urban reinvestment, retargeting transportation spending and adjusting federal housing finance and credit policies (e.g. the Federal Housing Administration, Veterans Administration, and Federal National Mortgage Association).12 Dr. Troy advocates the development of alternate fuel sources, technologies, and other measures like energy-efficient neighborhoods, symbiotic infrastructure, congestion pricing, transit-oriented development, and water conservation. Reverberating 100RC and Symbiotic Cities, these recommendations will require a unified vision, political will, and funding strategies, to be implemented.

A Couple of Western Cities Forging Ahead Toward Resiliency

It’s valuable to know there are a couple of Western cities that have charged forward to address the need for climate change resiliency planning. Boulder, Colorado and Flagstaff, Arizona each have created policy documents and plans to prioritize resiliency strategies.

Boulder County and City of Boulder Climate Resiliency Strategies (2012)

The Boulder County Climate Change Preparedness Plan13 identifies the potential impacts of climate change, explores the implications of these changes in the context of resource management institutions and outlines opportunities for adaptation planning efforts. The plan identifies areas for adaptive planning efforts and provides tools to assist county and city departments responsible for managing climate-sensitive resources and assets. The strategies presented are geared to help achieve departmental objectives while facing the challenges posed by anticipated climate impacts in Boulder County. There is a strong focus on strengthening resilience from citizen support and connectivity to amplify local climate solutions.

Boulder County faces many of the same climate-related threats seen across Western states. These include increased frequency and duration of drought cycles, higher risk of flash flooding due to more intense storm events, warmer springtime temperatures and early run-off, reduced water stored as snow, and increased heat waves and wildfires. The plan is organized to respond directly to four key sectors: water supply, emergency management, public health, and agriculture and natural resources. Detailed analysis was done to provide direction for a broad-based climate resilience strategy that can be adopted and implemented by the City of Boulder and Boulder County elected officials. Resilience is described in the plan as the ability to prepare for change in climate and factors that have important influences on resource and hazards management. The general strategy is to bolster resilience and develop adaptation efforts in an integrated fashion along with other considerations such as changes in population, land use, and citizen preferences.

Established agencies which already make climate-sensitive decisions or could be re-tasked to do so are recommended as the best starting point for mainstreaming climate change. Working with existing institutions to integrate climate considerations leverages existing resources for implementation avoids the disruption of reorganization and generates less opposition. As noted by 100RC and the World Bank, flexibility is a critical element for integrating the plan’s recommendations, utilizing departments that deal with climate-sensitive resources and are already accustomed to flexible policies (accounting for drought years, wet years and extremes in temperature).

A valuable component of the Boulder plan is the acknowledgment that the jurisdiction of many county and city agencies is limited and cannot effectively address cross-sector adaptation challenges or opportunities. Another notable element of the plan is their efforts to include mechanisms to coordinate with the private sector, NGOs, and other stakeholders. Maintaining and building connections with scientists and other resources to provide updates and interpretation of the latest science helps manage resources efficiently and keep efforts up to date. In addition, the Boulder plan utilized the Climate Adaptation Planning Committee, which was established to guide the development of this plan, and also serves as a potentially effective mechanism for implementation.

The Boulder County Climate Change Preparedness Plan employs many effective strategies. Boulder was also selected for the 100RC program which will certainly help refine and integrate their resiliency strategies into ongoing planning efforts.

City of Flagstaff Resiliency and Preparedness Study (2012)

The City of Flagstaff’s Resiliency and Preparedness Study14 was prepared to provide guidance to local decision-makers by identifying vulnerable areas within the city and assessing the risks of potential climate impacts. Flagstaff has similar threats as Boulder and other Western cities, ranging from extreme droughts and storm events to economic shocks and emergency and disaster preparedness. The overall vision for Flagstaff’s climate adaptation and resiliency efforts is based on preparedness to best position the city for climate-related risks and impacts, continued prosperity, and to protect the city’s resources.

The study focuses on strategies to help Flagstaff meet changing demands for services, smart economic growth and community development. In order to determine levels of risk and vulnerability from climate impacts, the study includes a ranking system designed to assess these planning areas: water, forest health, emergency services, energy, storm water, public health and transportation. The results of the ranking system have allowed Flagstaff to prioritize adaptation and resiliency efforts. Similar to the Boulder Plan, the Flagstaff study identifies local government agency divisions as the ideal organization to manage the city’s resilience strategy. The tools mentioned in the study include land use planning, transportation, and economic development policies. For example, the study recommends pursuing opportunities such as payment for watershed services to finance ongoing forest restoration measures aimed at protecting water resources.

The Flagstaff study also employs various methods mentioned by the 100RC, World Bank Report and Symbiotic Cities Network such as accounting for infrastructure design and economic development along with weather extremes and natural resource management. Flagstaff has also prioritized safeguarding city systems with differential exposures to pollution, poverty, and access to resources. Flagstaff intends to integrate resiliency into all strategic plans, and endorses having a performance management system to evaluate how the organization’s resiliency and sustainability planning can save money.


As our communities begin to face aging urban infrastructure, an increasing global population, and the effects of the convergence of peak oil,15 we will need to commence a fundamental multi-scale initiative to establish resilient cities. The transition toward a more balanced existence comes with the awareness of a closing era of over-consumption.

There is valuable institutional knowledge that will aid our efforts to retool for an era of resilience and symbiosis. Some of the tools and methods to tackle this transition, which are highlighted in this article include:

  • Investing in quality data on risk and tools to use that data across sectors and jurisdictions
  • Integrating resiliency into all strategic plans and urban governance to create innovative and sustainable decisions
  • Utilizing ecosystem services of a natural landscape to decrease the cost of urban infrastructure projects through merging land use planning with ecosystem management approaches
  • Locating and prioritizing the safest areas for investments in urban development and infrastructure
  • Incorporating risk-based methods into cost-benefit analysis to account for design and economic elements along with natural resource management and weather extremes
  • Quantifying probable impacts of climate change disasters and the economic consequences of events in key sectors, including water, energy, and transport systems to improve a community’s flexibility and adaptability
  • Coordinating resiliency planning with the private sector, NGOs, and other stakeholders
  • Building connections with scientists and other resources to provide updates and interpretation of the latest science, to best manage resources efficiently

Emerging innovative designs and methods can propel our cities to net zero resource use while enhancing the natural environment, economic activity, and our quality of life. Getting there will require a common vision across cultural, political, technical and economic sectors. This recognition will help fuel the growing focus on resiliency planning in many cities around the world, and a growing number of organizations and professionals focused on how to make this complex transition.

Tools for Building Urban Resilience

The World Bank’s 2013 Report, Building Urban Resilience: Principles, Tools, and Practice, provides the following list of ‘tools’ for building urban resilience:7

  • Risk assessment is a technical tool for quantifying the possible impacts of disaster and weather events in terms of the spatial distribution of damage and loss and the probability or likelihood of events occurring.
  • Socioeconomic cost-benefit analysis is a method to assess a range of positive and negative impacts of a public or private investment.
  • Risk-based land use planning identifies the safest areas in order to guide the prioritization of investments in urban development and infrastructure projects.
  • Urban upgrading gives priority to infrastructure investments that benefit the most vulnerable populations living in slum settlements.
  • Ecosystems management approaches for resilience in urban areas make use of natural infrastructure and can significantly decrease the cost of urban infrastructure projects.
  • Participation of communities and stakeholders in urban infrastructure projects, including public-private partnerships, is an effective way to build social resilience.
  • Geographic information system (GIS) software and tools are instrumental in creating and analyzing geospatial data, such as hazard and exposure maps, as part of a risk assessment.
  • Recognition of residual risk implies that cities have to continue improving the quality of risk communication, early warning systems, and contingency planning for evacuation and recovery.
  • Disaster management frameworks are an extension of local networks, national systems, and even international regional networks. The key is to create systems that are complementary and encourage collaboration between different levels of authority.
  • Investments in early-warning systems are among the most cost-effective measures a country can undertake.
  • Financial approaches to urban resilience can spread disaster risk and soften the impact of a disaster.

Gretel Follingstad is the founder and a partner at Terra-Planning, LLC. She specializes in strategic and long-term planning for natural resources and community development, with an emphasis on linking land use with water resources. She has broad experience in water resource planning, water conservation, watershed planning, restoration and management.


  1. The American Heritage Dictionary. Jan. 2015.
  2. IPCC. 2007. Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, M.L. Parry, O.F. Canziani, J.P. Palutikof, P.J. van der Linden, and C.E. Hanson (eds.). Cambridge University Press, Cambridge UK and New York.
  3. 100 Resilient Cities. January 2015.
  4. Ibid.
  5. The City Resiliency Framework. January 2015.
  6. Arup. An independent firm of designers, planners, engineers, consultants and technical specialists offering a broad range of professional services. Through our work, we make a positive difference in the world. January 2015.
  7. Jha, Abhas K., Todd W. Miner, and Zuzana Stanton-Geddes, eds. 2013. Building Urban Resilience: Principles, Tools, and Practice. Directions in Development. Washington, DC: World Bank. doi:10.1596/978-0-8213-8865-5. License: Creative Commons Attribution CC BY 3.0 Building Urban Resilience. Pg. 47.
  8. The Symbiotic Cities Network: January 2015
  9. The Symbiotic Cities Network. Symbiotic Cities.
  10. Spatial Informatics Group. LLC.
  12. Troy, Austin. (2012) The Very Hungry City. New Haven and London. Yale University Press. pg. 165. Resolving Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac’s refusal to purchase mortgages with a Property Assessed Clean Energy lien.
  13. Boulder County. 2012. Boulder County Climate Change Preparedness Plan. Available. Stratus Consulting Inc.
  14. City of Flagstaff. 2012. City of Flagstaff Resiliency and Preparedness Study. Available.
  15. Peak oil, an event based on M. King Hubbert’s theory, is the point in time when the maximum rate of extraction of petroleum is reached, after which the rate of production is expected to enter terminal decline. Peak oil theory is based on the observed rise, peak, (sometimes rapid) fall, and depletion of aggregate production rate in oil fields over time.

Published in April/May 2015

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