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Resilience checklist: 10 steps to improving your community’s resilience

February 16, 2022

By John Malueg

Understand your vulnerabilities and identify actions that will contribute to a sustainable future

Resilience is about making our communities stronger, today and for years to come. It reflects the ability of people, institutions, and systems to endure, adapt, and thrive, regardless of the chronic stresses and acute shocks that can and will occur. As climate change and severe weather events continue to challenge our world, incorporating resilience in all facets of design is more important than ever before.

It’s more than just a tactical line item. Resilience impacts every aspect of a project. It supports thinking about all the stressors that can negatively impact a community. When approaching a project with this mindset—whether it’s a new building, community development initiative, or infrastructure project—it can transform the entire effort into something new. Outcomes from this type of resilience thinking may include new community assets that provide added benefits, such as greenspaces, natural or constructed wetlands, and revitalized or re-envisioned urban corridors.

When beginning your next project, consider these 10 steps towards maximizing its resilience contribution.

Flood control designs for Battery Park in Lower Manhattan aim to protect against sea level rise.

1. Define your boundaries

Having a clear understanding of your project’s goals is essential. Start by defining the physical assets, systems, services, and programs that are critical to supporting your project. Then, define the zone of influence or boundary for each of these. Understanding the boundaries is important to identify solutions and partners to mitigate threats before, during, and after a disaster event. 

For example, when trying to identify potential solutions to mitigate flood risk, your boundary might be a watershed. When considering the vulnerability and risk to a power grid substation, the boundary might be an electrical service area.

2. Select resilience evaluation criteria

Evaluation criteria should consider the “what”, the frequency, and the impact to the project:

  • Defining the “what” includes understanding which natural hazards are a threat to your project’s ability to perform its design function.
  • The frequency of an event is important to understand as you assess your risks over the design life of your project. It is also essential to consider changes in frequency due to climate change and other factors.
  • Finally, you must identify how to measure the impact of an event. Do you simply want to limit analysis to physical damages or those that can be measured by the cost to repair? Or do you want to analyze more holistic impacts? These can include impacts to the economy or environment, as well as impacts to the quality of life of a population including the economic profile of the people.

The bottom line is that identifying the right evaluation criteria is critical to quantifying the benefits and the value of one solution compared to another. Understanding natural hazards that affect a project area is a key part of this evaluation. It’s not enough to plan for today’s conditions, you must build for the future. Sea level rise, soaring temperatures, and the annual increase in extreme weather events will continue to add to the stresses on buildings, infrastructure, and the energy grid.

Many federal grants require that a project demonstrates a positive return on the US government’s investment. This was this case with the State of New York and the Tottenville Shoreline Protection project. Evaluating future conditions and benefits more holistically made the difference in qualifying—or not qualifying—for nearly $24 million in grant funding. This included assessing the environmental impact related to protecting sensitive coastal ecosystems.

3. Identify mission critical project priorities

This is probably the most important step of all. Our first step is to understand the vulnerabilities, the probability of that threat occurring, and the criteria of how to measure the potential impacts of an event. We can then calculate risks to identify truly mission critical priorities. Think of risks as an equation: Risks equal probability times impact. Having this data will position you to revisit standard projects, evaluating opportunities through a resilient and sustainable lens that considers benefits across the entire design life of your project.

An example of thinking for the long-term is the Mid-Breton Sediment Diversion project. Areas of Louisiana have been dealing with coastal land loss for the last hundred years. However, the use of specific resilience strategies is helping to reestablish more natural flows of the Mississippi River. As the restored coastal wetland areas begin to thrive again, they will provide a natural buffer to more frequent and severe weather events. This project will allow the state to realize coastal flood risk reductions and significant carbon sequestration benefits during the next major storm and for decades to come.

Understanding future threats is a vital part of flood risk management under the Tottenville Shoreline Protection project.

4. Identify opportunities to leverage resources

Stakeholder engagement and involvement is important at each step within the process as each stakeholder has the potential to evolve into a partner. Partnerships can include a wide range of supporters. They can include peers within internal organizations that can help you operate, maintain, and monitor your project. External partners can provide you the political support needed to secure the required budget or external grant funding. As a starting point, consider those that have a specific interest in your outcomes and those you have worked with previously.

5. Identify and prioritize risk mitigation actions

Connecting values to outcomes strengthens the business case for resilience initiatives and demonstrates the importance of these efforts. Some of the traditional benefits associated with resilience includes damages avoided, energy savings, and loss-of-life prevention.

The Tottenville Shoreline Protection project on the south shore of Staten Island, New York serves as an example of lasting community resilience benefits. Moving beyond the reduced risk of flood damage and loss of life, this project incorporated nature-based elements to create layers of resilience. The first layer incorporated living break waters that not only reduced the harmful impacts of wave action, but also created a new aquatic habitat that contributed to environmental and water quality improvements. A second layer included coastal wetlands and a network of natural and reinforced dunes to further reduce coastal risks while creating a new destination for residents and visitors alike. The final layer featured the evaluation and adoption of higher building standards to allow the community to minimize losses and recover more quickly from future storms.

Also remember that some of the best, most cost-effective actions can be the development of programs or the adoption of revised or new codes and standards. The National Institute of Building Sciences (NIBS) has found that every dollar spent on mitigation saves six dollars in future damages avoided.

6. Integrate mitigation actions into climate adaptation strategy

Mitigation doesn’t stop at resilience. We must also consider sustainability. As discussed in the Tottenville project example and as achieved in the design of New Orleans’s Blue Green Corridor project, benefits do not—and should not—stop at addressing current threats. You should always strive to achieve benefits that future-proof your project. These can include a reduced carbon footprint, future-risk mitigation, job creation, healthier lifestyles, environmental improvements, protection of natural resources, and fostering of community.

As climate change and severe weather events continue to challenge our world, considering the importance of resilience in all facets of design is more important than ever before.

7. Incorporate climate strategy

This step is the documentation of all the great thinking, analysis, and work completed in a format that provides a vision of what is possible. The goal here is to create a framework to guide decision-making towards a more resilient and sustainable future.

8. Implement climate change performance monitoring

A key term in our industry is adaptability. To adapt, we must first commit to monitor, evaluate, and collect data that will influence and guide future decisions. With the right monitoring and the right team made up of passionate sustainability and resiliency practitioners, you will remain ahead of the curve.

Some examples may include the installation of instream flow gages to measure reduced flood frequencies or reductions in flood water depths. We can gauge economic monitoring by tracking increases in home and property values as various risks to hazards are mitigated. Finally, social benefits may be measured by reductions in crime or absenteeism of school children.

9. Assess climate change performance and adapt

Adapting to climate change is an ongoing process. Initially, start with measuring against the goals you set (like those in step 8 above). If they aren’t being met, continue to assess what might be done in the near-term to try and impact your goals. In addition, conducting regular evaluations and assessments is vital to maintain successful outcomes and identify future opportunities.

The New Orleans’s Blue Green Corridor project aims to support flood risk reduction for generations to come.

10. Celebrate

Highlighting the successful completion of a major project generates excitement for everyone involved and the entire community. Having a specific focus on achievement is important, even early in the project. It is also a great way to get others in the community involved and appreciating the benefits of resilience and climate strategy.

Whether planning for the future of a city, hospital, or airport, a well-planned resilience framework supports response, recovery, and adaptive change. The current rate of global climate change continues to create unprecedented challenges. Using this step-by-step process to visualize how we can collectively adjust to a changing world lets us design for flexibility and durability to secure a resilient future.

  • John Malueg

    John has a broad range of experience and expertise stemming from a 30-plus year career in water resources engineering.

    Contact John
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