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The Lily Pad Network: A natural analogy to advance resiliency

February 08, 2021

By John Malueg

Communities need resiliency hubs to deal with natural disasters, but good design and planning enables them to contribute to daily life, too

This article first appeared as “The Lily Pad Network” in Stantec Design Quarterly, Issue 11.

Superstorm Sandy revealed the necessity of new thinking about resiliency in North America. The US government, the City of New York, and philanthropic partners like the Rockefeller Foundation elicited a boundary-pushing design competition (Rebuild by Design) to address the challenge of recovery. New York pushed for investment in resiliency that looks at social, environmental, and economic metrics. Rebuild by Design resiliency hubs emerged as a powerful conceptual approach. These hubs are assets that are integrated into a community that help it support, prepare, and respond to shocks and stressors such as an extreme weather events. But these assets can also contribute to quality of life during nonemergencies.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, a broad consensus emerged across Houston that the city must cultivate new ideas to plan and build for a resilient future. A yearlong project initiated by the AIA and city council member David Robinson—Houston 2020 Visions—called for creative and innovative approaches to rebuilding the city to promote well-being and sustainable economic growth. The program challenged designers to create a vision for the city at all scales and facets. It was in this context that Stantec developed a concept—a holistic framework that would help Houston build back better than it was before. We developed the Lily Pad Network for Houston 2020 Visions, and it was selected for inclusion in the Houston 2020 Visions exhibit and publication.

The Lily Pad Network is intended to serve a community as a broad, flexible solution that can deal with threats and stresses. 

With the Lily Pad Network, we took the concept of resiliency hubs and applied it to the experience of Hurricane Harvey. The lily pad analogy came from the idea that resiliency hubs are like the elements that float above danger when disaster strikes. While Harvey’s floods were the catalyst for the conversation, the Lily Pad Network is intended as a broad, flexible solution that can deal with whatever threats and stresses emerge around the country.

But then it takes it further. The Lily Pad Network challenges the concept of the resiliency hub to say, “yes, it’s essential to have these hubs within the communities, but they need to be connected to each other.” Threats and stresses impact each community differently. Even resilience hubs need a backup. And the hubs in the Lily Pad Network do more than position the community to physically deal with a natural hazard like hurricane or drought, they also create an asset that the city can leverage to make a stronger social network to respond to other kinds of crises.

Why do we need a Lily Pad Network at all?

Resiliency is still a new concept, even a buzzword. To manifest resiliency, our society requires a shift in mindset across our industry, government, and communities. At the core of this mindset is an understanding of your vulnerabilities and risks as a community. If communities begin to consider their risks and vulnerabilities, their assets, and the potential consequences—they can quantify them. If they can assign metrics to these consequences, then they can prioritize which ones they need to mitigate.

In many ways, we are coming from a place of ignorance to creating a baseline of knowledge. If we can identify risk, we can identify partners with whom we can reduce risk. 

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The flooding from Hurricane Harvey in Houston, Texas, was the catalyst for the conversation about resiliency.

What is a Lily Pad Network?

The Lily Pad Network concept acknowledges that every community has vulnerably and risk as well as assets—Lily Pads—that it can leverage. The Lily Pad Network is about using existing physical and institutional assets to help bolster communities and their resilience for the future. That Lily Pad could be a school, public library, or anything that is fixture within the community—a physical structure that could be retrofitted or renovated to act as a resilience hub.

When a community lacks social infrastructure or any kind of community facility, it may need to build a new typology to serve as a Lily Pad for that area. The resiliency hub is relied upon in emergency situations, but it’s also meant to be used day-to-day for education and services, therefore building social connections within the community that can be tapped into ahead of any disaster. 

The lily pad analogy came from the idea that resiliency hubs are like the elements that float above danger when disaster strikes.

A holistic approach, crossing silos, and reaping rewards

When we begin to look at resiliency as a multifaceted state that includes well-being, jobs, and physical assets, we measure it differently. We can apply metrics against the social, environmental, and economic assets in a community. This approach is powerful because it allows communities to better justify the investment in resilience. They can see the return-on-investment cross over from infrastructure and education into health. Rather than seeing resilience as an extra expense in the design process, agencies that integrate it on the front end will see that the cost is low and the benefits are high.


The Lily Pad Network recognizes that resiliency occurs at multiple scales. This scaled approach to resilience looks at the individual, the neighborhood, the community, and the city scale. The Lily Pad Network concept becomes a useful jumping-off point to consider ways of connecting individuals, community, and built assets for the purpose of resiliency.

Lily Pad app

The Lily Pad app concept imagines technology that connects individuals within a neighborhood to educational media about resilience. It can be used to connect individuals to their neighbors and their local Lily Pad so that they are prepared ahead of time. During an emergency, users can get up-to-the-minute info and directions.

The Lily Pad Network concept is a nod to the biological structure of the lily pad. Lily pads represent the resiliency hubs that serve their communities. On the surface, they appear to be floating individually, but as you look closer, you realize that they’re connected and supported by a support system that includes government policy, public/private partnerships, the built environment, and people.

Lily Pad fleet

The conceptual framework could also include mobile elements—a Lily Pad fleet. We imagined it as an aqueous vehicle fleet that on sunny days goes out to neighborhoods to educate residents on resilience and preparedness. In Houston, that might be hurricane and flooding preparedness. Then, in emergency situations, such as a flood, the fleet goes out and brings people to safety at their local resilience hub.


The Lily Pad Network concept has wide applications. Houston is already using the Lily Pad concept as a framework for approaching its resiliency building efforts. And we have proposed using the Lily Pad Network in a study for the National Science Foundation, applying it to the shock of COVID-19 and vulnerable populations in public housing, while looking at emergency assets in health and safety, jobs, and education.

Now, we’re working with Native American tribes in Alaska on building resiliency using the Lily Pad Network concept.

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  • John Malueg

    Drawing on an extensive water resources engineering career, John is a climate solutions manager of resilience programs for North America—focusing on mitigating vulnerabilities and risks associated with natural hazards magnified by climate change.

    Contact John
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