I remember the first earthquake I felt after moving to California. I knew it was a thing that happened, but it still seemed conceptual until I saw the windows shaking in the supermarket across the street, followed by the lights over my desk and then everything else in the building. The most jarring thing was the idea that the terra firma I had grown up depending on and taking for granted was suddenly suspect. It shook assumptions and beliefs just as much as walls.
This is why climate change feels so insidious to me. The systems and patterns of climate and the various life support systems that depend on them are fundamentally changing in ways that we didn’t design for, and the predictions suggest that incremental shifts could give way to more drastic changes in the not-distant future. And while they are punctuated by extreme events, like earthquakes, the persistent march toward change happens largely in the background while we go on unaware.
This presents a design challenge for our physical infrastructure as underlying conditions like temperature, precipitation and sea level are breaking out of the boundaries we thought we understood. But it also creates a threat to the daily human functioning that defines our communities. Worse air quality, hotter temperatures, more storms and fires, new diseases—these issues impact health, education and business in increasingly dire and unpredictable ways. Moody’s is beginning to consider climate risk when evaluating municipal bond ratings. Researchers have used Zillow data to show that properties in coastal areas vulnerable to storms and sea level rise are already seeing a climate penalty to their value.
Thinking optimistically, we have a set of solutions that can avoid the worst of the damage. Thinking realistically, it’s a good thing that climate adaptation and resilience are now understood to be necessary parts of the plan. Thinking functionally, cities are key players in both adaptation and mitigation. And I don’t mean just the familiar dense urban places whose brand precedes them. I grew up in a city of 25,000 people, which happens to be the sixth largest city in New Hampshire but is smaller than many college football stadiums on game day.
The key is to think about the city in its original sense as a beneficial, voluntary communion of social creatures. In the A/E/C industry, we often reduce a city to the municipal employees and elected officials. This makes sense because they play critical roles in how buildings get built. Even in that narrow view, employees and elected officials are a diverse and often unaligned group. I worked for the City of Santa Monica, a small city with lots of resources that has been globally recognized for its work on sustainability. Even there, with a great staff and community buy-in to the mission, it was difficult to move basic improvements forward on things like efficiency because people are busy, people are unique, people respond to different drivers, and no city ever has enough time or money to do what they need. But people are resilient too, and they quickly adapt to changing conditions. I learned in Santa Monica how powerful policy could be as a tool, and the city was one of the earliest adopters of green building requirements. We saw a similar pattern again and again. Pilot projects generated great results and momentum but lacked the scale we needed for change. Broad policy mandates generated impact at scale but were often opposed because of fear or uncertainty. The pilots informed sensible policy, and often the loudest critics before adoption were the best at figuring out how to comply and the first to tout their sustainable leadership after the fact.
Cities and states across the country have been moving forward on climate policy. Energy benchmarking, green building codes and climate action plans have gone from exception to rule in a short period of time. Here in California, the conversation has shifted from energy to carbon, and the policy issues on the horizon involve some complex challenges that knit together several sectors. With the state pushing forward more aggressive renewable energy commitments, electrifying everything and moving away from natural gas is becoming a key component of the climate strategy. Electric vehicle infrastructure has blurred the lines between the buildings and transportation sectors. As our buildings and grid get cleaner and more efficient, more attention is being paid to embodied carbon and life cycle emissions from the materials we use to build our buildings and infrastructure.
But cities are not just defined and determined by the policies they adopt and the people who make and implement those policies. Neighborhood associations, business leadership, cultural traditions, sports leagues—these are the fabric of communal identity and action in cities from New Hampshire to New York. These groups can be ad hoc or informal, but often they are established as non-profit organizations that play important roles in how communities establish a vision, navigate change and retain an identity over time.
When I worked at the Urban Land Institute (ULI), we helped cities develop plans to adapt to impacts from climate change. ULI, itself a nonprofit think tank for the real estate industry, usually worked directly with city staff on these projects, but an important part of the process was engagement with key community groups who could give context and history, but more importantly could mobilize buy-in for action. Finding that core leadership at all scales in a community ended up being an important indicator of any plan’s success.
Leadership and momentum derived from the community fabric is essential as we adjust to a warmer planet. While we must keep pressing forward on mitigation solutions, cities around the world are already facing daily impacts from climate change that will cost lives, homes, jobs and dollars. Cities are looking at their critical infrastructure to determine how to minimize shocks and stresses.
A conventional perspective would start with gray infrastructure: if we are running out of water, let’s build a bigger reservoir. But some of the more successful projects have been rethinking this approach, combining green and gray infrastructure in ways that generate multiple co-benefits to the community. Waterfront parks can be designed to flood safely, providing a community amenity during normal days while adding flood protection during storm surges. Microgrids with renewables and storage can help even out utility grid fluctuations under normal conditions and can provide critical power needs during power outages.
Perhaps every generation feels like the world is changing faster than it did before. New technologies and platforms present solutions to the climate challenge but are often incongruous with the timescales in which cities evolve. In my work at Integral Group, we take our innovations in high performance buildings and apply them in district- and city-scale solutions. Based in the Bay Area, we are surrounded by the values and culture that Silicon Valley has become known for: fail fast, disrupt, break things. These mantras have led to incredible new businesses and entire industry sectors, but they also suggest an appetite for risk that’s incompatible with the fundamental, mission-critical nature of municipal operations and community life. Innovation and change, especially by the private sector, is absolutely necessary for us to solve climate change. It will also happen to us whether or not we are ready for it.
Advances in data science and sensor costs have enabled predictive analytics and truly intelligent controls at the system, building, district and grid scale. This allows for finely tuned operations that save energy and carbon but it also opens the door to distributed downscaled solutions, like demand response at the retail level, or vehicle-to-grid software optimizing battery charging over thousands of points. Beyond energy, employers are leveraging this increase in information to incorporate health and wellness planning into their buildings with real-time information on air quality, activity, daylight levels and other elements that affect productivity, recruitment and retention.
Mobility is undergoing a seismic shift, with Uber, Lyft, Tesla, Lime and Bird all playing a part. Some studies show that ride share is increasing vehicle miles traveled and traffic, but we can also envision a future with all-electric autonomous vehicles—emissions free and powered by renewables. The price of those renewables as well as battery storage has dropped rapidly to the point where it outcompetes traditional fossil-powered plants.
New industry clusters, accelerators and incubators are popping up around cleantech, which means a lot more than solar PV these days. While many of these are still focused on energy, materials and carbon sequestration will see increased importance and investment as the climate situation becomes worse. Emily Kirsch, CEO of Powerhouse in Oakland, likes to say that energy is becoming decentralized, decarbonized, digitized and democratized. I’ve found that’s a good shorthand for much of the change that is going on around us right now.
The large and small cities where we live are beautiful, messy, dynamic, complex places that are shaped by innumerable intersecting forces. And yet despite that chaos, we still can and should craft our communities deliberately to reflect our values, aspirations and collective vision. While the death and life of our cities has been influenced by external trends—the rise of car culture, urbanization, baby booms—it is our interventions that matter. Instead of being scarred by freeways and redlining policies, we need to be building healthy, affordable, transitoriented housing supported by green infrastructure.
Climate change has emerged as a new force shaping our communities, one that will change everything and change the way that everything changes. We have some technical solutions, but by leveraging the great power in our cities through policy, leadership and innovation, we not only can prevent further damage and adjust to the coming impacts but can find a way for everyone to be healthy and prosperous, and to thrive.
Brenden McEneaney is principal, urban innovation, for Integral Group.