After Sandy: New Report Looks At Mitigating Climate Change Through Land Use

Posted by Heidi Schwartz

The reality of climate change will forever alter community building, with planning and development decisions increasingly based on strengthening community resilience through what is built, and where and how it is built, according to a new report released by the Urban Land Institute (ULI).

Leading up to the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Sandy, ULI has prepared After Sandy: Advancing Strategies for Long-Term Resilience and Adaptability, which offers guidance on community building in a way that responds to inevitable climate change and sea level rise and helps preserve the environment, boost economic prosperity and foster a high quality of life.

At the request of three ULI district councils—ULI New York (city), ULI Northern New Jersey and ULI Philadelphia, which serve ULI members in those market areas—ULI in July 2013 convened a panel of the nation’s foremost authorities on real estate and urban planning to evaluate local and federal plans for strengthening community resiliency post- Sandy and offer guidance on rebuilding efforts. Candid insights and observations from these experts formed the basis for After Sandy, a comprehensive, practical set of 23 recommendations focused on four areas—land use and development; infrastructure, technology and capacity; finance, investment and insurance; and leadership and governance.

The report’s overriding message: The increased frequency of severe weather events, as well as rising sea levels, are compelling the real estate industry to address climate change by working with the public sector to implement adaptive measures that better protect both the built and natural environment.

“For the real estate industry, climate change has become a global issue with dramatic local ramifications. As a result, we are seeing different approaches to development in the 21st century,” said Joseph Azrack, managing partner at Apollo Global Real Estate in New York City. “Rebuilding, as well as new building, is increasingly being viewed as an opportunity to reduce disaster-related risk and increase community resilience, as well as enhance livability and protect natural resources.”

John McIlwain, ULI senior resident fellow/J. Ronald Terwilliger Chair for Housing, pointed out that while the report was prepared in response to areas affected by Sandy, it is intended to be a resource for vulnerable communities worldwide. “This is about more than rebuilding. It’s about how regions and communities set priorities; how they balance the need to invest in areas that create economic vitality with the need to support particularly vulnerable areas without resources. Through our recommendations, we are seeking to help regions and localities make informed decisions in this regard,” he said.

“The implications of climate change and rising sea levels are issues that are here to stay,”  David Ricci, partner at The Flynn Company in Philadelphia noted. “How well we as a society adapt depends on our ability to accurately calculate its impact on the built and natural environments, and to plan, develop, finance, and insure more resilient communities.”

Among the recommendations on land use and development:

  • Reconstitute the Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force as an ongoing task force comprised of federal, state and local representatives and use it as a replicable model for coordinated decision-making on rebuilding. While the panel does not believe a new form of governance is necessary or prudent, it sees a need for continuous, high-level, coordinated leadership for project prioritization and resource allocation.
  • Identify local land use typologies to accurately assess a region’s capacity for resiliency. This includes evaluating a variety of factors, including environmental, political, cultural and economic conditions, as well as population density and the scale of and access to transit.
  • Conduct a cost/benefit analysis of the defined land use typologies to identify less vulnerable zones for long-term planning and public spending. In responding to the costs of preserving and protecting certain high-risk locations, communities will need to develop new land use overlay zones that balance the value of continuing their current use with the cost of doing so. Over time, this will lead to new policies, investment strategies and outcomes that shift investment from high-risk areas to less vulnerable ones.

On infrastructure, technology and capacity:

  • Design protective infrastructure to do more than protect. Since protective infrastructure can serve multiple functions, it can be of great economic and ecological value if it is designed in a way that contributes to the creation of new development opportunities, doubles up to accommodate other infrastructure uses, improves the quality of the public realm and waterfront experience and enhances natural systems.
  • Explore the potential of soft infrastructure to supplement hard infrastructure. Soft systems involve enabling natural resources to address issues such as storm water management or shoreline protection. The report cites the existence of numerous natural systems throughout the New York-New Jersey coastal area, such as dunes, maritime forests, wetlands, reefs and inlets, which can be used more fully as barriers for protection and as well as public amenities.

On finance, investment and insurance:

  • Implement creative extramunicipal financing mechanisms. The magnitude of capital requirements and the multijurisdictional scope of most infrastructure improvements necessitates a much more coordinated approach to close the gap between funding provided through federal, state, regional and local governments.
  • Accurately price climate risk into property value and insurance. While risk must be priced accurately, flood insurance pricing should be examined to determine whether market distortions are occurring because of a misunderstanding of climatic events.
  • Allow partial compliance and mitigation measures in order to create flexibility in insurance premiums for low-income households and small businesses. The rebuilding and recovery process for lower-income households and small businesses could be eased if the Federal Emergency Management Agency (which administers the national flood insurance program) permitted partial compliance with flood zone building requirements to qualify for insurance, perhaps at a lower amount or with a premium surcharge to reflect increased casualty risk.

On leadership and governance:

  • When appropriate, devolve funding to the lowest level of government. Villages, townships and cities should have the authority to manage and implement federal and state funds, provided they can demonstrate the capacity to do so, and they should coordinate decision making with a regional entity.
  • Create programs to provide knowledge sharing and professional training on the effects of climate change. The entire professional spectrum of community building advisers—  including architects, engineers, urban planners and designers, developers, surveyors, appraisers and investors—must be technically knowledgeable in areas integral to decision making and implementation of climate change mitigation and resiliency.