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Climate Change Is Prompting Cities to Reassess Resiliency

Buffalo, N.Y., is reversing a decadeslong trend of population decline by positioning itself as a “climate refuge city” in the face of climate change and a pattern of extreme weather events across the country.

A street in downtown Buffalo, N.Y., during the day.
The challenges of living through a changing climate are nudging cities toward technologies that make them more resilient, as well as focusing on their natural placement as a “climate refuge” city.

“Buffalo doesn’t always get the best coverage for its weather, and here we are, from a climate perspective, saying, ‘Hey, this is where you might want to go in the future,’” said Brendan Mehaffy, executive director of the Office of Strategic Planning in Buffalo, N.Y.

Buffalo, a historic city on Lake Erie sitting on the U.S.-Canada border, had been shedding population for some seven decades, but has seen a resurgence in newcomers moving to the second-largest city in the state in the last several years. This reversal is driven, in part, by its natural insulation to extreme weather — though two huge snow events in the last few months were a reminder of the realities of living in the Northeast.

City and other leaders point out Buffalo is not vulnerable to hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires, drought and some of the other calamities that have stricken other parts of the country.

“When you look at a place like Buffalo-Niagara, I think we are better suited to dealing with most of the effects that are coming through climate change,” said Ryan McPherson, University at Buffalo’s chief sustainability officer. “Again, no one is immune, but I think when you look at some of the assets that we have in this region ... it does give us the ingredients, to I think, chart a path in a climate change world.”

By the time the 2020 Census came along, Buffalo had grown to 278,000 residents, a pick up of more than 50,000 people, say officials.

“Now we are a growing city. [We were] shrinking for 70 years, and now our population in the city of Buffalo is growing,” said Mehaffy.

“There’s many reasons for why people come to Buffalo. But within that, there is unquestionably a percentage that is because of climate,” he added, noting that some residents came to Buffalo from Puerto Rico after being displaced by Hurricane Maria, while others are more traditional kind of refugees.

Climate concerns are making their way into city planning, as Buffalo explores a “climate resiliency planning initiative,” said Kelley St. John, climate action manager for Buffalo.

“There is a wealth of really robust planning background in the city, and with climate change in mind, we’re really taking the lead on resilience in the community,” she added.

Urban tech companies are recognizing climate resiliency as a growth area, and an area cities want to explore.

“I believe that as our cities begin talking, and creating a path toward ‘smart,’ it has to be logical, it’s got to make sense,” said David Ly, CEO of Iveda, a company with a long history in IoT surveillance and using real-time video technology to recognize changes in the urban landscape like flooding.

Ly pointed out artificial intelligence technology can be used to better understand flooding and other events caused by extreme weather to help cities plan and mitigate these threats.

“A safer community also means that if one can respond with early triggers of what potentially one may expect, and this is where AI comes into play, is all of the predictive modeling,” said Ly. “This is where smart communities are headed.”

Smart city tech can also step in to help cities measure their carbon footprint, McPherson noted, a necessary first step many communities are taking as they draft sustainability plans.

“I think that’s a price of admission today,” said McPherson, adding that the Gen Zs and millennials interested in working for government will be asking about these sustainability plans. “If we can’t answer that, we’re not going to be able to recruit or retain talent.”

“So for us, it’s real important that we are measuring effectively. And there’s a lot of tech that is poised to make those measurements more efficient, effective, streamlined,” he added.

Buffalo is working with New York University to learn from its experience with the last severe snow events about how to better prepare and respond.

“The broader message is … it doesn’t matter who you are as a city, you’re going to have more of these types of events,” Mehaffy reflected. “And they’re different city by city. And what people need to look at is, how are you adapting? How are you changing to bring the greatest amount of stability to your residents, and to your businesses?”
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.