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Building Resilient Cities That Are Ready for Climate Change

Efforts like reducing carbon emissions are important to fight climate change, but cities should also be looking at how they can reinforce roads, stabilize electric grids and use new technologies to build resilient communities.

rainbow over a suburban street after a storm
The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report warned that humankind was running out of time to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and avoid the worst impacts of a warming planet — that is, massive, costly and fatal flooding, heat waves and other punishments.

At about the same time that report was issued, an Associated Press analysis of U.S. Department of Energy data found that over the past 20 years, power outages have doubled — a result of more destructive storms and aging infrastructure, and a foreshadowing of what public agencies face as climate change becomes the new reality.

“The electric grid is our early warning,” University of California, Berkeley grid expert Alexandra von Meier told the AP. “Climate change is here, and we’re feeling real effects.”

Even so, local and state governments — many still dealing with the changes brought about by the pandemic and facing the usual hurdles of limited revenue and slow-moving policymaking — are generally just waking up to the fact that climate change is here, now, requiring immediate mitigation plans.

But as officials shift attention to those immediate needs, they will find a variety of technologies designed for specific climate change scenarios, which vary greatly depending on geography, population, land use and other factors. A beach town must worry about the rising ocean, for example, while some inland areas will suffer most from catastrophic heat waves.

“We are starting to see more communities think about climate change and how it impacts them,” said Tad McGalliard, research and development director for the International City/County Management Association (ICMA).


But as McGalliard pointed out, many of those efforts concern longer-term thinking about climate change.

Ann Arbor provides a good example.

The Michigan college town is often held up as an example of leading-edge action on climate change, given its “climate emergency declaration” in 2019 and its subsequent moves to make the city a net-zero producer of carbon — efforts that have included a host of municipal activities, including building affordable housing.

Much less common are spending money and deploying technology to deal with today’s climate change impacts rather than trying to reduce emissions and taking other steps meant as a brake on global warming.

“We are not seeing much of that yet,” McGalliard said.
house destroyed by a storm


Thinking about climate change can easily lead one to pessimism. That holds especially true when one considers that — according to ICMA data — the U.S. has some 38,000 general purpose local governments, many of them tiny agencies with scant resources in the best of times. How can such towns prepare for historic levels of flooding if they can barely afford a fire department?

But reasons for optimism do exist.

Experts on climate change mitigation and disaster preparedness point to the federal level.

In late 2021, FEMA awarded $171,700 to the Minnesota Department of Public Safety in the first Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities (BRIC) program grant award. The money will pay for updated hazard mitigation plans for the Minnesota counties of Jackson, Kittson, Marshall, Pope and Red Lake.

BRIC grants are designed to “shift the federal focus away from reactive disaster spending and toward research-supported, proactive investment in community resilience,” FEMA said in a statement.

BRIC-funded projects have included relatively low-tech but vital work such as wetland restoration, raising levees, and new flood pump and electrical systems — along with moving affordable housing away from flood zones and making sure that hospitals have reliable power grids. FEMA says BRIC will award $1 billion in its second year, helping communities deal with the ongoing and looming impacts of climate change.

That money is allowing communities to take on bigger mitigation projects, said Craig Fugate, chief resilience officer at One Concern, a California-based firm whose software helps with planning for the consequences of climate change.

People focused on those immediate impacts also can point to the latest proposed federal budget from the Biden administration, a spending plan the New York Times called “an extreme weather budget.” That proposal in early April included at least $1.8 billion for a Department of Agriculture program to make rural homes more resilient to climate change, for instance — another signal that at least some governmental thinking is shifting toward immediate needs.


But home upgrades will go only so far when it comes to planning needs for local and state governments.

Fugate, who was FEMA administrator under President Obama, said that grasping the complexities of climate change requires sophisticated software, machine learning and even artificial intelligence so that officials have a full picture of what’s to come and can plan accordingly.

“It’s no good if the hospital doesn’t flood but all the roads leading there do,” he said.

Indeed, when it comes to cutting-edge but relatively realistic technology that can help jurisdictions prepare now for climate change, he supports using AI in hazard risk modeling to help determine where and how to build before and redevelop after a disaster.

Such planning, however, is not just about structures or power grids or things. It’s about people: first responders and other members of the local workforce, for instance, or the service industry workers without whom a local economy cannot recover after a disaster.

“Resiliency is not just about rebuilding,” Fugate said. “Stuff is great, but people are more important.”

Already, he said, local and state governments are making use of GIS and mapping tools to display risk, and lidar — that is, light detection and ranging, a remote sensing method that when combined with other data generates precise, three-dimensional information — to build high-resolution topographic maps, which he said are key for flood risk.
parked cars on a flooded street


Preparing now for climate change involves more than digital maps and AI, however.

For instance, Fugate urged officials to consider bidirectional charging of electric vehicles, which can provide backup emergency power to residences and battery backup to the grid.

Other examples of mitigation technology come from a variety of sources in the U.S. and abroad.

The high-tech, wealthy and equatorial country of Singapore, for instance, has produced an in-depth guide that offers guidance about how to ease some of the impacts of climate change. That guide serves almost as a preview of the technology that is sure to find its way to more than a few U.S. locations — that holds especially true for urban heat islands or places prone to flooding.

For instance, it mentions “water retentive and porous pavement systems, which include additional voids compared to conventional pavements, [allowing] water to flow into the ground or into water holding fillers.” Such technology can help store runoff and prevent flooding, and also “enhance water evaporation” and contribute to cooling.

Meanwhile, according to that guide, governments can employ “phase change materials (PCMs),” which are substances that “store and release massive latent heat during phase transition within a certain temperature range by increasing the building inertia and stabilizing indoor air temperature.”

And as the guide notes, existing and relatively low-cost transportation technology promises to play its own small part in easing some of the effects of climate change.

“Using electric scooters for short trips (or for the first and last mile of longer trips) is a viable option for reducing heat generation from the transport sector. Such modes of transport do not produce significant emissions,” according to the guide.


But will such lessons and advice take hold as officials try to craft policies to deal with the immediate effects of climate change?

That’s one of the important questions — one that can be as important as the available technology. After all, case studies and examples are vital for any complex (and costly) issue, and climate change is about as complex (and costly) as they come.

“American governments tend to be a little bit xenophobic,” said McGalliard, of the ICMA, when asked if studies from Europe and Asia would influence thinking in the U.S. around mitigation efforts. “And places like L.A., Chicago and New York are aberrations in the United States. And it’s hard sometimes for the rest of the country to learn from California, because that state is more aggressive than most.”

But lessons will come one way or another — whether via case studies and technology guides or the harder experiences of storms, droughts, floods and heat waves.

Forethought rather than improvisation, however, will almost certainly be easier and cheaper. The National Institute of Building Sciences, for instance, estimates that every dollar spent on disaster preparation saves an average of $6 down the road.

The key to dealing with this challenge is to have a wide view, to think holistically.

As Fugate put it: “You cannot plan for what’s just inside the wire.”

Eight communities were chosen by FEMA for technical assistance through the Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities (BRIC) program, aimed at supporting local hazard mitigation projects. Work began this spring, and more cohorts will be added each year.

Thomasville, Georgia: Located in South Georgia near the Florida border, the city and FEMA are working on building capacity to run benefit-cost analysis, prioritizing mitigation projects, and developing best management practices for planning for future growth and protection of community lifelines.

Pittsfield, Vermont: A small community in central Vermont, the town and FEMA are looking to build Pittsfield’s grant application capabilities, identify ways to mitigate future flooding and prioritize mitigation projects.

DePue, Illinois: The village of DePue, situated on the Illinois River, is working with FEMA to address mitigation concerns for the local wastewater treatment facility and identify solutions for relocating a flood tunnel.

Kamiah, Idaho: The town of Kamiah, on the Clearwater River, is engaging FEMA to help identify viable mitigation projects as well as funding sources. They plan to prioritize projects that address floods, wildfires and landslides.

Iowa Tribe, Kansas and Nebraska: The Iowa Tribe is located in northeast Kansas and southeast Nebraska. The tribe and FEMA are working to conceptualize a microgrid project that would create a Tribal Utility Authority, decrease the tribe’s environmental impact and increase their energy resilience.

Morongo Band of Mission Indians, California: The Morongo Band of Mission Indians, covering areas of Southern California, is working with FEMA to help address emergency access to the reservation, enhance flood and wildfire mitigation, and assist with mitigation project application development.

Railroad Borough, Pennsylvania: Railroad Borough, in southern Pennsylvania, is engaging FEMA to help maximize limited resources, build capacity in competitive mitigation grant development and come up with ideas for projects to address reoccurring flooding.

Northern Cheyenne Tribe, Montana: The Northern Cheyenne Tribe in southeastern Montana is working with FEMA to build grant management capacity, develop local hazard mitigation plans, engage and coordinate with stakeholders, and identify and manage mitigation projects.
Thad Rueter writes about the business of government technology. He covered local and state governments for newspapers in the Chicago area and Florida, as well as e-commerce, digital payments and related topics for various publications. He lives in Wisconsin.