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Laying the foundation for life on a warmer, wetter planet

As the realities of climate change become more evident, people are learning to live with them through investing in more resilient infrastructure.

As the realities of climate change become more evident, people are learning to live with them through investing in more resilient infrastructure.

Many people dream of spending time by the sea, but with the realities of climate change and rising sea levels, this may no longer be the most alluring idea. Luckily, there are many new technologies and concepts out there that are helping people and companies build attractive, climate-proof property that is also sustainable.

Some methods of building resilience to climate change have been around for a while. For example, there are floating communities that have been in existence for some time and other new communities now being developed on that basis, like Schoonschip in Amsterdam, says Sally Sudworth, Head of Sustainability and Climate Change at Mott MacDonald.

“Because so many of the world's cities are on the coast, that sort of approach to resilience is likely to be part of future solutions, as well as using the environment (nature-based solutions) to provide a protective buffer around cities – so things like mangrove plantations, salt marsh, wetlands, and seagrass, so giving space to nature to allow those natural processes to work is important,” Sudworth explains.

When it comes to climate-proofing infrastructure objects such as ports, Ellis Kalaidjian, ORISE fellow at U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center, says there are a number of measures to consider. These include developing flood elevations systems based on sea level rise and storm surge projections, moving critical electrical and power infrastructure underground, increasing the redundancy of the power sources serving critical assets (i.e. buying more emergency generators or micro-grid networks), and bolstering cloud computing systems to enable remote working during evacuations.

In different parts of the world, particularly in the U.K., property resilience protection is a key adaptation strategy. This means ensuring a recovery from a storm situation within hours and days instead of months and years. 

“This involves very simple and practical steps ranging from putting all of the electrical sockets at waist level, to having stainless steel kitchen units so they can just be hosed down and made operational again quickly. We are also seeing gas boilers being phased out; people are starting to make the switch to ground source heat pumps and air source heat pumps,” Sudworth says. 

The future is now

Apart from building on existing methods, we are starting to see adaptation ideas that previously appeared only as concepts.

Kalaidjian points to a recent study in which a group of researchers from Princeton University proposes a preliminary design for dual-purpose kinetic “umbrellas” that would provide shade during fair weather and could be tilted in advance of a storm to form a flood barrier.

“This multi-benefit design trend is definitely a step in the right direction for hardening because the use of single-benefit, static structures like seawalls and revetments isn’t sufficient,” Kalaidjian says.

A company called Deltec homes focuses on design and the creative use of materials to make buildings more able to withstand the powerful winds of hurricanes and, the heavy waves that will result from sea level rise. The company studied wind patterns of both hurricanes and tornadoes to determine the best design and materials, and the results are impressive: Deltec homes have withstood Category 5 hurricanes with practically no damage, even in situations where neighbouring homes were flattened.

Some of the other initiatives we can expect to see a lot more of in the future are projects like Boston Barrier, a gate that is now fully ready and working to give an enhanced level of flood protection to over 13,000 homes and businesses. As the centrepiece of the flood scheme, the barrier gate can be raised in just 20 minutes, responding quickly to threats of North Sea tidal surges. Then there’s the Shoreham Adur tidal wall, which won Climate Resilience Project of the Year at the 2019 British Construction Industry Awards. In Philadelphia, the Green Streets programme reduces flooding and combined sewer overflows, recharges the groundwater table, improves pedestrian and bicycle safety, improves air quality, and alleviates the urban heat island effect.

Long-term planning is also a vital component of building communities and assets that will be around in several decades, even a century. This is the time period when we know the effects of climate change will be more tangible than they are now. Digital technologies play an important role in understanding what those impacts would be.

“A number of our clients are taking that longer term approach to their planning. It’s not easy doing that ultra long-term planning, and digital has a real role in this. Undertaking scenario modelling to predict the impacts of climate change can be used to identify trends that can be fed into the planning process. We’ve got the technology and tools today to manage that data and information at a macro scale that we didn’t have maybe even 10 years ago that will facilitate that long-term planning,” Sudworth says.

Employing “soft” strategies

The methods of building for a new climate reality belong to the so-called “hard” strategies – measures taken to enhance the resilience of the physical structures supporting a system. But there are also “soft” strategies without which even the most sophisticated technologies won’t help fully protect property from a changing climate. These include forming a climate change working group, adopting a climate-related insurance policy and funding mechanisms and incorporating climate change language into policies, Kalaidjian explains.

Temperatures in Nepal are increasing faster than the global average, further threatening the weak, small-scale, subsistence and local market-oriented agriculture-based livelihoods which underpin Nepal’s rural economy. Mott MacDonald specialists and field staff have developed hazard atlases to help decision-makers to assess and anticipate risks of floods and landslides. Zooming into maps of sensitive settlements, the atlases help local people (in their own language) to participate in decision-making and improve the quality of investments.

For Sudworth, green finance is the key which can unlock the investment that is needed to make resilient infrastructure projects a reality.

“Organisations are finding that they are able to attract investment using green bonds in the financial marketplace. There’s a real appetite for that sort of investment opportunity and it’s really encouraging,” Sudworth says.

Finally, Sudworth argues that educating people about the risks of living in areas prone to severe climate events and putting in place robust emergency planning strategies are things that we must continue to do regardless of the technology that becomes available, along with taking actions to tackle the root causes of climate change.

Written by
Maria Stambler
Contributing Writer at Spoon Agency