Building resilient cities

Flooding and its effects on infrastructure has recently become a key concern in the UK, with incidences of climate change and sea-level rises expected to become more frequent.

Rotterdam container port
Rotterdam container port

This paper explores approaches to urban resilience policy in three coastal, river-mouth cities – New York, Vancouver and Rotterdam. They are likely to experience increased exposure to climate change, including sea-level rise and greater frequency of severe weather events.

While policy-makers are increasingly active in the resilience sphere, there cannot be a one-size-fits-all approach - each city must develop policies that most suit their context and circumstances. Nevertheless, there can be certain commonalities, meaning one city can learn from another - both from their mistakes and their successes.

The analysis shows, due to the uniqueness of cities, it is inapposite to directly transfer policies of one to another - the development of successful resilience policy functions with the grain of a city's make-up, rather than against it. By working with the interwoven topography, climate, demography and economy of a city, policymakers will be better equipped to develop long-term adaptations to mitigate the effects of climate change.

This paper begins with an overview of the three cities and the development of their resilience policies before moving to an analysis of key policy themes – the structuring of resilience policy, the use of aspirational goals, the application of metrics and levels of public involvement – making recommendations for each area.

This webpage summarises the recommendations that were made in each area. To read the full study, please download the case study.


Resilience policies should be well-defined and focused

Resilience cannot and should not be considered in isolation from economic and social factors - the threats are so great, that a dedicated policy is required. For example, New York's policies are contained within a wider spatial and economic strategy, which means the important mitigation and adaptation messaging is in danger of being lost.

Setting out policy clearly focused on responding to climate change, as practiced by Vancouver and Rotterdam, is a more effective approach.

Any overarching objectives should be measureable

The analysis shows the value in developing policy objectives that are measurable. All three of the cities have produced overarching, aspirational goals, such as Vancouver being the "world's greenest city" by 2020. Such objectives are intended to be inspirational and galvanising, but their vagueness risks undermining the commitment.

Climate change mitigation and adaptation are about preventing and managing severe threats and this can only be done with clear measures of success or failure.

All targets and initiatives should be quantifiable and regularly reported

Cities should avoid setting unquantifiable targets. There is little value in having a target that cannot be measured. Efforts must be put into developing measurements that not only work both for the city and the environment but also allow clear assessment of progress.

A further element of quantifiable measuring is reporting the progress that is made. This is well demonstrated by New York's annual PlaNYC infrastructure update, which considers progress in building the city's resilience year upon year.

Consultation in developing policy should be meaningful and effective

While it is realised a balance needs to be struck around the amount of consultation to allow efficient and timely strategy development, policymakers can – and should – benefit from public involvement.

Actions are more likely to be effective when residents and businesses have contributed rather than when they are imposed on them. Additionally, regular reporting of progress will not only help retain focus on the importance of resilience policies, it will assist cities in learning from each other.

Read the full case study

Overview of the three cities

  Population (million) Area (km2) Population density (n/km2) Location Predicted sea level rise (cm by 2050) 100-year storm cost (% of GDP)
New York 8.4 (2013) 1,214 10,725 River / coastal 30 -75 0.08
Vancouver 0.6 (2011) 115 5,249 Delta 50 0.01
Rotterdam 0.6 (2014) 326 2,969 Delta 40 0.14

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