Five principles for delivering resilient infrastructure

By Alexis Robert | July 14, 2017

Planning, designing, and building infrastructure that will stand the test of time and future uncertainties is a key concern for current decision makers. The concept of resiliency focuses on creating systems that can sustain, adapt, and emerge even stronger from system-wide shocks, including those caused by climate change. 

Climate change adds a new dimension to the many uncertainties facing decision makers in government and the private sector. Changes in sea levels, storm events, and weather patterns need to be factored in when planning future infrastructure investments and operations. Our knowledge of these risks continues to evolve—for example, in the State of California, current infrastructure guidance assumes a sea level rise of up to 61 centimetres by 2050 and up to 167 centimetres by 2100, but a forthcoming revision may require planning for higher levels of rise.

In the face of uncertainty, how do we plan, design, and build infrastructure that will adapt to changing climate conditions and respond to users’ needs over the next five—and the next fifty—years? The concept of resiliency focuses on creating systems that can sustain, adapt, and emerge even stronger from system-wide shocks, including those caused by climate change.

To strengthen the resiliency of infrastructure, we focus on self-reliance. By harnessing the economic, environmental, and social value intrinsic to a region, we are able to create multibenefit solutions that deliver infrastructure, community development, and ecosystem services. These solutions are geared to be inherently financeable, attract community and political champions, and meet existing regulations. Our goal is to design resilient infrastructure solutions that will be financed and delivered within ten years.

Five principles guide our approach.

  1. Focus on finance. Opportunities for value generation must be considered from the outset and clearly monetized to enable successful implementation. Strategies include conservation easements, performance bonds for ecosystem services, and infrastructure financing districts.
  2. Empowered communities are more resilient. The well-being of vulnerable populations is a fundamental indicator of a region’s overall resiliency. On a district scale, projects can be paired to leverage high value-capture opportunities with nearby vulnerable communities. Strategies include focusing on common benefits before identifying solutions and fostering community champions to create momentum for resiliency investments.
  3. Act locally, think regionally. Climate change impacts go beyond city boundaries and require cross-jurisdictional solutions. Strategies include connecting neighborhood-based amenities to regional benefits and creating design approaches that can be scaled to multiple sites within a region.
  4. Make nature a design partner. Ecosystem-based resiliency solutions are an important complement to more traditional gray infrastructure solutions. Strategies include horizontal levees, marshland-based wastewater treatments, and evaluating gray infrastructure solutions while ecosystem-based solutions take root.
  5. Act now and adjust accordingly. Our understanding of the risks of climate change is evolving, and our responses must follow suit. Strategies include phasing in amenities as community ownership of a project grows, and identifying near-term projects that align with existing plans and lay the groundwork for long-term investments.

For example, the San Francisco Bay Area is home to tremendous value. The region’s ecosystem has been valued at roughly US$300 million in 2017 dollars. [1] Its GDP is ranked 17th in the world, putting it just ahead of the Netherlands. [2],[3] Despite ongoing struggles with affordability, the Bay Area has the highest level of social mobility in the United States.[4] This value is threatened by sea level rise, which is projected to incur US$90 billion (2017 dollars) in replacement costs under business-as-usual development trends.[5] Communities, governments, and private firms throughout the region will need to seek flood and sea-level-rise solutions that also serve as economic development catalysts, provide access to the shoreline, and generate replicable delivery models. Hatch developed this approach for our application to the Resilient by Design | Bay Area Challenge with our business partners.

Delivering infrastructure that strengthens a region’s resiliency through 2050 and beyond will require a multidisciplinary, system-wide approach that is driven by a deep understanding of stakeholder needs, financing mechanisms, and regulatory requirements. Successful investments will be owned by their communities, protect and further create value, and enable the sustainable intersection of society, ecology, and economy.

[1] Battelle Memorial institute for NOAA. 2008 dollars updated to 2017 dollars using US Bureau of Labor Statistics CPI Inflation Calculator.

[2] Bay Area Council Economic Institute. “The Bay Area’s GDP Growth Lands it Among the Nation’s Top Economies”, September 2016.

[3] International Monetary Fund, “Gross domestic product, current prices” dataset, World Economic Outlook Database, April 2017.

[4], “S.F., Silicon Valley lead nation in upward mobility”, Andrew Ross, January 23, 2014.

[5] Pacific Institute. The Impacts of Sea Level Rise on the San Francisco Bay. July 2012. 2000 dollars updated to 2017 dollars using US Bureau of Labor Statistics CPI Inflation Calculator.