Author: Helen Santiago Fink
With the timeliness and havoc of hurricane season, our anthropogenic state was further tested and we failed miserably. Houston, Miami, Marathon, Naples, Jacksonville, San Juan and its island were among the cities and regions that sustained the brunt of climate change and are now assessing the millions/billions of dollars in losses and considering how best to rebuild. Twelve years after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, it begs the question, where are the adaptation plans, adopted lessons learned and innovative technologies to protect critical infrastructure, built environment and quality of life; still in their silos?
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Business as usual practices continue and fuel strapped Puerto Rico is being sent diesel generators rather than solar panels by the U.S. government. Luckily, visionary entrepreneur, Elon Musk, is paving the way for the critical and most necessary transformational change and is sending solar equipment and batteries to the island to help leapfrog the energy infrastructure and optimize the opportunities and cost efficiencies of naturally accessible, abundant renewable energy. Resilient and smart cities are long overdue and unless political leadership emerges and private-public alliances accelerate the use of the many tools, existing best practices, and modern technologies, next year’s hurricane season will bring more destruction, human suffering and economic losses while climate tribulations perpetuate fires, droughts and inundations with increasing severity.
Given the loss and damages sustained to date, with each U.S. disaster costing upwards of one billion dollars, it should be expected that urban policies and investments incorporate future risks into infrastructure development and the built environment. Increasing knowledge reinforced by smart technologies can provide the evidence-base necessary to make the business case for the use of nature-based solutions as standalone or as a hybrid system to complement traditional grey infrastructure for climate adaptation. Nature-based solutions, defined as natural elements and applications both natural and engineered, in the case of green infrastructure, street trees, oyster reefs, constructed wetlands among others, are cost-efficient and multi-beneficial applications to strengthen climate proofing, disaster recovery and sustainable development. Strengthening technical capacities to measure and monitor biogeophysical processes of nature-based solutions (NbS) in support of both adaptation and mitigation measures can provide impetus to integrate natural systems and local context characteristics into the spatial design and land use plans of cities to optimize the socio-economic and ecological co/benefits and cost efficiencies of climate action. Greening our cities with the aim of linking natural and engineered systems can improve connectivity of low-carbon urban mobility infrastructure coupled with enhanced ecosystems services for greater climate resiliency. Nature-based solutions (NbS) in the form of a park for storm water management or green corridor for urban heat island mitigation provide valuable ecosystem services with broader co-benefits that promote environmental equity, strengthen social capital, mitigate particulate matter, foster job creation and cultivate improved mental and physical health as well as awaken environmental consciousness. Investing in people through greening our cities, while making use of technologies to raise awareness, facilitate access and monitor air, water, soil quality, optimizes nature’s multi-functionality to enhance urban resiliency, capture cost efficiencies and nudge behavior towards sustainable pathways.
People must be the central priority to ensure the success of resilient, sustainable and smart cities. Policy, planning and systems must be designed to strengthen local structures and community engagement as well as with the recognition of mutual responsibility among government, private sector and the citizenry to take action to lower GHG emissions and chart a pathway toward sustainability and resiliency. Climate action by informed people at the city, district and neighborhood scales is fundamental to accelerate global adaptation and low-carbon trajectories, where smart technologies and social and natural science principles underpin behavioral change and foster people-based solutions and constructive collective impact to the climate challenge.
The value of behavioral theory has been acknowledged at the highest levels with Richard Thaler winning the 2017 Nobel Prize in Economics for his work in behavioral economics. That same people-centric focus needs to become multi-disciplinary in practice and mainstreamed as we tackle climate change and invest in the most promising and sustainable solutions. Key principles of Thaler’s work elaborated in his 2008 book Nudge with Cass Sunstein, including the aversion to loss and use of choice architecture, should be viewed as resounding lessons for advancing the climate agenda. They behoove policy, planners and decision-makers to enact normative measures and targets, integrate land uses, innovate spatial design and invest in low-carbon infrastructure to shape the local context in order to facilitate societal actions reflective of low carbon footprints and reduced vulnerabilities. The perception of money and mental accounting are equally valuable concepts that should stimulate production of thermostats and smart meters to illustrate the actual cost of the energy used rather than simply temperature and kilowatts and thus nudge behavior towards lower consumption. Reinforced climate messaging warrants real time public feedback, for example, of carbon emissions levels at a city scale translated into monetary opportunity costs. Utilities in Southern California send customers text messages of energy usage and have reduced energy consumption during peak periods by up to 40%. Informing the public of the financial value of surrounding natural capital and the comparative benefits of ecosystem services to health care costs could be instrumental in encouraging healthier and sustainable behaviors in mobility and diet, particularly when the choice architecture is available and accessible.
Now is the time for climate planning and disaster preparedness. Delay will only cost cities and communities economic, social and biodiversity damages as well as significant and irreplaceable non-economic losses that impact human life and health, sense of place, quality of life, social networks, and cultural heritage. Resiliency is possible when early warning systems, multi-sectoral disaster planning, and multi-stakeholder emergency and recovery mechanisms are put in place beforehand. Otherwise, the crisis of Puerto Rico, with only 20% power restoration after one month, will be repeated and exacerbated in developing countries and among vulnerable populations. Prioritizing people and nature-based solutions within the climate discussions and funding strategies can empower communities to become agents of resilience and allow natural infrastructure to minimize the threats and bolster the environmental resources conducive to a sustainable way of life.