City flood resilience: an interview with 100 Resilient Cities

Published by Flemmich Webb on

Interview with Elizabeth Yee, VP, Resilience Finance, 100 Resilient Cities – Pioneered by The Rockefeller Foundation (100RC)


What is the importance of cities having a strategic approach to resilience in relation to flooding?

Building a city’s resilience requires an integrated and strategic approach, to encompass all current and potential challenges. It’s not just the acute, one-time shocks that can impact a city but also the slow-burning stresses such as social and economic inequity, endemic crime, lack of affordable housing, and more. As we’ve seen in the 100RC global network, these sorts of stresses not only exacerbate the impacts of disasters when they do occur, they can also be just as damaging over the long-term. To improve flood resilience, cities must simultaneously consider all the other challenges they face.

What other effects must be considered when looking at improving flood resilience?

While flooding taken at face value presents a host of challenges, a city must also consider the indirect effects on the affected community’s social, economic, and political systems, and vice-versa. Hurricane Katrina, which hit the southeastern United States in 2005, is a prime example. The mega storm inflicted devastating consequences on New Orleans, but the impact of Katrina was exacerbated by underlying stresses such as institutional racism, violence, divestment and aging infrastructure, poverty, lack of macroeconomic transformation, and environmental degradation. The compounding pressure of these unaddressed stresses undermined the city’s resilience and, when the hurricane made landfall, it exposed and exacerbated these weaknesses—ultimately making it far more difficult for the city to bounce back. Following Katrina, the New Orleans released a citywide resilience strategy, which re-prioritised how the city balances environmental stresses with community needs.

What is the best way for cities to approach resilience?

At its heart, resilience is a people-oriented approach, leaning heavily on stakeholder engagement to determine a city’s challenges as well as its opportunities and strengths. Resilience does not mean starting from scratch; it is rather a lens by which the different sectors can come together and work in new and collaborative ways. In this way, cities are now prioritising those projects which can build multiple resilience benefits from a single intervention – what we call the resilience dividend.

This has particular significance in relation to flooding. For example, New York adopted this type of approach in 2012 after Hurricane Sandy destroyed more than 300,000 housing units, many of which were home to poorer households. In the aftermath, the city, region and Federal Government launched a regional planning initiative, Rebuild by Design. This led to the BIG U proposal developed to protect Lower Manhattan from floodwater, storms, and other impacts of a changing climate. With sections of the BIG U under construction and others still securing financing, the final goal is a protective barrier around the low-lying topography of Manhattan.

Are there any other examples of cities applying innovative approaches to improving resilience?

Yes, there are an increasing number. In Europe, Rotterdam in the Netherlands is focusing on innovative water management approaches to deliver both environmental and financial benefits. Rotterdam’s Benthemplein Square, for example, is the world’s first large-scale water square. Completed in 2013 and developed through extensive stakeholder engagement, the square serves as a recreational public space in dry weather. During heavy rainfall, three specially designed basins retain storm-water from the square and surrounding rooftops, and prevent it from flooding.

Are there any financial products cities can use to help mitigate risks?

As well as building and designing resilient infrastructure, it is also essential cities be financially resilient. Flooding is often devastating for cities, so having the resources to rebuild quickly is critical. There are some great examples of financial products designed for this purpose. For example, FloodSmart Re is a catastrophe bond launched in July 2018 by the US. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and will be the first such vehicle to solely provide reinsurance coverage for flood risks.

And while focused on seismic risk rather than flooding, Mexico’s 2017 catastrophe bond, supported by the World Bank, International Bank for Reconstruction and Development and Mexico’s Natural Disaster Fund, FONDEN, provides the country with $360m worth of earthquake insurance protection – vital coverage should an earthquake of a certain magnitude or higher occur. A magnitude 8.1 earthquake that struck off the coast of Chiapas in Mexico in September 2017 triggered a $150m payout.