New frontiers for resilience investment | U.S. Green Building Council
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Heather Rosenberg, founder of the Building Resilience Network, shares her experience with resilience planning strategies.

Without consideration of climate change, our development patterns continue to put more people in risky places—often desirable locales alongside rivers, in big-sky desert country and even on the edges of volcanoes. Unfortunately, a changing climate means we can expect natural disasters to increase in frequency, cost and size.

The combined forces of climate change, population growth, environmental destruction and urban development create one very big problem that can’t be solved without getting creative. We need new partners, processes and funding mechanisms to spur urgent action and investment.

The best way to recover from a disaster is to plan ahead and address underlying vulnerabilities before one occurs. We can do this with strategic planning input from diverse stakeholders, with a particular focus on vulnerable populations. 

Within organizations, resilience planning should be integrated into the strategic management process that addresses physical, social and economic dimensions. By building multi-stakeholder teams and using holistic goals and planning processes, organizations and agencies can help their communities to build resilience and support social equity.

New resilience frameworks can help guide states.

In 2016, the Building Resilience Network partnered with the USGBC Los Angeles Chapter to develop a step-by-step methodology to guide such processes, outlined in the Building Resilience—L.A. Primer for Facilities tool, currently being used by local governments and agencies for planning at the state level.

This holistic approach to resilience also serves as the basis for the new Global Real Estate Sustainability Benchmark (GRESB) Resilience Module. The Resilience Module was designed to assess the capacity of owners and managers of infrastructure and real estate portfolios to effectively manage risk and protect both assets and community.

This peer-to-peer benchmarking approach has a strong social equity lens woven into the 10-question survey, which asks key questions about how organizations are structured and operated to understand, respond to and learn from resilience risk. The questions cover four primary areas, including leadership and accountability, risk assessment, goals and management strategies and organizational learning.

Using the GRESB Resilience Module as model framework, state and local governments can adapt similar tools to provide greater transparency when entering into contracts or public-private partnerships. Companies that can demonstrate their performance against these new criteria will stand out as safer, more responsible investments for public funds—both in blue-sky days and in times of disaster.

Resilience often requires integrated solutions for complex problems.

Resilience is a process, and requires ongoing assessment for continual improvement. Some resilience actions that seem like obvious solutions can have unintended consequences that put additional pressure on urban systems.

For example, as part of a much larger resilience initiative, the City of Los Angeles passed an ambitious Seismic Retrofit Ordinance in 2016 to require retrofits of the most vulnerable building types: soft story buildings and non-ductile concrete buildings. Soft story buildings are constructed with significantly less earthquake bracing on one story, often including such features as tuck-under parking or large retail windows on the first level. Non-ductile structures are brittle, older, concrete buildings that lack the flexibility to withstand an earthquake.

USGBC is supporting a similarly intended bill that is currently moving through the California legislature, one that would support efforts to identify buildings that are the most vulnerable to seismic activity.

Because these buildings are the most likely to collapse in an earthquake, we know that such retrofits are essential to protecting housing stock. However, the majority of these buildings provide affordable housing in a city already experiencing a housing affordability crisis. Many are owned by small independent landlords who do not have the financial ability to invest in retrofits and are likely to put the housing units on the market rather than face stiff penalties. This could spur further loss of affordable units—losses that the state just can’t afford in its ongoing housing crisis.

New funding mechanisms are necessary to support these low-income tenants and under-resourced landlords and tenants and to ensure that safe, affordable housing is protected. To meet this need, the City of Los Angeles, Enterprise Community Partners, the Federal Reserve Bank and many other partners are working together to design new capital tools to retrofit existing affordable housing and small businesses for both seismic and climate change impacts.

State governments, too, can invest in these outcomes. Resilience funding tools might model investments in energy retrofits, which have taken different forms around the country, from technical assistance to grants to loans to bond programs. However, retrofits related to mitigating risks—be it seismic or flooding or heat waves or fires—requires a different accounting model, since they result in the reduction of risk and uncertainty, rather than a direct translation into reduced utility bills. New partners, particularly from the insurance and lending communities, are needed at the table.

By working together, setting clear objectives and fully understanding the multiple dimensions of problems, we can succeed in resilience planning and investment. We cannot afford to solve our problems one at a time—we need to tackle them all together. State and local governments must lead efforts to balance private interests and the public good to direct inclusive decision-making processes, set technical standards and channel funds in ways that have the greatest benefit in a changing landscape.