What Does it Mean for a City to be Resilient in Times of Stormwater Stress and Climate Change?

What is resiliency?

The world has become progressively more urbanized since industrialization, and more than 60% of the world’s population is expected to live in cities by 2050. Cities are the most important economic centers of the world and release the most greenhouse gases, which accumulate in the atmosphere. These pollutants are projected to contribute to shifts in precipitation patterns, higher temperatures, sea level rise, and more frequent extreme weather events over the coming decades. In the U.S. alone, more than ninety coastal communities currently suffer from chronic flooding, and damages from flooding and storms in the last decade totaled $500 billion. By 2100, more than 700 communities and 13.1 million people in the U.S. could face regular inundation. As this threat of climate change is clearly growing and shifting, and as it becomes ever more apparent that the effects of climate change are real and happening right now, it is urgent for cities to become as resilient as possible to survive and thrive.

Resiliency has become a buzzword. So, what does it really mean for a city to be “resilient?” The concept of city resilience is defined as: the measurable ability to survive through any stresses or disasters while adapting and transforming toward sustainability.

“Resilience is the ability of a system, community or society exposed to hazards to resist, absorb, accommodate to and recover from the effects of a hazard in a timely and efficient manner, including through the preservation and restoration of its essential basic structures and functions.”

–United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, 2009

Many cities throughout the United States have adopted a Resiliency Plan to identify their city’s most harmful conditions and devise a detailed plan to address them. The contents of each individual city’s resiliency plan are different; some cities have not drafted a detailed document, and instead have an office that is responsible for creating a resilient city. Resiliency plans are typically designed based on four key dimensions which make up the City Resilience Framework, a Rockefeller Foundation supported initiative. These include (1) health and wellbeing, (2) economy and society, (3) infrastructure and environment, and (4) leadership and strategy.


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City resilience is valuable for several reasons. Not only is it the key to achieving sustainable urban development, but it is pivotal in reducing urban poverty and environmental injustice. Additionally, planning for resiliency provides a much greater overall benefit than traditional emergency management or hazard mitigation because it accounts for the underlying causes of these vulnerabilities and risks. Many resilience initiatives focus on addressing specific existing conditions and stresses within the community, such as household income, education, climate change, vulnerable populations, out-of-date infrastructure, natural disasters, drought, obsolete transportation systems, and more.

Many of these initiatives can be addressed in creative or innovative ways. For example, Vision 3 of the City of Milwaukee’s Resilience Plan is to “Adapt Infrastructure to the Challenges of the 21st Century,” and an action item established to achieve this was to “increase green infrastructure in the region.” The City of Milwaukee developed a separate Green Infrastructure Plan that requires all large urban development and redevelopments to capture the first half inch of rainfall using green infrastructure technology.

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Sustainability Versus Resiliency

It is important to address the discrepancies and similarities between sustainability and resiliency, because they often are confused as being synonymous, rather than complementary. Sustainability is frequently defined as “meeting the needs of the current generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” While resiliency is more of a strategy and a framework designed for cities to be able to recover and improve, sustainability consists of ever-evolving practices that contribute to a resilient city by preserving that city for future generations. Just like resilience, sustainability goes beyond meeting environmental standards. Klynveld Peat Marwick Goerdeler (KPMG) International defines a city’s sustainability measurement as its financial, social, environmental, and physiological and psychological sustainability.

Several guidelines for a city to measure its sustainability already exist, one of them being The Circles of Sustainability, which was developed by Global Compact Cities Programme. This approach is beneficial because it allows policy makers to take economic, ecological, political, and cultural conditions into account when making policy, and each of these conditions contains essential factors needed to accurately measure a city’s sustainability.

Global Compact Cities’ Circle of Sustainability

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Why is data so important for resilience?

There exist several methods to measure cities’ sustainability progress, but techniques designed to measure resilience are not nearly as wide spread nor utilized. Many cities have extensive resiliency plans, and all of these resiliency plans usually have one major shortcoming: they fail to explicitly address how they will track progress once said changes have been implemented. Access to data allows resilience strategies to be implemented at the correct time and place, and their effectiveness monitored, ultimately saving the city time and money. Also, data gives a scale for comparison across cities. These resiliency plans fail by not prioritizing data collection nor defining how resiliency will be measured. Resilience should not be a matter of guessing, nor should it be a waiting game­: the threats cities face are too extreme, and too clear.


How do we ensure that data and monitoring is an integral part of cities’ resiliency strategies and thus sustainability goals?

Smart city technologies and new approaches to data gathering and are making it possible to provide the data needed in real time to address these resiliency metrics and track cities’ resiliency progress. Cities have dedicated profound resources to improve their resilience and support vulnerable communities, but these resiliency goals need smart data and monitoring to be truly effective.

About the author

Paige Griggs

Talk stormwater with abbyrothman543@gmail.com