Built Environment

Cities and towns are vulnerable to sea level rise, heavy downpours, and extreme heat. Cooperative efforts of local government agencies and the private sector can promote adaptation by integrating physical resilience, social resilience, and nature-based solutions.

    Key points:

  • The impacts of extreme weather, climate, and other hazardous events are felt particularly acutely in cities and towns.
  • Ensuring the resilience of built environment systems takes collaboration among all interested stakeholders before, during, and after extreme events and disasters.
  • Stressors such as economic inequality and environmental degradation, coupled with deteriorating public infrastructure, can make some communities more vulnerable to extreme weather and climate change than others.
  • Building resilience by investing in physical adaptation efforts and/or utilizing nature-based solutions can provide co-benefits for a range of challenges, including climate mitigation.

When extreme weather, climate, and other hazardous events occur, the most obvious and costly impacts are to the built environment. Protecting the structures, infrastructure systems, and natural spaces within our cities, towns, and communities is a key focus of resilience efforts across the public and private sectors.

Americans’ everyday lives are shaped by and dependent upon our built environment. From the buildings where we live, work, and shop to open spaces and urban tree canopies that provides shade and ecosystem benefits to the equipment and connections of underlying systems that keep the lights on, water flowing, and internet humming, we are all dependent on complex systems that most people rarely consider.

In the face of climate change and other stresses, though, the continued functioning of these systems will require a greater level of attention. Ensuring that these systems are resilient—that they are resistant to hazards or can bounce back quickly from disruptions that do occur—requires collaborative efforts among a comprehensive range of stakeholders, ranging from residents and business owners through community advocates and local government agencies.

Cities and towns

As of 2015, approximately 325 million people live in the United States. On average, eight out of every ten of these residents lives in an urban environment.1 As a consequence of the relatively high population density in urban areas, every potential disaster and every hazard from a weather- or climate-related event in our country can threaten the property, lives, and livelihoods of large numbers of Americans.

Flooding of industrial area with high-rise buildings in background

Flooding in downtown Nashville, Tennessee, in May 2010.

Some urban areas are more vulnerable to disasters than others because they have multiple stressors. In areas where higher-than-average unemployment and poverty are coupled with aging roads, buildings, and public infrastructure, vulnerability is high—yet leaders may be reluctant to invest in adaptation projects. However, the impacts of climate change can exacerbate issues in neglected areas. For example, when heavy precipitation events occur where the capacity of aging stormwater drainage systems has been reduced over time, flooding can disrupt local businesses, leading to economic losses and further deterioration of roads and buildings.

Building resilience by investing in physical adaptation efforts and/or utilizing nature-based solutions can provide co-benefits for a range of challenges. For example, when rebuilding after a disaster or fortifying buildings to make them more resistant to flooding, investments in durable materials that promote resilience can also extend the expected life of structures or reduce operational costs. Adding nature-based solutions to industrial neighborhoods—for example, parks that function as stormwater retention basins—can improve stormwater management and also add visual appeal that may help attract new businesses to an area.

Some critical service providers, such as hospitals, are finding benefits in business continuity planning. By engaging stakeholders in their planning exercises, they have opened the door to a broader community dialogue about public health. In these cases, integrating physical investments with capacity building in the social realm are putting businesses on track for gaining a broad range of co-benefits.

Integrating solutions

In the coming decades, urban areas are projected to continue expanding into suburban and exurban areas,2 and infrastructure costs are expected to increase as a result of the population becoming more diffuse.3 At the same time, the opportunity to raise funds for new infrastructure through municipal bonds may be limited as taxpayers shoulder increased costs for operations, maintenance, and municipal services related to changing climate conditions. In some cases, strategic decommissioning of infrastructure will be a necessary adaptation measure for stressed communities and municipalities. In these situations, integrating physical resilience with social resilience and nature-based solutions is more critical than ever before.

When decision makers integrate strategies that improve the resilience of physical, social, and natural systems, they may find effective ways to reduce systematic vulnerabilities in the built environment. Themes that are relevant to the task of building resilience for the built environment are highlighted in the 2014 Third National Climate Assessment:

  • Infrastructure System Security: Essential infrastructure systems—such as water, energy supply, and transportation—will be increasingly compromised by interrelated climate change impacts. The nation’s economy, security, and culture all depend on the resilience of urban infrastructure systems.
  • Interrelated Infrastructure Systems: In urban settings, climate-related disruptions of services in one infrastructure system will almost always result in disruptions in one or more other infrastructure systems.
  • Social Vulnerability: Climate vulnerability and the adaptive capacity of urban residents and communities are influenced by pronounced social and economic inequalities that reflect age, ethnicity, gender, income, health, and (dis)ability differences.
  • Planning Now for Tomorrow: Local, state, and federal agencies and organizations are at a crucial early stage in developing resilience and adaptation planning. To be successful, these planning efforts require cooperative action by and between the public and private sectors.

These themes can guide the efforts of regional stakeholders as they collaborate to understand their vulnerabilities and identify their risks; define their social, economic, and environmental capacities; and integrate various forms of resilience. Working across physical, natural, and social considerations of the built environment, stakeholders can holistically address a variety of risks and identify an equal variety of benefits.

Learn more

To learn more about the impacts of climate change and variability on the built environment, visit the subtopic pages:

Banner Image Credit: 
Downtown Minneapolis. m01229 (adjusted levels), CC BY 2.0, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/, via Flickr
Last modified: 
29 August 2016 - 12:32pm