The future of resilience and the built environment (Part 1 of 2)

February 4, 2016 Nicole Collins

We asked our resilience leaders: “In the coming years, how will resilient thinking impact the built environment?” Here’s what they said.


Bostonians may complain about many things (mostly about a particular city that lies to the southwest). But we rarely complain about a beautiful, warm day in the dead of winter. Yet on the train this Saturday—a day the temperature reached a balmy 66°F (19°C)—I overhead a fellow passenger say, “If this is climate change, I’ll take it.” Her friend replied “Yeah, but if it doesn’t cool back down, we are going to need a big old raft!”

They laughed good naturedly and changed the subject, but their exchange got me thinking: How are we going to deal with climate change but still provide housing, healthcare, education, and critical facilities to support future generations? In other words, how are we going to avoid the raft?

The environmental movement has taught us that people are not separate from the environment but are rather an integral part of Earth’s ecosystem, and the International Panel on Climate Change has shown that humans are literally changing the world. So in order to create genuine and lasting climate resilience, we all have a role to play.

At Stantec, we have many disciplines working under the same roof, so we turned to some of our resilience experts to find out how thinking about resilience will shape the built environment in the years to come.

Here’s what some of them said. (Check back in a couple of weeks for part two.)



We’ll think holistically
Donna Walcavage, Landscape Architect in New York, NY
As we move forward, we won’t simply design for the last disaster, such as Hurricane Sandy, but to the full range of future threats that our cities face. In North America, that will bring an increasing emphasis on extreme heat, which kills more people each year than all other natural disasters combined. As part of this holistic thinking, sustainability will become integrated more closely with resilience, so that we can make more intelligent decisions about how to use work in resiliency to have a positive impact on already over stressed environment, rather than continuing to increase the rate of climate change.

We’ll be better aligned with the natural world
Marissa Koop, Senior Associate, Community Development in Calgary, AB
The built environment will continue to take cues from, and increasingly reflect, the natural environment. Instead of building traditional storm retention ponds, we’re building wetlands to provide flood control and to improve water quality. Instead of planting trees and ornamentals that require high amounts of irrigation, we’re reintroducing native plant materials onto the landscape. It’s encouraging to see the shift in our industry to ecosystem restoration and greener and more sustainable projects that reflect the natural areas in which they are built.

            Learn more about resilience here

We’ll have to take a “systems” approach
Anton Germishuizen, Buildings Business Leader in Philadelphia, PA
Resilience thinking that takes into account all systems that make up urban communities—infrastructure, transportation, water, energy, power, public safety, and governance—and engages the disciplines that support the design and sustainability of these systems will be best suited to address the threats, identify opportunities, and drive positive outcomes. And the places best suited for this are our cities that are in coastal regions in the most directly threatened locations.

Current approaches and systems must be challenged and re-evaluated as old paradigms may no longer apply and disconnected systems may no longer be able to cope with new demands. The capital investment required to address inadequacies of existing systems may be a limiting factor also, resulting in the need to exploit alternate systems and partnerships driving new public-private collaborations. This all points to more interconnected, complex problems that not only require multi-disciplinary thinking and teams, but multi-disciplinary people and hybrid thinkers.

We’ll be better prepared
Bob Schreibeis, Disaster Management Program Manager in Washington, DC
With a dollar spent on preparedness accounting for roughly four dollars saved in recovery, I am very encouraged by the increasing acceptance of disaster risk reduction as an element of our clients’ planning processes. It is encouraging because the extent to which that aspect of resilient thinking gains acceptance determines the speed, extent, and robustness with which the built environment will become more resilient. In other words, disaster risk reduction drives and optimizes the beneficial use of resources dedicated to resiliency. Even if change is incremental, it’s moving in the right direction.

We’ll likely be moving inland
John Wiser, Environmental Services Principal in Denver, CO
In the near future, resilient thinking will affect where we want to live. Future land use planning will shift industry and population centers away from low lying coastal communities that will be impacted by sea level rise and storm surge. Up to a point, we will build more resilient buildings, bridges, roads, and other infrastructure along the coast. However, in many cases, this infrastructure will only be a temporary fix as sea level rise and coastal flooding will force people to relocate and move upland. In the next 100 years, we’ll see growth of the built environment in the inland communities as people decide not to invest in properties and to leave coastal communities being impacted by flooding. 

We’ll have to be penny-wise
The cost of infrastructure has been steadily increasing for decades, and many aspects of addressing resiliency add to that. Public infrastructure decisions are made in an environment of constrained dollars, so there will be a healthy debate about what features to include that bring true value. Sustainability and resiliency do not always lead to the same solutions—another place where communities will have to prioritize resilient and sustainable design choices to build cost-effective infrastructure.

Stay tuned for part 2 of our series.

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