In Pursuit of Resiliency

In Pursuit of Resiliency

by William K. Reilly

Bellagio conference


It is a pleasure to join you this evening for the start of what should be a stimulating exchange about building resilience into our communities.  Though much of the discussion on this topic tends to focus on infrastructure and facilities, the so-called physical plant, we know that resiliency has many dimensions - public health, economic viability, governance, the social dynamic of getting people in a community together to take collective action.

I am particularly pleased we have so diverse a group from around the world.   I look forward to sharing views on the rapidly changing landscape ahead for a range of challenges, from climate change to poverty reduction to food security to getting electricity to the millions who do not now have access and find their lives and opportunities thereby constrained.  

The Ongoing Challenge of Creating Resilient Communities

I’m going to speak this evening about community development and resiliency, the aspect I know best.  I had occasion some 40 years ago to direct a task force on land use and urban growth.  The report spoke to growing impatience with changes associated with urban growth and the groundswell of protests emerging in many parts of the United States over those changes.  Citizens increasingly were questioning the way relatively unconstrained, piecemeal urbanization was changing their communities and they were rebelling against the traditional processes of government and the marketplace which, they believed, inadequately guided development.  They were measuring new development proposals by the extent to which environmental criteria were being satisfied—by what new housing or business would generate in terms of additional traffic, pollution of air and water, erosion, and scenic disturbance.

As I prepared for this talk today, it occurred to me that many of the questions and issues we struggled with in that report are relevant still, albeit the experiences since then and the tools now at our disposal, from remote sensing technologies to geographic information systems to environmental impact assessments to conservation easements, green infrastructure, and more have provided significant help in understanding the choices we face in developing and growing our communities and the consequences.

          The report set out the challenge of creating quality development.

“Is it better that people live close together or far apart?  That they walk to work, drive, be carried by mass transit…?  How much social contact should we aim for among people of different temperaments, incomes, races, and ethnic backgrounds?

No consensus exists on those issues, and none is likely to be forthcoming soon….The decisions that create and shape our communities and regions will continue to be made without ideal development patterns, social or physical.”

          We fully acknowledged that development patterns would be struck differently in Florida and Texas than in, say, Oregon and California.  It comes down to culture.

          The United States has moved forward on the vision the report set out, and the values and rules in many of our most beautiful places are different from what they were in the 1970’s.  Elsewhere, nature has been overcome, obliterated by sprawl.  Where the culture is attuned to the environment, states and cities have found it possible to protect land and water resources more aggressively. 

The Power of Place-Based Thinking

          As a lifelong conservationist, I recognize the power of place-based thinking. 

When I was newly installed as president of The Conservation Foundation, the conservationist Sir Frank Fraser Darling guided me on a tour of selected landscapes in his native Scotland.  He described how the Benedictines had altered and improved, reshaped and cultivated the land.   In much the same way, René Dubos also inspired my appreciation of place.  Dubos wrote about the monotonous flat grey land that once characterized the Ile de France, an area I came to know as a student in Paris.  Try to imagine Paris and its environs as “a flat grey land.”  Dubos pointed out that thoughtful people had reorganized it, planted it, drained it, placed cities and towns in it, civilized it, and made it the premier landscape model for generations of great painters.  It has remained productive and accommodating of human settlements for centuries.  Dubos famously wrote that one can improve upon nature.  I believe that.

          Another mentor was William Hollingsworth Whyte—Holly White—best known as author of The Organization Man

Later, he turned to the study of urban places and the ways in which people use them, and provided us with a stunning array of insights.  Among them was the value of density--of creating places in cities where other people are and want to be.  Whyte also wrote The Last Landscape, which examined the processes by which open farms and forest lands were being consumed by development.  Essentially, Whyte aimed for design that promoted pleasure in places and worked to identify the activities and design qualities that people enjoy.  His fundamental conviction was that urban settlements could create the conditions for creativity and delight.

                   In 1985 I became President of World Wildlife Fund.  No organization was more engaged with protection of place than WWF -- exquisite, unspoiled, wild, and beautiful places in the Americas, Africa, Asia and elsewhere. 

These were the emblematic and iconic environments:  The Eastern Atlantic Rain Forest and the Amazon in Brazil; Corcovado in Costa Rica; the Monarch Butterfly Reserve in Mexico; Ngorongoro Crater, the Serengeti and the great parks of Africa; Royal Chitwan and Annapurna Conservation Area of Nepal.  My encounters with these parks led me to believe that the era of advocacy for creating new parks and identifying their boundaries, of mapping them and considering them firmly established – was yielding to a new challenge:  People.  People in greater numbers whose livelihoods and cultures had to be accommodated around and even inside the parks.  Whether it was timber in a Central American park, clearing for cattle in Amazonia, or shooting elephants for ivory in Africa, the human and economic dimensions were asserting themselves. 

          After I became EPA Administrator in 1989, I spoke at a “Save the Bay” conference in Rhode Island.  I noted the variety of interests present—leaders in business and civic groups, restaurant operators, fishermen, boaters. 

It wasn’t just environmentalists who turned out to champion protection of Narragansett Bay.  All of them had a stake in protecting the Bay.  By getting together, we learned that a study of the sources of pollution pointed to the silversmiths.  No one wanted to put them out of business, but everyone wanted to control the pollution.  And people finally came together around a common plan—because they all cherished Narragansett Bay.  The ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau famously observed, people protect what they love.

          We need to think anew, in the words of Abraham Lincoln, about how nature and its functions intersect with our communities.  In the field of conservation, Americans have done it before and will be called on to do it again.

New Global Challenges

          I want to turn to the urgent need for adaptation and renewal to make our communities resilient in the face of climate change, population growth, demographic shifts, resource scarcity, poverty, and more. 

It would seem thatsome of the more dramatic challenges are those confronting China and India, where 80 percent or more of the buildings extant in 2030 have yet to be built.  The design choices, the quality of that new development, will affect the enjoyment, health, and productivity of tens of millions for decades to come.  But even more important, the degree to which those cities are planned for long-term sustainability in the face of now-certain climate change may affect their very survival. 

          The ClimateWorks Foundation, whose board I chaired, has been active in China, working through the Energy Foundation and its China Sustainable Energy Program.  China has embraced carbon reduction and energy efficiency in recent years and is increasingly attentive to proposals to reduce carbon emissions and also pollution, while saving energy.  And as we all know, China is experiencing a great surge of urbanization.  Part of China’s response to the great rural-to-urban migration is to plan to accommodate 350 million more people in cities, or roughly the equivalent of the population of the United States, in the next few decades. 

Recent preferences in urban development in China’s larger cities have favored massive blocks of buildings stretching for hundreds of meters on the periphery, and surrounding large interior spaces big enough to contain a number of free-standing houses.  The streetscape resulting from such buildings would invite Holly Whyte’s sharp criticism were he alive.  Long walls of impenetrable concrete, no variation of use or design fronting the sidewalks, a single gated entryway and even interior courtyard distances daunting to the pedestrian or the bicyclist—none of that responds to human scale or to sensible transit.

          When the city of Kunming began work on an addition with the superblock plan, the Energy Foundation pointed out to the mayor the likely consequences:  greater dependency on automobiles, a grid uncongenial to public transportation and discouraging to pedestrians.  He halted work for 30 days while the Foundation developed a new plan favoring short blocks, development organized around bus rapid transit, mixed uses, more public green space, and larger corridors of shaded parks.

          Nor is the challenge confined to urban design.  As the Chinese come to terms with carbon emissions and climate change, they face a larger challenge than we do in the United States.  All of China’s new households aspire to have refrigerators and air conditioners, stoves and televisions, and very likely a car.  The potential for incremental increases in carbon emissions in enormous.  Seen in this light, the carbon reductions China committed to during President Obama’s visit are ambitious and laudable.

          Harbingers of climate change are undeniable.  Inexorably, measurably, it is progressing even as our Congress and country sleepwalk through it.  One private-sector player that has expressed itself on the costs associated with climate change is the insurance industry.  Swiss Re has estimated that if the shore communities of four U.S. Gulf Coast states choose not to implement adaptation strategies, they could see annual climate change-related damages jump 65 percent a year to $23 billion by 2030. 

Rising sea level will confront states like Florida with serious decisions regarding relocation, armoring the shorelines, whether to build big levee systems, and so on.  Yet in Florida, as in many parts of the country, mention of climate change or global warming is politically incorrect.

          We are beginning to see action in industry and state and local governments.  Once again, a very promising response is evident in many cities.  Foremost among them is Chicago, which under former Mayor Richard Daley considered its changing climate and moved to plan and prepare for it.  A one-week heat wave in July 1995 killed 739 people, more than double the death toll from the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.  The city mobilized its leadership and produced a comprehensive, detailed set of prescriptions to guide future development, the Chicago Climate Action Plan.  Its assumptions regarding anticipated climate change are simply stunning.  As someone who grew up in Illinois, it strikes me that within the lifetime of my grandchildren the place may be unrecognizable.

          Consider the forecasts which so shocked Chicago’s city planners.  Assuming worldwide carbon emissions continue, Chicago will have summers like the Deep South, with as many as 72 days over 90 degrees by the end of the century.  The city averaged 15 such days in the 20th century.  Under a high emissions scenario, the city can expect 45 to 85 days per year with temperatures over 95 degrees.  By 2070 Chicago could expect 35 percent more precipitation in winter and spring, but 20 percent less in summer and fall.  These conditions will have altered the area’s plant hardiness zone to that of a southern city, Birmingham, Alabama.  The city could see heat-related deaths of 1200 per year.  Increasing incidents of freezes and thaws will add costs of millions more in road maintenance and repair, and termites previously controlled by Chicago’s winters will dine out on the city’s wooden-framed housing stock.

The policies adopted in the plan are significant.  They require water-permeable paving that can catch 80 percent of runoff; greater tree cover that modulates and absorbs a good percentage of rainfall; light-reflecting pavement with rubbery additives that allow expansion without buckling; installation of air conditioning in schools.  The city aims to double tree cover to 23 percent, up from 11 percent in 1991.

          Mayor Daley’s Chicago has led the way in responding to climate change, but other cities, in fact more than 1,000 of them, have signed on to the Mayors’ Climate Protection Agreement—among them in my country, Seattle and San Francisco, San Antonio and Little Rock, Phoenix and Newark, Los Angeles and Richmond, and Anchorage and Washington, DC.  Few cities have gone as far as Chicago, but many have followed a strategy of “discreetly integrating preparedness into traditional planning efforts.”  And though Chicago’s efforts aim to reduce carbon emissions from their city, their plan necessarily focuses more on adaptation than on mitigation of climate change.

          Cities across the country, and especially in the Southwest, will have to rethink water use.  Some of them have done it before.  Los Angeles, Seattle and San Antonio have added millions of new residents while maintaining water use constant.  Not just new roads and bridges and airports may be needed, but elevated airport runways and sewage treatment plants, air-conditioned schools, energy-efficient and sun-reflecting buildings, water catchment and green roofs. 

          The City Beautiful Movement, early in the last century, was born of a concern to counter the ugliness of a frenzy of urban growth.  Its proponents—progressives with standards and a desire to both clean up city governments and improve building design—had a far-ranging impact. 

          Americans today confront a new imperative to rethink how we live.  It is time we unite behind a new cause, the City Sustainable, an effective and galvanizing successor to the City Beautiful Movement.  Its stirrings have already begun in Chicago and many other cities. 

Its demands for reduced water use and greater energy efficiency, for better insulation and green roofs, for reflective paving and climate-appropriate vegetation, and more tree cover and a more congenial environment for pedestrians, bicyclists, and for public transportation, the requisites for an aging population, at least in the States, that typically wants to age in place — all of this can be accomplished In fact, it is being done.  Its success may save us from the ideological gridlock in Washington.

          A moment of vast and transforming change is now underway.  For America, as we transform and armor our cities against severe floods and extended droughts, against killing heat waves and snap cold spells and winter storms, against water scarcity and stressed power generation, we have choices.  We can learn the lessons of successful place-making, inclusiveness and reconciliation, the critical role of cultural institutions, of parks and open space, and combine them with the imperatives of preparing for a new climate.  These are not insuperable challenges.

          As I look around America now I am struck by how powerful are these portents of change.  Our response to climate change is not solely the province of environmental or energy policy.  It is very much place-based policy, in the best sense.  And it will require a change not just of city planning but of the culture of cities, supported by citizens and all of the wisdom and creativity of the public and private sectors that we can muster. 

Thank you.


William Reilly