A Systems Approach to Climate Change Adaptation

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Community Impacts Climate ChangeFigure 1 — Community Impacts of Climate Change

An asset adaptation framework, developed for application on transportation facilities, could also be applied to community resilience planning.

The effects of climate change are real. They influence many complex relationships within a community susceptible to changes in the various climate stressors. In addition to the physical infrastructure, the impacted elements include the environment, emergency management, economic vitality, and many social issues – in other words, the health, safety, and welfare of affected communities. Figure 1 illustrates the multi-faceted nature of community impacts that can be affected by the changing climate conditions. This article discusses a systems approach called ADAP (adaptation decision-making assessment process) which was developed by Parsons Brinckerhoff, now part of WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff, for use on various types of transportation infrastructure but which can be applied to community resilience planning.

National Disaster Resilience Competition

To emphasize the need and benefits of a holistic response to extreme weather events, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in collaboration with the Rockefeller Foundation has broadened awareness of the non-infrastructure impacts by providing significant resources and support to communities to help them become more resilient. The National Disaster Resilience Competition is a competitive program to award nearly $1 billion in HUD Disaster Recovery funds to eligible communities. The purpose of this competition is to aid not only infrastructure resilience but strengthen the fabric of the community so that it is better prepared to “bounce back” when a disaster strikes.

A Systems Approach

Climate change adaptation is complex enough to warrant a complex approach. A systems engineering approach can provide the framework for dealing with this complex set of issues. Systems engineering is an interdisciplinary branch of engineering that focuses on planning, designing, and managing complex engineering systems over their life cycles. However, systems engineering is usually not broad enough to deal with the impacts of climate change on an entire community. What is needed is a “systems approach” - an approach that requires engineers, planners, maintenance and operations personnel, policy makers, financial experts, funding source managers, and the public to work together from the beginning to address the issues of the entire community over a long-term planning horizon. Involving the public early in the process is essential because the impacts of climate change do not respect community boundaries and it is likely that any approach will need to involve the entire region. This level of cooperation among so many stakeholders is not typical and will require lead agencies to implement strategies that remove barriers to communication and cooperation among these various interests.

The Adaptation Decision-making Process (ADAP)

As part of the work performed for the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) to address infrastructure adaptation, WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff in collaboration with ICF International developed a systems approach called ADAP (adaptation decision-making assessment process). This 11-step process to address the impact of severe climate on various types of transportation infrastructure matches adaptation actions with the varying levels of impact and risk (see Figure 2).

Adaptation Decision Making Assessment ADAP Climate ChangeFigure 2 — Adaptation Decision-Making Assessment Process (ADAP)

Although the process was developed for application on individual transportation facilities, it can be applied to other assets as well, including community resilience planning. Total community concerns are addressed in step 6 of the ADAP process, Develop Adaptation Options; these options include both structural and nonstructural strategies.

A Systems Approach to Resilience for the Whole Community

The ultimate goal of a systems approach to resilience planning is to deliver feasible, flexible, and fundable solutions based on a defensible decision-making process that is built on a foundation of community support and considers much more than individual assets. That means an approach that addresses rebuilding physically resilient assets and also, where possible, rebuilding so as to benefit the community by bettering housing, businesses, the economic health, and the social fabric of the affected area.

public dialog wheel Climate ChangeFigure 3 — The elements of addressing climate impacts to the whole community

Community support must begin with an educational campaign to improve the level of understanding of climate change and its threats and possible negative outcome. Community leaders should identify a neutral lead agency (perhaps a local educational institution or a metropolitan planning organization) that can bring people from the region together to develop a detailed approach to resilience planning. Involving the community beyond the government agencies can be an effective way to bring the localities into regional alignment. Besides addressing the practicality of coordinating adaptation responses across community boundaries, a central agency that represents a unified community response will be a favorable influence on potential funding source decision-makers.

Widespread public engagement is necessary to the process. As potential resiliency solutions develop, a vigorous outreach campaign that involves the public in developing and refining approaches will help build community consensus. Figure 3 indicates the elements of a comprehensive approach all of which require public dialogue.

Examples of resilience planning to consider in addition to the engineering design of specific structural assets include:

  • Zoning code revisions:
    • minimum floor elevations for houses, garages, and ancillary structures;
    • flood proofing at vulnerable elevations; and
    • foundation, structural and mechanical design requirements.
  • New development site plan reviews that include addressing possible risks.
  • Comprehensive master plan revisions:
    • policy documents;
    • land use; and
    • flood plain restrictions.
  • Other major facility long-range plans (e.g., emergency services, public utilities, schools);
  • Relationship to regional transportation plan; and
  • Coordination with electric and gas utilities and communication providers.


The potential threats posed by a changing climate cannot be attacked on only one front – they must be dealt with holistically, with an organized approach that considers all of the relevant ramifications. The ADEP approach can be used in any stage of response to the effects of climate change - from resiliency planning, to new project development, to responding to damages already incurred. This approach has been adopted by the FHWA in their guidelines for adapting infrastructure to the effects of climate change and is being used by the study team that developed it as the framework for continuing studies on asset adaptation nationwide.


The material in this article is based on work developed by Chris Dorney, Mike Flood, Justin Lennon, Michael Meyer, and the author.

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