Integrated Urban Strategies in the Resilience Framework

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A planning approach that confronts the challenges of urban resiliency by incorporating engineering expertise at the beginning of the planning process is discussed, and examples of projects in New York City where this approach has been used are presented.

We live in an era of tremendous change and challenge. The past 50 years have witnessed both a doubling of the global population and a paradigm shift from rural to urban living. Global population is projected to surpass 9 billion by 2050, with 70 percent of the world living in urban locations. At the same time, consumption rates outpace the planet’s natural resource production; our carbon footprint exceeds 330 parts per million, a level not seen on this planet in the past 10,000 years; climate change and the risk of extreme weather events are threatening economies; rising sea levels claim urban land area; and rising global temperatures increase the risk of drought and storm intensity. The political and financial power to effectuate change lies within vulnerable cities, as does the burden to move forward quickly.

Enhancing the resiliency of our cities needs to begin at the visioning stage, before individual projects are conceptualized. To confront the challenges of urban resiliency, Parsons Brinckerhoff (now part of WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff) has seen success by embedding engineering and technical expertise into the planning process, a brand of planning we term Integrated Urban Strategies (IUS). Involving engineers at the beginning adds value to the development of visions. These visions are in turn grounded in sound engineering that helps progress projects through a more rigorous and connected feasibility analysis from the outset. Engineers and planners need to work side by side to solve the increasingly complex challenges faced by our cities. IUS represents a team of planners and engineers putting forth community-supported, actionable projects that achieve multiple-benefits for a community’s resiliency and quality-of-life needs both today and in the future. IUS is a brand of planning well suited to resiliency planning in that it achieves risk-reduction benefits while at the same time viewing the community as an holistic series of inter-connected systems. IUS results in achievable projects that are feasible, implementable, value-laden, and resilient, designed to generate economic benefits and infuse communities with a higher quality-of-life.

Infrastructure + Resilience Planning in the U.S.

There are three trends that inform the role of IUS in resiliency planning in its practice in the United States.

1. Aging Infrastructure and Limited Funding

Federal, state and local clients are faced with aging infrastructure and limited public funding resources. In Connecticut, for example, the average transportation structure is 81-years-old and vulnerable to the increasing risks of climate change. Consequently, we must think about infrastructure solutions that are integrated into economic and community goals. IUS helps clients think within this larger context and position infrastructure as a catalyst to larger reinvestment and financing strategies.

2. Urban Focus - Urban Centers are Growing

Cities across the nation are growing. In the Northeast alone, New York City, Boston, and Washington, D.C. have experienced 10-year population increases of 2.1 percent, 4.8 percent, and 5.2 percent, respectively. This heightens the responsibility of resiliency planning within urban centers, as well as the need for a planning strategy that considers a city’s multiple aging systems and how they interact with and sustain one another.

3. A Shift in Infrastructure Management

More than ever, public funding and planning is focusing on climate change, sustainability, and resiliency planning not as specific goals but as frameworks within which to holistically plan for communities. As sustainable and resilient infrastructure becomes the focus for achieving vibrant communities, infrastructure management is at the forefront of this shift. With initiatives such as New York City’s PlaNYC or the Federal Highway Administration’s (FHWA’s) Climate Change and Extreme Weather Vulnerability Assessment Framework, public agencies are working to understand how to connect infrastructure into the fabric of communities and tie it to urban systems so it may serve to enhance the sustainability and resiliency of the places they occupy, thereby achieving multiple benefits.

These trends are reshaping the environment in which clients are working to manage their infrastructure and grow their cities. IUS can help clients build infrastructure that generates economic growth, adapts to a changing environment, serves multiple purposes, and relates to the surrounding community context.

Resilience Planning in Practice in the Northeast Region of the U.S.

In the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, the federal, state, and city governments all enacted resiliency programs to reduce the risk of damage from climate-related events, and provide multiple benefits within communities. These programs relied primarily on federal funding from the Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) Program. Beginning with the Mayor’s Office’s Special Initiative for Rebuilding and Resiliency (SIRR) and continuing with US Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD’s) Rebuild by Design and New York State’s New York Rising programs, WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff planners and engineers were involved in each of these efforts. Using IUS principles at the outset allowed us to plan feasible projects, which leads to financing of these projects and designing and implementing them on increasingly local scales. By improving how these projects are developed, we are involved in how they are built.

The New York Rising Community Reconstruction Program is an example of how IUS best serves the planning of resilient communities. The program was designed to allow communities most impacted by Superstorm Sandy to decide how to most effectively program federally allocated dollars to fulfill immediate needs, in line with a long-term community resiliency vision. WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff was contracted to develop ten community resiliency plans in New York City, covering coastal communities in Jamaica Bay, the New York Inner Harbor, and the Long Island Sound.

Fresh Creek Long-term Restoration and Resiliency Project

IUS in Context

shoreline fresh creek resilience fresh creek urban strategiesFigure 1 — Fresh Creek shoreline access and and restoration proposals

One project of particular note was the Fresh Creek Long-Term Restoration and Resiliency Project for the Brooklyn community of Canarsie, a peninsular neighborhood flanked by water on three sides. During Superstorm Sandy, Canarsie experienced storm surge as high as 6-9 feet, particularly along Fresh Creek where homes line the water’s edge. Given its low topography, properties upland from Fresh Creek are vulnerable to erosion, sea level rise, and less severe storms. Additionally, Fresh Creek has poor habitat quality, poor water quality due to combined sewer outflow (CSO) discharges, the presence of invasive species, and is a filled historic wetland. Despite these challenges, Fresh Creek is an important natural asset connecting the community to water and has been identified as a potential ecological restoration opportunity.

Only the collaborative expertise of planners, landscape architects, coastal engineers, and stormwater engineers could solve the challenges and realize the opportunities. Pooling resources and knowledge of the community, WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff employed IUS principles to develop the plan which combines coastal protection, stormwater management, and ecological restoration strategies while at the same time enhancing community access along the shoreline (see Figure 1).

The project calls for construction of a floodwall along those areas of the shoreline that are at-risk to sea level rise and a 10-year storm surge return period, coupled with an inland bioswale large enough to capture stormwater from a 100-year rainfall event. This would address both daily stormwater management needs and needs that arise during storm conditions, besides reducing the risk of permanent tidal inundation of approximately 17.5 acres of land, including 300 buildings and more than 3,000 linear feet of city streets. On the water-side of the wall, proposed habitat restoration would address many of the ecological and environmental challenges the creek faces. To enhance community access, the project also includes a bike lane that runs parallel to the creek and water-connections from the adjacent roadway to the water’s edge thereby improving quality of life for Canarsie residents (see Figure 2)

Bike street fresh creek resilience fresh creek urban strategiesFigure 2 — A bike lane runs parallel to Fresh Creek.

These quality of life benefits may have other secondary benefits as well, such as the economic benefits of increasing property values along the creek. Most importantly, by involving engineers at the planning stages, our team ensured that the project is not only beneficial, but technically feasible. Coastal engineers provided technical drawings and design heights, stormwater engineers provided catchment area calculations, and urban designers and landscape architects determined how to tie multiple infrastructure systems together in order to create a coherent resiliency project. Because of this collaboration, Canarsie is equipped with more than a plan. They are equipped with an actionable, value-laden, and cost-effective project that has community support and clear next steps.

Resilient Planning Requires Integrated Urban Strategies

As evidenced by the Fresh Creek Long-Term Resiliency and Restoration Project, integrating multiple disciplines pulling from multiple areas of expertise and community input ensures that planned projects meet a community’s needs and vision, are feasible from an engineering standpoint, and can adapt to changes in environment, socio-economics, and other unknowns. This method of integrated planning is essential to planning resiliency. When planning for an urban community’s risks and vulnerabilities, we must consider that community as a comprehensive network of interacting infrastructure, economies, natural systems, and livelihoods. Extreme weather events impact these systems equally, and so we must consider them equally when planning resilient communities. Integrated Urban Strategies ensures a brand of planning that enhances a community’s quality of life and at the same time sustains its way of life.

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