The Intersection of Resilience, Sustainability, and Livability

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For a livable future, resilient to disruptions, sustainability is the way to get there. U.S. cities are combining these concepts in their urban planning.

Municipalities and agencies are struggling with terminology. An average local transportation staff or elected official, depending upon what has been in the news of late (the weather, the cost of energy, the need for jobs) will sit up with attention when you use the words: resilient, livable, sustainable. But these words can carry political baggage; it may be acceptable to say livable, but not sustainable, and four years ago most people would not have really understood what resiliency was, though ‘disaster preparedness’ was a regular topic. Now communities recognize those 100-year storms seem to happen every year, and the capacity to bounce back is crucial to maintaining quality of life and economic viability.

The terms resiliency, sustainability, and livability are sometimes used interchangeably, though at the cost of achieving necessary outcomes for communities and agencies, and with the price of weakening these concepts. If a livable present and future, resilient to disruptions, is the desired outcome, sustainability is a lens to get there.


Sustainability is a lens through which the planning, project delivery, and development processes focus to achieve the needs of the communities today without sacrificing capacity for future generations. A sustainability lens always includes balancing priorities across several areas, including the economy, community needs, and environmental quality, but also equity, health and well-being, energy, water and materials resources, and transportation and mobility needs. In the United States, resilience and livability are outcomes sought through planning and design processes.

If you really have used a sustainability lens on a process, have been honest and smart about your priorities, you will have assessed risk and resilience. And if you are diligent about sustainability, you would have incorporated community value, quality of life, and that characteristic which makes engineers very nervous - beauty - by making livability a priority.


Livability has long been a priority of communities seeking to improve the quality and attractiveness of urban and rural communities. Livability initiatives come from local priorities as well as federal leadership from agencies such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Department of Housing and Development (HUD), and the Department of Transportation (DOT) sustainable livable communities divisions.

Washington, DC carried out the Anacostia Waterfront Initiative, a ‘great streets’ initiative and a livability study more than a decade ago, which focused on how the public right-of-way and infrastructure could better serve the communities, residents, and business owners along some of Washington, DC’s famous waterways and boulevards, transforming infrastructure barriers, such as the South Capitol Street viaduct, into a walkable, bikeable urban boulevard that furthered economic development. The city also led the way on studies of low-impact development stormwater management techniques to improve water quality and minimize combined sewer outfall events, while providing co-benefits to neighborhood residents and businesses by improving access to greenspace, shade, and habitat. This approach to livability used a sustainability lens to focus on and realize the city’s priorities.


Resilience has taken on new urgency around the world as coastal cities adjust to more frequent and severe storm events; communities in arid regions struggle to recover from wildfires; and inland communities deal with flooding they have never before experienced. The objective of resilience is for a community and its economic functions to recover quickly, and soundly, after a major disaster event. This is sometimes achieved through distributing key infrastructure services, such as power generation and distribution, or water treatment, as well as ensuring some level of redundancy, so that key systems are backed up. If one considers the intersection of resilience with sustainability and livability, some curious possibilities are revealed.

  • You can have resilience without sustainability, odd though that would be. A solution could enable a city to recover quickly, but would not be able to be maintained in the long-run or would sacrifice too many resources to accomplish. A resilient solution that requires extensive capital and maintenance, or that causes ecological side effects, would be short-sighted, a prospect which is fundamentally un-resilient. However, most of us have witnessed how poorly managed processes can mangle objectives.
  • You can, also, have resilience without livability. While this would be survival, it would also probably not provide the quality of life which is often a hallmark of livability.

Other Examples of Cities Combining Resilience, Sustainability, and livability

Chicago, Illinois

  • The city of Chicago embarked on a process of revising their approach to delivering projects in the public realm. They created a set of interlinked documents to address complete streets, sustainability, and livability (Streets for People). As they set about creating a set of new requirements for all infrastructure projects, they made livability a cornerstone. However, resilience and climate adaptation, resources conservation, and sustainable construction methods were included as key requirements in project delivery, for all projects.
  • Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) is looking to create urban infrastructure that is resilient to future climate change. Also, CDOT is looking to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by making walking and biking easily accessible throughout the city. Specifically, implementing its new complete streets guidance and focusing efforts on incorporating placemaking into more projects brings active transportation facilities to the forefront of capital projects. The focus on livability results in more community engagement in shaping and programming the public realm, such as through the Make Way for People initiative and other small-scale placemaking programs.
  • At the same time, CDOT has placed emphasis on restoring ecological service functions in the public right-of-way through innovative and award-winning green infrastructure pilot projects such as the Green Alley pilot projects, now a city program. The Green Alley program retrofits alleyways with permeable pavement, asphalt, concrete or pavers, so stormwater is infiltrated and does not collect on hard surfaces and drain into storm sewers, or cause flooding. The alleyways are re-graded and pitched to facilitate drainage. High-albedo (most reflective) pavements which reduce urban heat gain are used, as well as recycled material. The program helps with resiliency goals by lessening the impact of frequent storm events and distributing stormwater management throughout the city. Retrofitted alleys also include new light fixtures that reduce light pollution while maintaining safe light levels.

Seattle, Washington

  • The city of Seattle, a coastal seaport city in the state of Washington, is actively working to increase its resiliency through climate protection initiatives that apply to all of the city’s policies, programs, and planning efforts. Seattle was one of the first cities in the nation to adopt a climate action plan (CAP), which includes steps to monitor and report on targets and actions through climate action outcome indicators. Currently 25 indicators are being tracked; they range from livability goals, like the amount of open space, to modal share goals.
  • Adaptation planning is one of the key climate change initiatives within Seattle. For example, the city is working hard at increasing the use of green stormwater infrastructure (GSI) within the public right-of-way. All city projects are required to implement GSI to the maximum extent feasible for flow control. This means that GSI must be incorporated throughout the project site wherever feasible, constrained only by the physical limitations of the site, practical considerations of engineering design and necessary business practices, and reasonable financial considerations of costs and benefits. Additionally, the city has an executive order that establishes a citywide goal of 700 million gallons of stormwater managed annually with GSI by 2025.
  • Another example from the city of Seattle is the recently added Seattle Green Factor requirement, which is administered by the Department of Planning and Development. Green Factor is a score-based code requirement that increases the amount of quality landscaping in new development. It applies to all new development in neighborhood business districts with more than four dwelling units, more than 4000 square feet of commercial uses, or more than 20 new parking spaces. To help developers comply with this program, the city offers a ‘menu’ of landscape credits for various features like green roofs, trees, shrubs, etc. These requirements benefit the city’s livability and resiliency goals.


Respecting and balancing local environmental, social, economic, and climate risk priorities through a robust planning and data-driven design process should achieve livability and resiliency outcomes. Resilience is important to our communities, as we recognize the need to be ever more dynamic and creative in how we anticipate and plan for the challenges delivered by a changing climate, as well as the standard severe weather events we have always had to address. If a livable present and future, resilient to disruptions, is the desired outcome, sustainability is a lens to get there.

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