Conference Wrap-up: The Role of Resilience in Sustainability - We’re Just Getting Started

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Last week a record-breaking 200 people gathered at our Sea Change conference to hear about the shifting relationship between sustainability and resilience. Live blogs touched on some of the highlights of the day.

Since then, we at Urban Green have thought more broadly about the questions posed and the threads that ran through the discussions. Major weather events bring the threat of climate change (or at the very least the need for resilience) to the forefront.  The resilience of a city in disaster is indicative of the sustainability of that city beyond the environmental performance of its buildings.

A sustainable and resilient city encompasses more than the “built environment.” It’s not just green infrastructure and high-performance buildings.  We heard that several factors have a significant impact on a city’s susceptibility to disaster and ability to recover from it: the way government functions, how communities work together, and the ability of non-governmental organizations to mobilize in response.

The speakers agreed that the need for resilience, as made evident by Katrina, Sandy and other disasters, encouraged more long-term planning by government and the building industry.  Still I wonder when faced with practical concerns about budgets and feasibility, will city officials and developers opt for the strategies that quickly get us back to status quo, or actually try to improve the current situation? To put it another way, will we be so inclined to continue solutions that help mitigate climate change if we’re more focused on adapting to it?

I’m not sure. Seth Pinsky, who led the NYC Special Initiative for Rebuilding and Resiliency, argues that we have no choice but to do both. Government and the market must work to prevent disaster but plan for the worst. I think he’s right.

I’m anxious to see what sustainable and resilient cities and buildings actually look like too. The Rising Currents exhibit at MoMA is an often-sited example of vivid imagery of one potential future. Claire Weisz and WXY Studio offer others.  If we take the lessons learned from Sea Change and the Building Resiliency Task Force and combine them with the performance characteristics we argue are necessary to combat climate change, what kind of building do we have?  Over the next year we will think a lot about this question and work with New York’s green building experts to come up with some answers, so stay tuned.  We’re just getting started.