Prevention Is Key to Building Resilient Cities

There are some investments that follow the old adage that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. We buy insurance before driving a car, get a flu shot during the cold months, and floss and brush our teeth in order to stave off painful trips to the dentist. These are personal investments in prevention. But investments in prevention have largely been absent from strategies for building smarter cities, even though there is demonstrable evidence that building smarter can save lives. Look at the difference between the damage caused by twin 6-magnitude earthquakes in Napa Valley, California and China earlier this year. It is a stark example, not just in infrastructure damage, but also in lives lost. While Napa has building codes that require structures be able to withstand the force of an earthquake, similar codes do not exist in China. The difference in fatalities -- more than 600 in China and none in the U.S. -- reflect the disparities in infrastructure.

Though California was a model in building for earthquake preparedness, American cities are largely not prepared to take on other severe forms of weather. Focusing on prevention when building city infrastructure could save enormous sums of money, time and even lives the next time a devastating storm hits.

Severe weather events have shown it is massively expensive to clean up citywide or regional destruction. Communities in New Orleans and along the Jersey Shore are still trying to rebuild years after Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy hit their cities and businesses. Corrosive flood waters continue to destroy tubes of eight different New York City subway lines hit by Sandy. Those subway repairs will cost between $790 million and $1 billion, but it isn't just the costs of the repairs that burden the city. In the two years since Sandy hit, repairs have only been made to two of the eight lines, saddling subway riders with inconsistent service and drawn out track repairs that shut down lines for weekends or weeks at a time.

Leaders vow to "do better next time" or "rebuild smarter," but there is a better option: build with an eye toward prevention, and do so immediately. Changing the way cities and elected officials think about preparing for severe weather events today, not after they've happened, is essential to saving money and lives in the long-term.

There are ways to help cities be more resilient and prevent potentially long and agonizing clean-up efforts. For instance, cities can build underground parking garages that double as containment locations for flood waters. Roads can be constructed with porous pavement, which allows roads to soak up flash flood water like sponges and distribute the excess water into land designated for agriculture instead of contributing more water runoff to over-stressed stormwater systems. Planners can add more rain gardens and tree covers to streetscapes, which also help reduce the burden on stormwater systems. Smart power grids can be designed to take better advantage of renewable energy sources and actually take energy back in to the grid on sunny or windy days.

These are the kind of projects the RE.invest Initiative is helping build by connecting cities with funding sources to build more resilient infrastructure. Leaders and community members in our eight partner cities have a keen sense of what their resiliency needs are, but they need ideas, solutions and access to alternative funding to make these projects a reality.

Leaders also need a "permission slip" from voters to invest in resilient infrastructure because successful prevention preparation means the absence of a disaster. Getting credit for something that didn't happen is hard for elected leaders. While "Disaster averted. Re-elect me!" has yet to be featured on a campaign bumper sticker, voters who have their own experiences with flooded basements, mold or damaged property, are likely to support an elected leader who is smart enough to fund stormwater prevention projects -- if the connection is made.

The Adaptation Atlas -- a complement project to the RE.invest Initiative -- allows cities and companies to connect in mutually-beneficial ways. The Adaptation Atlas connects cities looking for innovative ways to become more resilient with companies offering creative solutions. It gives examples of projects communities across the globe are undertaking to meet their resilience challenges, allowing interested cities to see what solutions are working, for who and where.

RE.invest and The Adaptation Atlas exist to make prevention a forethought instead of an afterthought. The goal of both projects is to make it easy as possible for cities and elected officials to connect with investors and innovative solutions to combat these very real concerns and focus on prevention. Sadly, natural disasters will continue to happen in cities all over the world, and now is the time to head off what could potentially be decades of costly clean-up and rebuilding. Today is the day to start solving our problems by putting time, money and energy into building more resilient cities for tomorrow.