Responding to Climate Change Through Resilient Solutions

January 24, 2019

Written by: Tom Hook

The effects of climate change are rooted in complexity, where a multitude of factors combine to create our current global crisis. As planners and designers, we’ve observed that as extreme weather patterns increase globally, we’re also seeing a surge in two main natural threats: wind and water. We’re constantly exploring new ways to create more resilient solutions for our clients through a strategic approach to green infrastructure – solutions that work with, rather than against, nature.

“Globally, as many as 650 million people live on land that will be submerged or exposed to chronic flooding by 2100 given business-as-usual burning of fossil fuels and sea level rise of 6-8 feet.” ~ NBC News

While wind can be mitigated by storm-proof building materials and systems at the site-specific level, water flows effortlessly from place to place. For instance, if one site has a high standard of hurricane-proof buildings, it will protect the people on that site only. Water flooding though, unlike wind, creates a domino effect across a development moving from one plot to another, street to street, and open space to open space. When a district, community, city or even an entire island implements resilient design principles to mitigate water damages, we can magnify the cumulative outcome of these efforts exponentially.

To explore the effect of resilient landscape design and green infrastructure on mitigating flood damage, we shared the stage at the Caribbean State of Tourism Industry Conference (SOTIC) with Commander of Joint Task Force Katrina, Lt. General Russel L. Honoré, author of Don’t Get Stuck on Stupid! Leadership in Action. The General led military efforts in post-hurricane New Orleans and offers advice in his book and via speaking engagements for the most pressing problems of our time including hurricane preparedness and less well-known issues of widespread infrastructure failure.

The Caribbean SOTIC brought experts together to explore solutions for building better in the region. According to the World Travel and Tourism Council, the Caribbean “is the most tourist-intensive region in the world.” If resorts in the Caribbean disappear, so too will an essential component of the region’s economic engine. After speaking with the General, it was clear there was a common interest in moving beyond simply acknowledging current and future global environmental concerns and understanding how to build better.

How do we build better?

More important than simply recognizing issues is finding concrete solutions that respond to the immediate context as a reflection of local opportunities and challenges. A B+H we wondered how our lessons learned from large-scale master planning combine with principles for site-specific planning. Can we use site-specific planning principles on large-scale sites to make a bigger impact?

According to a recent report by the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate, “globally, in 2017, disasters triggered by weather and climate-related hazards led to a staggering US$320 billion loss. Also in 2017, devastating floods in South Asia took over 1,200 lives, while communities in the Caribbean are still struggling to recover from the unprecedented hurricane season.” Now more than ever, it’s clear that planning and designing tomorrow’s global cities and communities require long-term thinking to create resilient systems and frameworks. In today’s day and age, what does it mean to design developments that are built to last?

The plan for the Pullman resort in Vietnam uses a grading strategy called overland flow to mitigate flooding.

Holistic solutions are lasting solutions.

When we gather a team with a diversity of perspectives to evaluate a site’s complexity, we can consider viable solutions from different angles, using a variety of perspectives and philosophies to shed light on the bigger picture. We can’t design in a vacuum. We need a team with a diversity of complementary skills and experiences to understand the inhabitants of a future development. Demographics that help us better appreciate the local community, people, lifestyle and culture are essential to creating holistic and sustainable solutions.

Building better also has to do with thinking wholly by considering large-scale and site-specific contexts as components of a cohesive ecosystem and customizing solutions to fit. Elements from slope, to environmental, geological, ecological, hydrological and vegetation elements will begin to unravel a site’s complexities. By taking a holistic approach to planning and design, we can begin to understand how to tap into existing systems at macro and micro levels to plan for public realm, streetscape, and overland flow strategies.

The Hamlet Waterfront Residential Master Plan in Vietnam uses a low-impact approach to preserve the existing water system and volumes.

Working within existing natural systems rather than destroying them will enhance their functions and by understanding a site’s natural system, we can take a low-impact approach to design. The Hamlet Waterfront Residential Plan in Vietnam uses a low-impact approach to preserve the existing water system and volumes. Working with the land and forces of nature, the site’s plan supports the sustainability and natural resiliency of the community.

Resiliency begins with a flexible foundation.

Green infrastructure such as bioswales, storm water management parks, rain gardens and green roofs within our developments – the combination of soft and permeable hardscape elements – help mitigate flooding and add a layer of flexibility. “We need a no-nonsense approach, a culture of preparedness and take-charge leaders. We need rules but only as far as they can help. When they hinder objectives, we must be smart enough to break them,” says Lt. General Russel L. Honoré. By building in flexibility, we design more adaptable solutions and adaptability is resiliency in a world that is increasingly affected by climate change.

Conventional stormwater management systems like storm drains and piping can all be sized to take on large storms and additional volume, but they can only handle a maximum capacity and aren’t adaptable. There’s also a high cost to over-size these systems. On the other hand, green infrastructure is flexible and can have other uses in a development. For instance, the stormwater management park in Smart City in India can handle a huge amount of stormwater but is also a usable community amenity and provides a healthy habitat for wildlife. This multi-use and multi-functional community space adds an important dimension to the community’s sustainability.


Smart City in India has a stormwater management park that handles a large amount of stormwater and creates a community amenity and wildlife habitat.

Tap into the power of nature.

“Biomimicry is innovation inspired by nature. Nature already has the mechanisms in place to maintain balance and create efficiencies. Rather than trying to fight nature through tough and unbending manmade solutions, when we work with nature, we tap into a system that’s self-sustaining by responding to threats and evolving accordingly.” Jamie Miller, Biomimicry Frontiers. We know that modern agriculture, deforestation and over-fishing are contributing to global warming. When we deplete our natural resources, we destroy our natural ecosystem – symbiotic smart systems built to withstand through flexibility, adaptation and regeneration. Forcing systems to fit doesn’t work and there’s a lesson here for resort, community and city building.

Biomimicry is innovation inspired by nature. Nature already has the mechanisms in place to maintain balance and create efficiencies. Rather than trying to fight nature through tough and unbending manmade solutions, when we work with nature, we tap into a system that’s self-sustaining by responding to threats and evolving accordingly.

We can build rigid piping systems as an attempt to safeguard our impermeable concrete cities against extreme rainfall. But if our global problems with crumbling and flooded urban infrastructure are teaching us anything, it’s that designs that preserve and enhance steep slopes, drainage networks and existing water courses to enable runoff are far more efficient. One of the basic principles of green infrastructure is to provide storm water infiltration at the source and not channel it or pipe it somewhere else.

To ensure smart green planning and building practices are implemented at all scales and levels, we need concrete guidelines and regulations that encourage developers to use green infrastructure. For instance, a simple guideline would be to ensure that the quantity of runoff of a new development must be equal to the quantity prior to the development. Building better for a future of climate change, specifically the catastrophic events of severe flooding, must focus on flexible and adaptable green infrastructure to ensure that tomorrow’s districts, communities and cities continue to support people and places.