A year ago, Super Storm Sandy made the abstract notion of rising sea levels and climate change tangible to millions in the mid-Atlantic and northeast regions. For a city as complex as New York, the prospect of frequent inundation is both mind boggling and threatening. New Yorkers have responded with a flurry of investigations and proposals of what a more resilient city would look like and how it could be built. The city’s design community—particularly its architects and landscape architects—has been well primed to consider these issues after working under PlaNYC and other Bloomberg sustainability efforts.
The design community is still wrestling with what resiliency means at the scale of the city and of the individual building, and how resiliency relates to sustainability. While these issues can sometimes seem unrelated—for example, raising the mechanicals of a building to the second floor has no bearing upon their efficiency or on the carbon count of that building—I would argue that any serious conversation about resiliency is inextricably linked to sustainability, especially as it relates to energy efficiency.
While the menace of climate change becomes more immediate by the day, the news is not actually all bad. The United States, long the world’s largest contributor of greenhouse gases, has actually begun to turn a corner. You may not have heard—amid all the gloom and doom—that in recent years our carbon emissions have dropped significantly. Last year emissions dropped to a twenty-year low, dipping to levels last seen in 1992, according to a report by the U.S. Energy Information Agency, a division of the Department of Energy.
Many factors have contributed to this drop, including important regulatory changes around gas mileage and power plant emissions (which have prompted many utilities to switch from coal to natural gas and increase renewables). But average Americans are also changing their habits by driving fewer miles (and in the case of the young, often not even bothering to get a drivers license), buying smaller cars and more efficient appliances, choosing smaller homes in more walkable neighborhoods, and taking transit in far greater numbers. Individuals are retrofitting their homes and institutions are building new green buildings. Taken together, these efforts are beginning to have a meaningful impact on America’s contribution to climate change. They also demonstrate how much more could be done with better-focused and smarter regulations of emissions and incentives for energy efficiency.
Which brings us back to the conversation about prevention versus adaptation, or sustainability versus resiliency. Given the shifting shorelines and extreme weather patterns that will come with unmitigated climate change, a narrow conception of resiliency is a dangerous proposition. There are not enough floodgates or revised FEMA maps or restored coastal wetlands in the world to protect us unless we continue to reduce our carbon emissions at even greater rates. Just as when we build new communities, we must take coastal conditions into account and not repeat the mistakes of the past, a truly resilient building must necessarily be an energy efficient one. In our existing communities we must adapt as best we can by layering on new green and grey infrastructure, but also by continuing to reduce the emissions associated with the buildings we design, operate, and inhabit.