City resiliency is like the old philosophical question about whether a tree falling in the forest with no one there makes a noise or not. A city would not have to be very resilient if it did not get hit by weather events, nor if it only had a sparse population. It’s the combination of lots of people and lots of weather that creates the danger.
Some blame climate change. Others blame “Acts of God.” But author Greg Ip, writing in the Wall Street Journal, notes the obvious—“millions of productive people live and work in a place that is inherently dangerous.” In recent memory, New York City has built two airports, expressways, bridges, and attracted trendy residents to former factories in SOHO, Tribeca, and the Lower East Side. All this adds up to “so much more wealth” standing in the way of storms, wildfires and other natural disasters.
Despite the crime of the 1970s, the high cost of housing, 9/11, the 2008 financial crisis, and superstorm Sandy, New York has attracted four-hundred thousand new residents in recent years. Why? If you occasionally visit New York, you will understand that the answer is simply that it’s New York-the new Rome, the Big Apple, the place to be. If you don’t go to New York regularly, please do.
Greg Ip is also the author of a book called Foolproof: Why Safety Can Be Dangerous and How Danger Makes Us Safe. The title sounds odd until you think about it. Terrorists don’t do their deeds in the woods—they perform grizzly acts on TV, now YouTube, and preferably in world capitals where all can see. You might think a world capital is safer because of sophisticated policing. But the example I like to use is that the long safety checklist performed on the Swissair flight that crashed near Peggy’s Cove, Nova Scotia was a safety measure. Other pilots have junked the checklist and landed safely—minus the safety system. And why is danger an effective safety system? Don’t we all remind our kids how dangerous it is to cross the road? We’re trying to get them to look both ways.
But, back to Ip. He notes the current danger and the cost for urban areas. If the Great Miami Hurricane of 1926 struck now, the cost wouldn’t be the billion it was, but $200 billion. About 10% of the world’s population lives in cities vulnerable to cyclones and earthquakes, and that will be more like 16% by 2050. The 10 cities most vulnerable to coastal flooding generate more than 5% of world GDP, and that is growing as Asian cities join Miami, New York, New Orleans, Osaka-Kobe, and others. We are all going to lose a lot of money as the weather hits these areas. We all lost a lot in the 2008 financial crisis, whether we lived in New York or America or not.
Some cities are trying to become more resilient. Some cities on water are demolishing homes and making parks that handle flooding much better. The Netherlands has a “Room for the River” project, for example.
Boston, built a park that absorbs water. Other cities just note the danger of flooding and heat, but don’t note that the obvious solution to both is trees.
No city emergency plans focus enough on what individuals can do to protect themselves. Homeowners can plant trees, disconnect downspouts from the storm sewer, stiffen up homes against high winds, raise appliances, valuables, water heaters, and electrical boxes off the basement floor, stock survival gear and so on.
Instead of these solutions, some cities list the hundreds of critical facilities which are vulnerable, including emergency command centres and evacuation shelters. We’re on our own, folks.