Comment: Building climate-resilient infrastructure

3 min read

John Chapman, VP East Region Market Director at COWI calls for action in deploying climate resilience infrastructure projects

A recent comment on a LinkedIn post about a project to create man-made living, growing breakwaters off Staten Island to account for problematic coastal erosion asked: “Why not spend the money on actually reducing the impact we are causing and fix the disease! A healthy patient doesn’t need life support!”

It’s true, a healthy patient does not need life support. Unfortunately, the world is not a healthy patient.

Is this regrettable? 100 times yes. Is it a fact we have to live with? Also yes. And, as the actors accountable for the over-harvesting and pollution that eroded the earth’s natural barriers, it is our responsibility to help these damaged ecosystems adapt.

The Living Breakwaters project off Staten Island is a great example of an adaptation project helping to future-proof our environment. Led by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development as part of their Rebuild by Design competition, the project is lowering marine mattresses into Raritan Bay to serve as both a habitat for marine life, and underwater walls that will absorb and dissipate energy, rather than blocking or reflecting it.

The unique initiative has already reduced shoreline erosion trends and reduced wave energy in front of residential areas and is starting to seed benefits to the local marine ecology and shoreline maintenance.

The passing of Biden’s infrastructure bill, which includes $47 billion to help communities prepare for the increasing frequency and severity of extreme weather events, is a much-needed acknowledgement of the importance of coastal resilience projects like this.

A lot of the innovation required to create and deploy such initiatives is already there. Almost a decade ago, the US Army Corps of Engineers published a paper titled “Coastal Risk Reduction and Resilience: Using the Full Array of Measures”, which set out capabilities and recommended projects to help reduce risks to coastal areas and improve resilience to coastal hazards through an integrated planning approach.

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Since then, a growing community of engineers, scientists, practitioners and researchers across numerous disciplines and organisations have come together to design projects focused on coastal risk reduction through a combination of natural and engineered systems. Unfortunately, many of these are now collecting dust, waiting in a long line of projects seeking funding, further stymied by entrenched cultural and infrastructural systems and processes.

Moving forward, key decision makers must encourage more community awareness and funding dedicated to this space. Beyond the environmental benefits, there is huge potential in the job and market opportunities associated with the construction of climate-resilient infrastructure – not to mention the money to be saved on insurance. Unfortunately, in the US, we’re still battling a historic perception in financial markets and there are still members of the government that think of climate change as a ‘fluffy’ leftist social issue, rather than an economic ticking time bomb.

More innovative thinking around how to finance climate resilience projects is also important. There are plenty more approaches to financing than the typical routes of either slogging away for government money or increasing taxes. Public-private partnership models is one great example currently being trialled.

No matter the road we must take to get there, re-building coastal resilience will be a vital part of any climate-adaptive future.

A layered resilience approach promotes risk reduction, enhances ecosystems, and fosters stronger communities. Living shorelines, like that being created off Staten Island, help to manage erosion and re-establish natural biodiversity. They also prove that humankind and nature do not have to always be in conflict. The future will be centred on rediscovering this union and enshrining it in our infrastructure, processes, research and education.

Of course, addressing coastal risk and resilience must come in tandem with multiple other adaptive and proactive solutions. We need cross-disciplinary collaboration between architects, engineers and ecologists, and resilience planning in coastal and flood protection design that considers all environmental and social elements at play.

But above all, we need action now, which means solutions that are quickly and easily deployable, and that help ecosystems cope with the effects of climate change that are no longer in question.

The earth is already sick. We’re praying it’s not chronic, but we know for sure it’s a condition that will worsen over time, at least in the short term. We must move beyond planning and talking, and actually start deploying similarly short-term interventions with urgency to buy us time to get the long-term and scalable solutions right.