Durban and New York, two cities at the forefront of resilience to climate change and natural hazards

Urban areas are directly affected by climate change for which they are partly responsible, contributing 70% of global greenhouse gas emissions (C40, 2016). In order to preserve their heritage and become sustainable, several cities have implemented mitigation actions and strategies to become resilient to climate risk.

Durban, an African city pioneering resilience

Durban, a coastal city in eastern South Africa, has felt the effects of climate change for decades, including its impacts on biodiversity, water supplies and agricultural production. It faces extreme weather events related to its rapid urbanization such as floods and droughts. Durban, located in one of the poorest provinces in in South Africa, has recently been praised for its innovative actions in terms of environmental excellence: it was the first African city, along with Dakar, to join the 100 Resilient Cities network, a network created by the Rockefeller Foundation that helps cities become resilient to climate risk. By 2030, it aims to become the most pleasant city in Africa to live in, taking into account all the challenges of sustainability in its urban development. Musa Mbhele, Head of Development Planning, Environment and Management of the city, summed up Durban’s ambitions as follows: “It will be a space where people will have access to affordable green transport, he said, with solar panels on the roofs, more urban gardens, protection of green spaces, which will serve as protection against floods”.

Durban has exceptionally low rainfall periods, which puts the issue of drought at the forefront of the city’s concerns. To manage this issue, the city has engaged in several transformation programs, including the uMngeni Ecological Infrastructure Partnership, which modernizes water infrastructure and protects natural infrastructure such as wetlands. Indeed, wetlands participate in the storage and gradual release of large quantities of water, making it possible to feed water tables during periods of drought. Wetlands also contribute to maintaining good water quality in the city because they function as real filters: the soils and plants that make them up retain a very large part of the pollution caused by man.

At the same time, local authorities have made a parallel commitment to reduce chronic stress by promoting eco-social well-being, for example with regard to social inequalities and air pollution: For example, on the outskirts of a city on the edge of a landfill site, a green forest is growing in order to improve the quality of life of the neighbouring community that includes some of Durban’s poorest citizens. This project also promotes the local economy in creating 43 full-time and several part-time jobs and by developing a local reforestation system that allows the city’s real estate projects to be built with local materials.

The city is therefore committed to reducing chronic stress (pollution, social inequalities, etc.) but also major shocks (floods, droughts, etc.) by implementing a global policy under the prism of resilience, co-led by all the teams of all the city’s departments. A locally relevant action plan is being developed with the objective of being understandable by all citizens and easy to implement for them to participate in the development of resilience to Durban’s climate risk.

New York, intelligent flood risk management

As the prism of resilience demands, New York has responded to a climate change challenge by reducing risk but also by providing new, pleasant and sustainable infrastructure for New Yorkers.

Following the heavy loss of life and physical damage caused by Hurricane Sandy in 2012, New York City spent $20 billion to create resilient infrastructure. New York City has more than 520 miles of coastline and more than 8 million people, nearly 400,000 of whom live in areas vulnerable to coastal flooding and rising sea levels.

New York has developed a new approach to becoming resilient to flood risk and wants to create protective infrastructures that are not just walls and barriers. The objective is to protect, but also to develop the shoreline area, thanks to less invasive infrastructures and technological innovation. The “BIG U” project, scheduled for completion in 2024, is a good example of this strategy: it will create a belt around Manhattan to protect the population from flooding, safeguard biodiversity and provide citizens with new areas for relaxation and recreation. It is a 16-kilometre urban belt composed of parks, public parkways, bike rides and baseball diamonds. All these spaces will be floodable, independently of each other, meaning that a space can be flooded without any consequences on the adjacent space. At Brooklyn Bridge, a folding panel system will be present in the event of a flood alert and will stop the progression of the water. The rest of the time, these panels will be folded and used to light public spaces in a playful way.

Project Big U: The belt created around Manhattan will be composed of relaxation and recreation areas that can be flooded in the event of extreme weather events

Crédit: Business Insider

In addition, since New York is fragmented into several districts separated by rivers, local authorities have developed the “New York City Ferry”, a network of ferry lines used as public transport. This project will develop a new mobility, reconnect the different areas of New York and propose alternative transport infrastructures to those already existing, whose vulnerability was proven by Hurricane Sandy. Water is no longer a border, but a link between the inhabitants. This new network consists of a system of boarding platforms to withstand extreme weather events: boarding docks are connected by footbridges to floating platforms, held in place by pylons. Thanks to these floating platforms, this transportation system operates continuously, even in the event of flooding, unlike the subway, which was closed for several weeks following Hurricane Sandy.

New York is therefore part of a policy of a resilient, sustainable, viable and productive city: a “water sensitive city”.

Article researched and written by Lucille Christien for Urban Chronicles™

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Green SoluceDurban and New York, two cities at the forefront of resilience to climate change and natural hazards
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