Integrating Resilience into Seattle’s Comp Plan

The update process to the City of Seattle’s Comprehensive Plan presents the opportunity for Seattle to become a national leader as a resilient city. The concept of resiliency is attractive; citywide strategies that enable nimble recovery from major disruptions and foster adaptation for future prosperity would likely garner widespread support.  What a resilient city looks like in practice is another issue.

Seattle’s Office of Sustainability and Environment (OSE) is working to become a leader in climate change adaptation. The efforts began in early 2000, when Seattle became the first city nationwide to adopt green building goals for municipal and private buildings. By 2005, Seattle City Light became the first US utility company to become carbon neutral (due in large part to the hydropower that provides 90% of SPU’s energy and is sustained by mountain snowpack). That year, mayor Nickels spearheaded the Mayor’s Climate Protection Initiative. Following shortly after, Seattle stepped forward as the first American city to adopt a Climate Action Plan (CAP). The CAP 2011 amendments set high standards for the city to realize zero net greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2050 and prepare for climate change impacts.

OSE’s efforts position Seattle as a frontrunner in climate action nationwide. OSE’s climate actions span multiple departments – transportation, land use, building energy, and waste – in order to address the multi-faceted nature of climate change. Seattle’s Comp Plan integrates climate change mitigation into its land use and growth management elements by encouraging compact development with transit and non-motorized transportation options.

 Although planning for climate change is a vital element of building a resilient city, resiliency encompasses more than climate change mitigation and adaptation. Social systems are fundamental components of a resilient city. As New York City continues to recover from hurricane Sandy, city officials have recognized the importance of social resiliency. New York City has taken bold steps to outline what resiliency means for both their communities and their built environment. Under the City’s Special Initiative for Rebuilding and Resiliency, the city created a comprehensive rebuilding and resiliency plan that supports community recovery after Hurricane Sandy and recommends changes to the city’s infrastructure and buildings.

Additional efforts that strengthen social health include innovative re-purposing of public space through the NYC DOT’s public space initiatives, particularly its NYC Plaza Program. Inspired by New York City’s efforts, San Francisco city departments collaborated to develop its Pavements to Parks program that empowers neighborhood organizations to re-purpose public spaces for greater social benefit. New York City and San Francisco efforts have strengthened social cohesion across the city through by creating public spaces that serve local needs, activate public use, and in many cases support the economy activity. Collaboration between city departments and partnership between the city agencies and local organizations have been essential to the success of the programs.

Cities worldwide are grappling with what resiliency means and how it can be implemented. For the ICLEI (Local Governments for Sustainability) and World Mayors Council on Climate Change (of which former Mayor Nickels endorsed), resiliency is defined in terms of climate change preparation and adaptation. The Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities initiative moves beyond climate change. The program seeks to provide cities with resources to develop urban resiliency, defined as the ability of communities and human systems to endure large-scale disruptions, to recover quickly after such shocks, and learn from the stressors to become more robust.

While Seattle has emerged as a leader in planning for climate change, the city needs a more holistic framework that integrates resiliency into all elements of its comprehensive planning efforts. Strengthening the adaptability of social systems, coupled with planning for climate change, is one critical element of building resiliency. Resiliency could serve as an overarching planning framework to the Comp Plan’s 9 Guiding Principles and catalyze innovations in planning policies. 

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