After Sandy: Planning Our Natural Defense Against Extreme Weather

When those of us living on the East Coast learned that Hurricane Sandy was approaching, I don’t think any of us had any idea how severe the damage would be. In some ways, Superstorm Sandy reinforced what we already knew; we must make smarter development and infrastructure investments and reduce the risk from extreme weather by re-thinking where and how we build. At the same time, we can do a better job of increasing natural defenses to strengthen our resilience to climate threats.

Unfortunately, extreme weather events like Sandy are becoming the “new normal.”  We know that a warmer atmosphere can hold more moisture, resulting in storms that bring more rainfall, and sea level rise can lead to higher storm surge and more coastal damage.   Although coastal cities are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, proactive planning can help communities become more resilient.

Nature: Working For Communities

Also called green infrastructure, nature-based approaches to build community resilience include a mix of natural features like tree canopies, open space, parks, and wetlands, as well as low impact development (LID) approaches that mimic natural processes (e.g, rain gardens, green roofs, and permeable paving).


Living shorelines are a more natural way to stabilize shorelines and protect them from erosion while improvong water quality and providing habitat for fish and wildlife. (Credit: K. Reeve)

Most coastal communities have historically relied on hard armoring, or “grey” infrastructure for protection from coastal flooding and storms, including sea walls, bulk heads, and storm surge barriers. However, we know that restoring and enhancing natural coastal systems can not only provide protection from extreme weather, but also provide additional benefits like clean water, fish and wildlife habitat, recreation opportunities, and even economic development.  

Climate Planning After Sandy

Some communities are preparing for climate change with holistic community-wide plans way that involve many sectors (eg.,natural systems, build environment,  health).  For example, Mayor Bloomberg this summer announced the release of “A Stronger, More Resilient New York,” which is in some ways “PlaNYC 2.0,” an update to the city’s existing sustainability plan that includes recommendations for rebuilding in areas impacted by Hurricane Sandy and increasing the resilience of these coastal zones. This plan highlights that although large-scale engineering projects, such as seawalls, may seem like a simple, attractive method of improving coastal resilience, other options prove more cost-effective and are less likely to fail in the event of an extreme storm. The plan outlines a number of strategies the city can use to protect specific areas from sea level rise and storm surge. Increasing coastal edge elevations, for example, is a recurring “protection” recommendation throughout the report.

Oyster Beds
Oyster reefs can reduce coastal storm damage by attenuating or dissipating waves and by retaining sediment. (Credit Flickr/Doug DuCap Food and Travel)

National Wildlife Federation is working with the Town of Essex, MA, to help them with their adaptation planning and is leading the effort to conduct an inventory of vulnerable community assets, including infrastructure and natural resources at risk. This process involves a comprehensive public engagement process and the development of an adaptation strategy implementation roadmap for Essex.

NWF also provided some technical support to Baltimore, MD, which recently completed a hazards mitigation plan to qualify for disaster-related assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency). One unique attribute of the Baltimore plan is that it specifically includes strategies to adapt to climate-related hazards, which are not usually specifically called out in hazard mitigation plans.

Aside from more comprehensive planning efforts, communities are also addressing climate change with discrete actions or projects, such as planning for sea level rise by updating zoning policies to require greater setbacks or by acquiring upland and transitional habitats to accommodate wetland shifts due to sea level rise.

The varied approaches of communities reinforces the fact that climate adaptation planning can be, well, “adaptable.”

Climate-Smart Recommendations for Communities:

  • Design “hyper-functional” urban landscapes that use green infrastructure  to build resilience to climate impacts and reduce carbon pollution, that provide wildlife habitat, and that also are places for people to relax, enjoy, and play;
  • Prioritize the use of non-structural, nature-based approaches, like living shorelines, in recovery and re-building activities;
  • Assess the extent to which nature-based approaches can be prioritized and/or integrated with hard or “grey” infrastructure;
  • Conduct comprehensive vulnerability assessments that include, at a minimum, built infrastructure, transportation systems, natural systems (parks and open space, as well as habitats and species), water resources and infrastructure, and human health;
  • Direct development and infrastructure away from environmentally sensitive and climate-vulnerable areas by using land use planning tools like zoning and comprehensive plans;
  • Incentivize development in less vulnerable areas (for example, through transferable development rights);
  • Acquire and protect land in vulnerable areas better suited for wildlife habitat than for development.

Learn more about nature-based approaches for community resilience here:

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Published: November 1, 2013