CDP, Climate Change, Connected Cities, economic development, Health, San Francisco

Kaixuan New World L13 District, Guangzhou, China. ©AECOM photo by Robb Williamson.

Cities may be getting wealthier, but a lot of that wealth is going to be washed away if climate change continues unabated.  How are cities rising to the task of analyzing the co-benefits of protecting their cities from more frequent storms, for example? Is it harder for cities to justify these efforts? What is the biggest driver of adaptation efforts in your recent experience?

Impacts from storms tend to be very visible compared to GHG emissions which are invisible. As storms become more frequent it becomes an easier sell to start to protect against them.  The co-benefits in terms of improvements in public realm or water quality which exist even in the absence of storm is important when choosing what to do.

For example, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission is undertaking a massive combined sewer improvement program and developed a triple bottom line assessment tool to help them choose which design alternatives will provide the most benefit from a social, environmental and financial perspective. Those criteria include climate resiliency, improvement in public amenity, biodiversity, improvement in water quality as well as protection of buildings and property.

Drivers for adaptation – no question that impacts of big storms are having an influence. Also an increasing number of cities are seeing high tides overtop their streets right now. This depends on where you are – those places which have been built in areas which are very hot and dry and putting in place plans to ensure they have a water supply in near future.

The conclusion that most research has drawn from this type of data is that city dwellers have a lower carbon footprint. However, isn’t the bigger story that these city dwellers are getting healthier?

Depends on who you are to what is most important – but yes, if you look at a lot of the mitigation and adaptation actions – many of them should also be helping cities become healthier places to live.  Many of the transportation related policies which are aiming to decrease the number of cars on the road, decrease congestion and improve the cleanliness of car emissions will help improve air quality.   Encouraging more people to walk and bike to work, or take transit will keep our population fit and ward off the growing obesity problems in many cities around the world.

Some cities like New York and Baltimore area are implementing programs and policies to effectively transition dirty fuel oil boilers to cleaner natural gas alternatives – which can have a huge impact on air quality.

To what extent does seizing these health co-benefits depend on good quality, long-term master planning? Is your work with cities touching on the master planning process or are those conversations separate?

Many of the health benefits stem from the way a city is configured and whether residents can walk, bicycle, take mass transit or if they are forced to drive.  All modes of transportation require masterplanning interventions within cities – either re configuring streets or ensuring that new development is transit oriented. Many cities are focusing on transit oriented development to help manage growth and congestion. I believe that the growing movement of eco-district’s in cities like Portland, Denver, Seattle, Cleveland, Washington, Singapore is an important idea to raise here – many cities are looking at urban regeneration around the eco-district concept where issues of energy, water and transportation are considered in a very holistic and integrated way. Providing infrastructure at a neighbourhood scale can be much more efficient instead of a building-by-building scale, and can help future proof the developments for changes in technologies in the future.

For a QA with Gary Lawrence, AECOM’s chief sustainability officer, click here.


Claire Bonham-Carter ( is director of sustainable development with AECOM’s Design + Planning practice.

Claire Bonham-Carter

Originally published Aug 1, 2013

Author: Claire Bonham-Carter

Claire Bonham-Carter is vice president of sustainability and resilience in AECOM's Buildings + Places business line in the U.S. West region.