A New Map of Climate Resilient Landscapes

Posted on July 1, 2020 by Philip Tabas

After 12 years of work by more than 150 Nature Conservancy scientists we now have an interactive map of resilient lands that can withstand climate impacts AND protect biodiversity. Using ground-breaking science, conservationists identified a network of special places across the U.S. that have unique topographies, geologies, soils, temperatures and other characteristics that, if properly protected, could provide safe havens for species migrating away from growing climate threats.

We know that plant and animal species are disappearing at an alarming rate as their habitats are altered or destroyed by warmer temperatures, increased flooding and other impacts from the changing climate. One-third of animal and plant species could face extinction in the next 50 years due to climate change, according to a study from scientists at the University of Arizona. We know too that nature is on the move to escape these climate impacts. For example, in North America, studies show that species are shifting their ranges an average of 11 miles north and 36 feet in elevation each decade. Many species are approaching – or have already reached – the limit of where they can go to find hospitable climates. Research has also shown that more than half – nearly 60% – of US lands and waters are fragmented by human development, blocking species movement and preventing species from finding new and more hospitable habitat. 

The Resilient and Connected Network Map (see: http://maps.tnc.org/resilientland/) for the contiguous U.S. provides a new way to prioritize lands for land conservation action. This model offers a roadmap for preserving a network of resilient sites and connecting corridors that could sustain North America's natural diversity by allowing species to adapt to and thrive in the face of climate impacts. By protecting the most resilient landscapes, conservationists hope to double their environmental impact by 2050.

By providing safe havens for diverse species, this network of lands could also protect important sources of fertile soils, clean drinking water, economic resources and other vital services people rely on for survival. Conserving such a resilient network has large benefits for both people as well as nature. For example, resilient areas identified in Eastern North America not only serve as home to more than 30,000 species of plants and animals but also support a $25 billion outdoor recreation industry.  Additionally, protecting these resilient areas would secure over 66 million acres of high-value source water supply land, provide 1.8 billion tons of oxygen annually, and mitigate over 1.3 million tons of air pollution avoiding $913 million in human health costs. Resilient lands could also capture and store higher amounts of carbon than other areas and thus help offset greenhouse gas emissions; in the Eastern US, these lands could store an estimated 3.9 billion tons of carbon.

Of the total acreage represented in the network, approximately 301 million acres are already in some form of protected status. To protect the remainder, we will have to protect as much land as we have protected in the last 100 years of previous land conservation action. Although challenging, if government agencies, land trusts, the private sector and others can be persuaded to use this new science to direct conservation action and resources to these most important lands, it can maximize the impact of conservation funding and actions. Recent Senate passage of the Great American Outdoors Act or "GAOA” which would fully and permanently fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund with $900 million annually for the first time since the program's creation in 1964, gives some hope that we will be able to meet this challenge.

By conserving these environmental strongholds, we can protect the lands best-equipped to sustain threatened species -- and mitigate the adverse effects of climate change in the process. Saving nature from the effects of climate change might seem to be a daunting task. But, by focusing on conserving naturally resilient lands, we can keep the planet habitable for a vast array of species, including our own.

The Future Is As We Now See It – Environmental Development Resiliency and Disaster Planning

Posted on June 17, 2020 by Kevin Murray

Successful real estate developers and development attorneys must effectively anticipate and manage risk. Management of visible and known risks seem simple; what separates the great from the good is the ability to anticipate, plan for, and develop contingencies for unknown risk scenarios. I have previously written about the importance of resilient development planning for extreme weather conditions and regional/national disasters. It is clear that extreme weather events affect the way we live and must be taken into consideration if we are to plan and develop our environmentally sustainable and resilient communities. Pandemic planning now finds itself a critical part of disaster planning and is likely to have a profound and lasting influence on environmental resiliency.

These environmental conditions affect physical, transactional, and legal aspects of real estate. Physical impacts appear as structural, corporeal, or earthly damages or modifications. Physical impacts present very real safety risks to site occupants such as failing structures and, exposure to life- threatening elements and hazardous substances. The recent pandemic has highlighted what was a subset of physical impacts, that is the health of the occupants as they live, work and occupy spaces.

Over the course of recent decades, mixed use developments became extremely popular with developers, municipal jurisdictions, and users. The notion of sustainable walkable communities has seen a proliferation of “self-contained communities” to support the growing desire for a more compact lifestyle where living, work and recreation coexist. The COVID Pandemic will result in the development of new regulation and a fresh look at development as a whole, but clearly with self-contained walkable communities and mixed use. Especially where users live on top of the commercial, retail, restaurant and recreational spaces they frequent.

Energy efficiency through sealed buildings had already begun to fade, air flow and fresh sources of filtered air will see increased interest and likely regulatory focus. The need to regulate how people congregate and the general flow through space may take on a regulatory aspect. Occupancy limits already exist for general safety, perhaps viral exposure may now factor into those calculations, and the imposition of formal requirements for table and general distancing in floor space. A demand for (and likely regulatory requirements), may extend into amenities that feature no touch surfaces, doors, toilets, sinks, retail checkout, retail goods selection, shelving, clothing racks, elevators, windows. Internet orders and drive up pickup may see a continued demand for convenience and safety. Ever-present hand sanitizer and disinfecting wipes will become required and as common place as a box of tissue.

The importance of all this however is to note that management of risk means mitigation. The traditional legal defenses like force majeure and impractability continue to erode in favor of reasonable foreseeability of extreme events. Successful developers and their attorneys will plan for these contingencies both to protect their uses and themselves in an ever changing regulatory environment. Proper engineering and design are necessary to protect the people that live and work in these communities and the companies and contractors that establish them. Resilient real estate development must adapt and engineer buildings and communities sustainable under foreseeable extreme conditions.

A Blueprint for a Resilient New York City

Posted on July 17, 2013 by Gail Port

Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the Special Initiative for Rebuilding and Resiliency recently promulgated a 438-page report titled “A Stronger, More Resilient New York” (the “Resiliency Report”) in the wake of Hurricane Sandy’s devastating destruction on October 29th, 2012. The Resiliency Report emphasizes the inevitable effects of climate change and rising sea levels, opening with a climate analysis conducted by the New York City Panel on Climate Change (“NYCPCC”). According to the NYCPCC, 25% of New York City’s land mass, home to 800,000, will be in the floodplain by 2050. The Resiliency Report is part of Mayor Bloomberg’s PlaNYC, an unprecedented program initiated in 2007, which currently has 132 initiatives to make New York City (“NYC”) more sustainable and adaptable to the effects of climate change. Given the historic impact of Hurricane Sandy and the concern that future weather events could be just as devastating—or even worse—the Resiliency Report was commissioned to build on the momentum of PlaNYC.

The Resiliency Report contains over 250 proposals, implementation of which is estimated to cost $19.5 billion. Approximately $15 billion has been or is expected to be appropriated from federal and city sources, but the remainder of the required funding may be dependent on whether further aid will be available from the federal or state governments. Among other things, the Resiliency Report calls for the restoration of dunes, widening of beaches, and erection of localized surge barriers, levees, and floodwalls in particularly vulnerable areas. The Report also calls for amendment of the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act, which currently only allows for premium reductions if the house is elevated, to allow for flood insurance premium reductions if the homeowner makes other flood-related improvements. Additionally, a Building Resiliency Task Force (established by the Mayor and City Council Speaker Quinn) recently issued a separate Building Resiliency Report, focusing in greater detail on building structural and infrastructure resiliency. The Building Resiliency Report has 33 specific recommendations based on four central themes: constructing stronger buildings, securing backup power, providing essential services, and developing building-specific emergency plans.

Numerous issues have already been raised regarding recommendations in the Resiliency Report. One such example is the controversial proposal of a SeaPort City, which has already spawned community resistance. SeaPort City would be an artificial expansion of the lower east side of Manhattan modeled after Battery Park City, which was highly successful in reducing flood-damage from Hurricane Sandy on the lower west side. Although it has been emphasized as a resiliency initiative, SeaPort City would serve the dual purposes of acting as a protective barrier and providing highly coveted residential and commercial real estate. Nearby South Street Seaport residents and businesses, which were devastated by Hurricane Sandy, argue that this massive landfill would harm wildlife and would have an adverse effect on preservation of the historic neighborhood. Since the plan for SeaPort City is still in its infancy, the costs for such a development have not been calculated into the already staggering $19.5 billion costs to implement the other Resiliency Report proposals.

The Resiliency Report opens with an invigorating foreword by Mayor Bloomberg, stating that “[w]e are a coastal city—and we cannot, and will not, abandon our waterfront.” In contrast, on the state level, Governor Cuomo’s floodplain buy-out program provides an incentive for private homeowners to relocate from the coastline. This $400 million purchase program offers to buy houses in flood-prone areas, specifically in Staten Island, with the value offered depending on the vulnerability of the particular neighborhood. The houses would be demolished and the properties would remain undeveloped to act as a natural buffer for future storms. Governor Cuomo stated that “there are some parcels that Mother Nature owns . . . and when she comes to visit, she visits.” Though the buy-out program still awaits federal approval, it has garnered substantial support from Staten Island representatives. The governor’s proposal is consistent with the views of members of the NYCPCC who have urged for a retreat from coastlines.

Regardless of methodology, all parties agree that some changes must be implemented soon to address the growing threat of climate change and rising sea levels. The success of the recommendations in the Resiliency Report and the continuing success of PlaNYC will hinge predominantly on the initiatives of Mayor Bloomberg’s successor. The Bloomberg administration has five months left to lay the foundation for these programs, but the responsibility to implement both the Resiliency Report recommendations and PlaNYC ultimately will fall on the next mayor. The incoming mayor must have the will, dedication, funding and community support to ensure the programs’ continued success. Will the new mayor be willing to commission studies of the SeaPort City proposal? Will the new mayor be able to secure the funding required to implement recommendations in the Resiliency Report? Will the new mayor build on the successes of PlaNYC? Will the new mayor become the flag-bearer for the adaptation of New York City and its coastal metropolitan areas to address growing environmental concerns? These and other questions have already become an important part of the campaign dialogue as voters form their positions for the upcoming mayoral election in November.