EcDev Journal

Community Sustainability + Resilience = Economic Opportunity

Posted on Monday January 02, 2017
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By Alec Hay, Paul Dowsett, and Donald Peckover

At Rethink Sustainability Initiatives’ leadership exchange, The New Leadership Opportunity – in an Uncertain Future, held at The UofT Faculty Club in mid 2016, over 125 senior leaders from over 20 industries explored key challenges impacting our environment and society – and solutions that can be implemented today. To accelerate the conversation, it was ignited by a multi-disciplined group of speakers who are recognized thought leaders in their respective fields of expertise: architecture, infrastructure risk and resiliency, climate change, energy systems, communication, leadership, and real estate development.

Representing the community sustainability’s perspective on what it takes to advance the sustainability and leadership of buildings and surrounding communities was Alec Hay.  He was asked to contribute an article on how community sustainability plus resilience equals economic opportunity.

Be it a hurricane, ice storm, flood, or wildfire there are few greater threats to our cities and economies than natural disasters. It is thus important that our communities – in terms of their design and planning – can respond to disasters, bounce back, resume operations, and be a catalyst for redevelopment as well as a haven for their residents. In the recent past we have had numerous natural disasters that have wiped out – or at least shut down – entire neighbourhoods and large swaths within cities: ice storm in Eastern Ontario and Quebec (1998), Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans (2005), Superstorm Sandy in New York (2012), flooding in Calgary (2013), ice storm in Toronto (2013), flooding in Toronto (2013 and 2014), and the Fort McMurray Wildfire and Floods (2016). Many areas of these cities are still responding to these disasters and are still rebuilding. One must wonder if they had been designed sustainably, with resiliency and long-term economics in mind, would they still be struggling to become what they once were, or would they now be continuing as vibrant, strong, and durable communities?

While ultimately the ability of a community to self-recover from a catastrophe, to prove itself resilient, is defined by its human dynamics, it is critically enabled by its infrastructure: the built, the natural, and the social. Understanding how the community reacts, responds, and finally recovers to a new and better state after a catastrophe, is to understand what fails where and when, and what this means. When we know what the community must do at each stage of a catastrophe, we are able to define what we require of our infrastructure. The consequences of catastrophic loss are greater today than ever before, as technology concentrates the value of business and assets exposed to risk. We can’t buy our way out of the consequences anymore, nor can we stop these catastrophic events from happening. It takes a fundamental shift in our approach to community design and planning, rather than a continuation of familiar practices whose underlying assumptions are no longer valid. No protection is absolute and at some stage every measure will fail. What we do when that happens will determine whether we survive as a community. Failure is predictable and considering it in the design process very rarely adds whole project cost, and quite often can reduce it. Infrastructure (built, natural, and social) has a purpose and when we design to protect that purpose, we are enabling the community to survive the next catastrophe.

One such neighbourhood which SUSTAINABLE.TO Architecture + Building (S.TO) has considered is Far Rockaway on the south shore of Long Island, New York. S. TO’s proposal empowers the Rockaway community with the ability to sustain functionality during and after devastating major storm events like Superstorm Sandy from the Atlantic Ocean (a 0.01% event) while creating new social and economic infrastructure for the community to thrive in non-emergency conditions (for 99.99% of the time).  Response, recovery, resiliency, and redundancy define the execution of proposal ideas in line with the new federal, state, and municipal guidelines and protocols. Hit hard by Superstorm Sandy in 2012 the area, which averages four feet above sea level, was inundated with a storm surge over fifteen feet tall, submerging the entire neighbourhood, washing over the island, and destroying homes, businesses, and services. There were insufficient breakwater structures in place to prevent this water from rushing inland. In fact, such breakwaters that had been constructed were quickly washed out by the power of the storm surge. They failed. This shows that even when measures are put in place, Mother Nature has a way of breaking down our defences. Thus, our defences must be designed to fail... safely. They should not be imagined to be “fail-safe”, but should be designed to be “safe-to-fail”.

The S.TO proposal for Far Rockaway establishes many sequential, safe-to-fail measures to minimize damage, maximize resiliency, protect vital infrastructure, and ensure that the neighbourhood remains safe and secure.  These measures are designed to sustainably perform more than one function – one set of functions 99.99% of the time (normal times), and another set of functions 0.01% of the time (times of extreme events). As safe-to-fail structures, when overpowered by Mother Nature, these can react, direct the impact, work together to prevent further widespread damage, and enable the community to self-recover.

The first two combined strategies are to enlarge the beach (1) and to reintroduce and protect the natural dune system (2). This way, when the next storm surge hits it will first hit further out from the built-up area and will initially slow down and dissipate, therefore causing less inland damage.  The enlarged beach and natural dune system is also attractive to tourists and residents who wish to swim, surf, and explore the beach, attracting people to the area which helps to support local businesses. Designed as “safe-to-fail”, the systems reduce the cost to rehabilitate after a severe weather event while also providing positive economic impacts to the neighbourhood in the form of the improved retail promenade, supporting local businesses, attracting locals and tourists, and increasing neighbourhood density.

The third strategy is a water baffle structure (3), acting as a substantial breakwater behind the dunes to capture waves and water, and to direct it away from the built-up area for the 0.01% of the time severe weather event. For the other 99.99% of the time, it is a parking structure which provides lots of space for tourists and weekend surfers to visit the beach, enjoy the neighbourhood, and support local businesses throughout the year. The new retail promenade created along the new esplanade atop the parking structure increases the amount of local business which improves the local economy, which in turn will support increased office and residential density above, which further supports the businesses and the local economy.  Such a retail promenade is typical of many developed seaside communities around the world, and in this design, is considered safe after a severe weather event, such that business can rebound quicker with less downtime and less damage to property and goods. This is attractive to lenders, business, and renters in that business can be up and running soon after an event, with little impact on the local economy.

These parking/baffle structures are part of an optimized area with a built-up grade, our fourth strategy (4). Many learnings from the New Urbanism community planning are employed here. Beyond the parking/water baffle structure, the residential and commercial neighbourhoods sit on an artificially raised grade, with services protected below this raised grade. We propose that only 20% of the land area needs to be raised to provide the required protections. This is much more economically and environmentally viable than raising all Far Rockaway, and therefore it should be more cost-effective for developers to build both the infrastructure, raised grade, and buildings; savings which in turn can be passed to homebuyers in the form of less expensive housing and renters in the form of lower rent. Maintenance costs for both homeowners and renters can also be less, using durable materials and low utility costs, which is also attractive to community members – both those moving back into Far Rockaway and those potentially moving into Far Rockaway. The built-up infrastructure protects power, internet, water, and sewage – the raised, principal, mixed-use roadways between buildings – and are less susceptible to flood water damage. In this way, we allow any water that passes the beach, dunes, and parking structure to be diverted into the lower laneways and parking areas at the natural grade – open areas which are below essential services as spaces to divert water from the important infrastructure. Robust, durable materials allow these channel spaces to bounce back after a severe weather event. By raising the grade, we aim to make the neighbourhood not only more robust but also more beautiful and well-connected to infrastructure, which is attractive to developers who can therefore build more efficiently without expensive mechanical back-up systems, and attractive to homeowners who know that they will be safe and secure before, during, and after a severe weather event.

Further, acting as a daily showpiece of the safe-to-fail community design for the residents, the main central open park space acts as a large basin to accept the storm surge, with channels directing water into the large open space from the beach rather than into the adjacent neighbourhoods (5). The lower park area at natural grade is free of buildings and infrastructure, and acts as a focal point for community engagement. Retail, services, and residential are raised up and surround the park basin, creating a mixed-use, public, interactive realm, which remains functional during times of flood, attracting residents and tourists alike. This represents economic opportunity and mitigates losses during downtime caused by severe weather events and neighbourhood recovery.

Beyond the design of the overall neighbourhood and its interface with the ocean, with robust, redundant infrastructure, is the design of the buildings themselves (6). Built with Passive House principles originating from Canada (and codified in Germany), the homes and businesses are designed with a focus on the building envelope – the foundations, walls, and roofs – to increase insulation, improve airtightness, and lower energy demand. By building well-insulated, airtight, sun-shielded buildings, should the electricity grid go down, the buildings will hold in their heat in the winter and will stay cool in the summer. Large south-facing windows with overhanging shades above prevent hot summer sun from coming in, while allowing warm winter sun to penetrate deep into the interior spaces to provide passive heating in the winter. The windows can operate to allow for natural ventilation, accepting cooling breezes from the ocean without the need for power. In this way, the homes and businesses remain comfortable during any season while experiencing a potential extended power outage, which is beneficial to the local economy in that the neighbourhood won’t “shut down” and will continue to operate before, during, and after a severe weather event. Low energy and operating costs due to passive design, paired with low maintenance costs due to robust materials, are attractive to homebuyers and renters.

By including several safe-to-fail structures within the design of the neighbourhood the SUSTAINABLE.TO Proposal allows the area to accept any water that forces its way into the district with minimal long-term damage. If the first strategy should fail the next strategies in the design can accommodate the surge as required, acting at different stages of the disaster sequence while also contributing throughout the entire sequence to lessen the overall impact. Most importantly, however, these safe-to-fail structures offer other, normal, everyday functions during regular periods without being intrusive or out of place, and substantially contribute to the social and economic vitality of the neighbourhood and the overall health of the community. While these built-in redundancies may seem like an extravagant and unnecessary investment, when a storm hits this sustainably and robustly planned neighbourhood and the residents can remain safe, buildings are not destroyed, and power & services continue operation, not only do the residents benefit but the local economy can continue as well. In the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, even the economy of downtown Manhattan suffered. When people fear for the safety of their homes and their families they do not show up for work, and do not go out shopping. By creating a safe, sustainable, and robust neighbourhood we aim to directly – and positively – impact the economic health of not only our target neighbourhood but also the surrounding areas and boroughs. Following Superstorm Sandy 90% of all shops were forced to close temporarily which led to the widespread looting and loss of business. Shops and services in this re-planned community are located along raised streets eliminating the risk of flood damage allowing for continuous operation, which is the key to the survival of many 21st century businesses. Rather than spend multiple years (and dollars) in planning, research, and design to re-develop neighbourhoods after a natural disaster; smart planning, sustainable design, and resilient neighbourhoods should be built in the first place. As the old saying goes “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”.


Paul Dowsett, Founding Principal Architect, Sustainable.TO Architecture + Building

Alec Hay, Adjunct Professor, University of Toronto’s Centre for Resilience of Critical Infrastructure

Donald Peckover, Architectural Design, Sustainable.TO Architecture + Building


Many thanks to Yasmin Glanville at  More speaker insights from the RSI exchange can be viewed at