Green Cities

6 Clever Ways to Make Cities Climate Change Ready

As climate change intensifies, leading to more frequent and severe extreme weather events such as floods and heatwaves, enhancing the climate resilience of our cities has never been more critical. This effort is not only about protecting people but also about preserving our infrastructure, local economies, and businesses.

The following six climate-smart strategies, being implemented by cities worldwide, serve as valuable examples for communities everywhere:

1. More Trees = Lower City Temperatures

Planting more trees, especially in urban areas, can significantly reduce high ground-level temperatures caused by the urban heat island effect, which is the increased temperature in urban areas compared to their rural surroundings. Trees provide cooling shade, and their evapotranspiration produces a cooling effect compared to heat-absorbing impervious surfaces like asphalt and concrete.

In Austin, TX, where last summer brought an oppressive 80 extreme heat days over 100°F, the city is taking action through its Climate Equity Plan. The city aims to increase its tree canopy from the current 41% to its end goal of 50% coverage in economically poorer communities where tree loss is greater. Additionally, the city utilizes a Community Tree Priority Map to strategically plant trees and create green spaces in high-priority, historically under-canopied areas like low-income neighborhoods. 

This comprehensive approach to planting trees helps to mitigate the frequency of extreme heat days and addresses systemic environmental injustice head on.

2. Mangrove Restoration for Natural Hurricane Protection

Restoring and preserving mangrove forests found along equatorial coastlines provides a natural barrier against storms, floods, and erosion. These hardy trees with their dense network of roots can decrease wave heights and stabilize shorelines by absorbing wave energy before it reaches land. Additionally, mangrove forests protect native biodiversity by serving as nurseries for young fish, supporting local economies reliant on fishing.

During Hurricane Irma in 2017, mangroves in Florida reduced the damage of the storm by an incredible nearly 25% in affected counties. Simply having mangroves present saved Miami-Dade County an estimated over $130 million in potential losses. 

Beyond shielding property, mangroves provide an additional climate benefit: their ability to sequester and store more carbon dioxide than terrestrial forests. This dual function highlights the critical role of mangrove forests in both adapting to and mitigating climate change.

3. Green Buildings

Commercial and residential buildings account for a staggering 75% of total U.S. electricity usage. Energy-efficient buildings offer a two linked benefits: creating more climate resilient cities while significantly reducing emissions and utility costs. The latter is a pressing need for many communities as record-breaking heat in many areas is already driving up energy bills.

Upgrading to energy-efficient technologies can dramatically reduce energy waste in buildings. Government-certified “ENERGY STAR” efficient buildings, for example, use 35% less energy and produce 35% less carbon dioxide emissions compared to typical buildings. This translates to average annual savings of $450 per household on utility bills. Technologies such as LED lighting with occupancy sensors, high-efficiency HVAC systems with heat recovery, and properly insulated and air-sealed walls, roofs, and windows significantly reduce the energy consumption and wastage for commercial and residential buildings.

By incorporating energy-efficient technologies into building design and retrofits, we can create more sustainable, resilient, and cost-effective buildings that reduce our environmental impact and prepare our cities for intensifying weather.

4. Making Buildings Climate-Proof

Extreme weather events pose a significant threat to people and buildings worldwide, prompting at-risk countries such as Japan to adopt strict building codes and climate-resilient construction techniques in their cities. Situated along the tectonically active Ring of Fire, Japan faces heightened risks from earthquakes, tsunamis, and typhoons, further exacerbated by rising sea levels and intense rainfall events. 

In response, Japan introduced the “shin-taishin” code in 1981, raising standards for new construction, and initiated nationwide retrofitting efforts in 1995 to bring many older buildings up to code. These codes emphasize flexibility and shock-protection, with features like seismic base isolation systems and reinforced concrete frames for stability and collapse protection. As well as more innovative upgrades like pendulum-style “tuned mass dampers,” installed in skyscrapers, to act as a counterweight during earthquakes. In 2022, Japan launched the Tokyo Resilience Project, which introduced additional subsidies for rebuilding older buildings and upgraded flood infrastructure, including evacuation sites on higher ground and expanded underground reservoirs to hold floodwaters. 

Japan’s proactive resilience strategies should serve as a model for other disaster-prone nations, emphasizing the crucial role of upgraded city infrastructure in shielding against climate vulnerabilities.

5. Innovative Stormwater Management

This past May, Brazil faced an environmental and humanitarian crisis as severe flooding hit hundreds of cities in Rio Grande do Sul, including Porto Alegre and Canoas, leaving thousands displaced and homes underwater for days. The tragedy impacted two-thirds of the state’s 497 municipalities, even affecting EARTHDAY.ORG staff.

This crisis reveals an opportunity for sustainable urban development and adaptation, particularly in these rapidly urbanized flood-prone areas. Implementing nature-based solutions, such as engineered green spaces and stormwater parks, could mitigate flooding while balancing growth and conservation. They work to temporarily store stormwater, acting as natural drainage systems. 

While no single solution exists, this nature-based approach offers a promising option for building resilience in Brazil and other vulnerable locations worldwide.

6. Resilient Transportation Systems

Hurricane Sandy’s devastating impact on New York City in 2012 highlighted the city’s subway system’s critical role to play in building urban resilience. Sandy flooded nine of fourteen subway tunnels, causing over $5 billion in losses, but within five days 80% of the system was back in service. This was in part due to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) deploying subway pumps to clear flooded tunnels as well as them anticipating the storm and moving trains out of the way to prepare for the storm.

In the aftermath and following years, New York and the MTA have not forgotten the devastation and have been repairing and upgrading the system to become more resilient for future storms. They have fortified subway entrances with raised steps and street vents, installed stronger flood barriers, and elevated equipment to enhance resilience and protect transit systems during natural disasters.

Resilient transit systems can provide reliable mobility when private vehicles are still affected by floodwaters, while also promoting sustainable travel options and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Subway systems produce 76% less greenhouse gas emissions than a car per passenger mile. Investing in resilient public transportation infrastructure is crucial for cities like New York to support public transportation accessibility for both climate change mitigation and economic continuity during climate-change-driven natural disasters. 

As climate change accelerates, cities face increasing threats from extreme weather events. By prioritizing urban resilience, governments and communities worldwide can create safer and more sustainable environments. Implementing climate-smart strategies, such as greener infrastructure and resilient buildings, will help cities remain livable, even amid intensifying heatwaves, floods, and storms.

The climate crisis requires thinking ahead so that city planners embrace innovation, investment, and a unified vision for resilient cities that can meet the challenges of our changing planet. Together, we can build communities that withstand these challenges. Learn about EARTHDAY.ORG’s Green Cities and Local Governments campaign, and join us in building your community’s resilience today.