In 2012, Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc on the New York metropolitan area, causing the East River to overflow its banks and inundate much of Lower Manhattan. A record 14-foot storm surge was recorded at Battery Park and the city and its suburbs experienced massive power outages and a complete breakdown of mass transit service. Mayor Michael Bloomberg assessed the damage at more than $80 billion, making Sandy the second costliest hurricane in United States history, after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
The persistent drought in Texas, which began in 2011 and continues today, has affected everything from its legislative priorities to its agricultural industry to the state’s expansive tree canopy—and the latter is a problem that could take generations to undo. More than 60 million of Greater Houston’s 663 million trees died as a result of the drought, including 50 percent of the tree canopy in the city’s beloved 1,400+-acre Memorial Park.
In mid-2013, floods in central Europe killed at least 23 people, causing close to $22 billion in economic losses and as much as $5.3 billion in insured losses. It has been deemed the costliest natural disaster of the year thus far.
These are not isolated events, but just a few of too many examples that illustrate the perils of an increasingly frequent one-two environmental punch: extreme weather trends combined with a rapidly growing urban population. What is happening and what can we do about it? Two global megatrends are reshaping how cities think about and rely on natural resources.
A Booming Population and Rapid Urbanization
The United Nations projects the world’s population will jump from seven billion to more than nine billion over the next 50 years, with three out of every five people living in an urban area. That will put unprecedented pressures on an already aging and crumbling infrastructure. We already see evidence of this across the U.S. Every four years, the American Society of Civil Engineers releases a comprehensive assessment of the country’s infrastructure—its roads, bridges, dams, levees and water pipelines. Grades in 2013 ranged from a high of B- for solid waste to a low of D- for inland waterways, with the average coming in at a D+. What can cities do to raise these grades? They cannot afford to rely solely on traditional solutions. Building our way out of the challenges surrounding rapid population growth and urbanization simply isn’t cost-effective—the ASCE estimates the government would need to invest $3.6 trillion by 2020 to upgrade existing infrastructure. And that figure doesn’t account for the new infrastructure needed to support growing cities.