As British Columbia responds to recent extreme weather events with pledges to “harden” their communities against climate impacts, sustainability expert Alison Shaw is urging them to “build back softer,” in ways more attuned to nature’s determined ebb and flow.
“We cannot repair and replace climate-damaged or destroyed infrastructure the same way we built it in the first place,” writes Shaw, executive director of Simon Fraser University’s Action on Climate Team (ACT), in a recent op ed for Policy Options.
“The more we build defensively with high-carbon solutions, working against natural systems, the less resilient our social systems, services, and communities become, and the higher the costs of repairing them will be the next time,” she writes, citing recent “tough talk” by provincial policy-makers on the need for stronger bridges and highways as part of “a classic negative feedback loop”.
Rather than simply rebuilding those bridges and roads with more concrete and steel, “we can and must use and expand upon the existing services provided by nature,” she adds. That’s what the oft-flooded town of Grand Forks, B.C. is now doing, with its new plan to buy out all assets that currently reside on the Kettle River’s flood plain.
A critical first step in building back “softer” will be to ensure that “municipal assets, such as power, filtration, and pumping infrastructure, are not placed in high-risk areas such as in flood plains, on hillsides, or in wildfire interface areas,” Shaw writes. Planners must also take care not to locate housing and key transport infrastructure like bridges in “climate-exposed areas”.
While this approach “may seem costly at first glance,” she adds, British Columbians now know first-hand “the costs of not doing nearly enough, costs that include the high toll on people, households, and communities, the impact on insurance companies and premiums.”
And “this is not to mention the mountains of waste generated by such disasters.”
For building back softly to work, climate risk disclosure must be at the heart of all public investment, Shaw says. “Cost-benefit analyses of projects need to incorporate the risks of projected climate impacts and the costs of locking in to high-carbon infrastructure, to identify opportunities to avoid disasters and emissions and their direct and indirect costs to our communities over time.”
Building in harmony with nature must also be interdisciplinary and collaborative, using expertise from ecology to architecture to social planning to “enrich and advance the best uses of natural assets and green designs in support of our communities, and of healthy, resilient ecosystems that advance biodiversity,” Shaw writes.