Future-proofing U.S. cities: A dollars and sense imperative

By Rick Cunningham

As singer/songwriter Bob Dylan famously wrote 50 years ago, “The times, they are a-changin.”

Today’s changing times are well documented in the Future Proofing Cities (FPC) Report, an in-depth study sponsored by Atkins in partnership with the U.K. Department for International Development (DFID) and University College London (UCL). Researchers carefully assessed the risk profiles for 129 cities in 20 countries from around the world, analyzing potential climate hazards, resource scarcities, social changes, economic pressures and ecosystem damage through the year 2050. Supported by a wealth of statistical data, the report provides a broad range of strategies for policy-makers to consider as they seek to “future-proof” their cities against a wide range of potential threats.

The Future Proofing Cities (FPC) Report is providing a basis for provocative, global discussion about increasing urbanization, impending resource constraints, and potential climate-change challenges facing the world’s cities. Atkins CEO Prof. Dr. Uwe Krueger has noted that future-proofing a city is not just about getting one of the parts right—it is about getting all of the parts right concurrently; developing a holistic plan that recognizes the interdependencies of risks and drives sustainability for the entire city. The goal is to develop resilient cities that are prepared to react, respond, recover, adapt and transform to meet future needs.

The research behind the FPC Report was focused on cities in developing countries, but the FPC initiative is valuable for developed countries as well. Here in the U.S., for example, many notable cities that are dealing with disaster-related issues stand to benefit from an FPC-based approach to urban planning, including New York City (Hurricane Sandy); Austin, Tex. (severe drought); Boulder, Colo. (record flooding); and Detroit, Mich. (bankruptcy and urban blight).

Coupled with these threats, America’s infrastructure is currently in need of a staggering $3.6 trillion in improvements to meet appropriate standards. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) estimates the unfunded need to be over $200 billion a year between now and the year 2020—and such improvements are desperately needed to protect trillions of dollars in U.S. GDP and trade value.

The future-proofing process

Developing a robust strategy for future-proofing a U.S. city starts with an in-depth, integrated and customized diagnostic study of the city’s risks, vulnerabilities and capacities. Decision-makers can then use the diagnostic to identify and evaluate potential future-proofing opportunities. To avoid creating long “shopping lists” of unachievable solutions, city managers must carefully prioritize future-proofing investments to ensure that the needs with the greatest potential overall impact are dealt with soonest.

Another key component of FPC strategy is the full engagement of all city stakeholders to identify the roles they must play in the future-proofing process and then collaborate to develop a shared vision of the future. Every city has a unique political economy, so it is vital that all stakeholders work together to assess governance and planning options, as well as to identify financing options and instruments.

In addition, a robust monitoring and evaluation system is needed to track performance metrics over time and verify success—which will provide the foundation for attracting additional infrastructure investment.

A collaborative solution to tomorrow’s challenges

Investing in the resilience of cities and their assets is equally important to both private citizens and commercial interests. As McKinsey Global Institute researchers recently noted, “The overwhelming role that U.S. cities play as home to the vast majority of Americans [and] as a dominant driver of U.S. and global economic growth argues for a keen focus on their prospects.”

Unfortunately, the level of investment required to future-proof a modern city is very likely beyond the capacity of local and federal governments. Therefore, private equity interests, business and philanthropic investors and the public at large have no choice but to collaborate to get the job done—and get it done right. To succeed, city decision-makers must create unique blends of public-private interests, financing and strategies for broad-based public engagement.

Despite the challenges, the future holds great opportunity. As urban populations increase, cities will consume more resources in an effort to satisfy the demand for health care, transportation, education, energy, food and water and other vital services. But because these needs are all interconnected, tomorrow’s cities will need holistic solutions to their infrastructure challenges. Ultimately, the concept of future-proofing cities is about investing in “right-sized,” sustainable policies, systems, and infrastructure that will enable long-term resilience.

Increasing urbanization, climate change, crumbling infrastructure, resource scarcities, natural disasters, social and economic pressures — the times certainly are changing. But if city decision-makers can catch a long-term vision for what’s possible, they can set processes in place today that will deliver a brighter tomorrow for everyone.

Rick Cunningham, RA, F.SAME, is director of planning and urban design for Atkins, the worldwide design, engineering, and project management consultancy. He can be reached in his Alexandria, Va., office at

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