Taking Action Now: Making the District More Climate Resilient

Catastrophic wildfires in Australia and California have shown us that the effects of climate change are already here. They will get worse. For the District, this could mean heat emergencies that last three months and flooding that leaves significant portions of our city unlivable and unusable. The communities most vulnerable to weather events, who often live in less-valuable flood-prone areas, are also the most economically vulnerable and have the fewest resources to prepare.

The Federal City Council and the architecture and design firm Gensler co-hosted an event yesterday to zero-in on the District’s resilience. Francisco Gonzalez, Co-Managing Director and Principal of Gensler, welcomed the attendees, and Kevin Bush, the District’s Chief Resilience Officer, moderated the discussion. Panelists included Stephanie Gidigbi, Director of Policy & Partnerships a the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Uwe Brandes, Professor of Urban & Regional Planning at Georgetown University and Kate Johnson, Chief of the Green Building and Climate Branch at the DC Department of Energy & Environment.

Fortunately the District is taking climate resilience planning very seriously. Mayor Bowser has committed to making the District carbon neutral and climate resilient by 2050. The path there is being laid by the Clean Energy Act, which was passed last year. The Urban Land Institute, led by Ed Walter, published a must-read study on the bill from the perspective of the business community. The bill will transition the District to run on all renewable electricity and half carbon emissions by 2032. It also requires new building energy standards. Buildings account for three-quarters of the District’s greenhouse gas emissions. Starting next year in 2021, any buildings below a median energy star score will have five years to improve its energy performance. These upgrades will be expensive. The District is getting close to launching a Green Bank to help with the financing.

At the urging of the Federal City Council, DC applied for and received a large grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to plan a resilience strategy as part of the 100 Resilient Cities network. She hired Chief Resilience Officer Kevin Bush in 2017 and in 2019 his office published Resilient DC, which lays out resilience goals, objectives and initiatives.

This challenge is uniquely interdisciplinary. The full power of the government and private sector needs to be engaged to coordinate policies on housing, poverty, education, the environment, budgeting and transportation. Inclusive growth and more workforce housing, for example, makes the city more resilient.

Stephanie Gidigbi made the case for a P4 model that puts people first. Experts need to go to the community to hear their perspective. She pointed out, “You can never be an expert of a home you’ve never lived in.”

Kate Johnson has spent a lot of time with local DC communities doing this kind of listening. In Ward 7 meetings, local residents landed on three resilience priorities—two of which involved workforce development. They wanted to make sure their community could benefit from any economic development investments that were coming as part of the District’s larger resilience strategy. The other priority was to create a local “resilience hub” in the event of a crisis, with backup power, food and shelter.

Uwe Brandes does not doubt that we can achieve the Mayor’s goals of carbon neutrality and climate resilience by 2050. As far in the future as this may seem, the infrastructure investment cycle is now. We need full court press now from the government and private sector.

Uwe rounded out the discussion by reminding the audience that as daunting as these challenges seem, the solution lies in more economic expansion, not less. “We need to grow our way out of these problems,” he said. We are lucky in the District that we have a thriving economy, which should make achieving climate resilience more manageable. Making the District more resilient is also making our city a better place. It’s a business opportunity to participate in this effort—and in the end, there could be more prosperity for everyone.