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cityscape

Public Works: Getting Ready For Bad Weather

New York City is spending $20 billion to mitigate the future effects of climate change related weather disasters. What's Toronto doing?

Public Works looks at public space, urban design, and city-building innovations from around the world, and considers what Toronto might learn from them.

The Don Valley Parkway, flooded after intense rain on June 8.

Last week, Toronto got a taste of the World of Tomorrow in the form of virtually unprecedented rain and flooding that all but shut down the city.

If you’re reading this you have internet access and likely know that climate-related disasters like wildfires, hurricanes, and floods have been plaguing the global population with increasing frequency and ferocity over the last few years. While it would be comforting to think that the trend is only a temporary setback in humanity’s war on nature, the science says otherwise: climate change is happening now, it’s largely caused by human greenhouse gas emissions, and as it progresses the incidence of catastrophic weather will increase.

And as efforts to reduce CO2 generation are going rather badly, the buzzword has become “resilience,” which is basically saying, “While I don’t plan to stop bashing my head against the wall, I will buy a helmet.”

With the federal Canadian Harper government policies on climate change vacillating from naive to cynical to downright bewildering, it’s unlikely we’ll see the Feds forking out dough to fortify Canadian municipalities against effects we can no longer avoid. If Toronto wants to prepare for a warmer, wetter, and more capricious climate, we’re going to have to lead the effort ourselves.

New York City is doing just that.

Hurricane Sandy, which killed 43 New Yorkers and did an estimated $19 billion in damage, served as a wake-up call to city’s residents and officials. In response, Mayor Michael Bloomberg last month announced a multi-year plan to shore up the city’s defences against adverse weather. The plan is expected to cost about $19.5 billion over the next decade, and much more in the longer term. Measures range from the building of new coastal flood walls, to hardening the city’s electrical and telecommunications infrastructure, to improving the ability of the city to respond quickly to emergencies.

The silver lining in this super-storm cloud is that three-quarters of the funding will come from money already committed by the municipal or federal governments, mostly in the wake of Sandy. However, the city will still need to find $5 billion on its own.

In spite of the cost, more U.S. municipalities, forseeing an onslaught of flaming tornadoes and football-sized mosquitoes fat with plasma and West Nile virus, are looking to jump on the climate change adaptation train. The Resilient Communities for America campaign has already recruited mayors and civic leaders from more than 50 cities.

Toronto has also been looking ahead. In 2008, the city issued a report [PDF] called “AHEAD OF THE STORM…Preparing Toronto for Climate Change,” which was adopted unanimously by city council. The report led to the formation of the Toronto Urban Climate Change Network, which in 2009 collaborated with the Toronto Environment Office to hold the Forum on Infrastructure and Climate Change Adaptation.

In June 2011, The Toronto Environment Office, working with the Greater Toronto CivicAction Alliance, brought together more than 40 public and private organizations from sectors including finance, insurance, telecommunications, transportation, telecommunications, energy, housing, and government, to form what would become the WeatherWise Partnership.

WeatherWise has a mandate to “identify risks and prioritize areas for action and investment by businesses, communities, organizations, and governments as the region faces more extreme rain, snow, wind, and temperatures.”

The group determined that the area of first priority would be the resilience of the electrical grid in the face of extreme weather. It formed a working group to begin doing research.

Within City Hall, a Resilient City Working Group has formed. Its members are representatives of City departments, agencies, and corporations. The group is expected to make a report to city council by the end of 2013.

To aid these groups, consulting company SENES delivered a report to council, in late 2012, laying out the expected impact of climate change on Toronto over the next 30 years. The report predicted warmer temperatures, more precipitation, and fewer but more extreme rainfall events (prompting Councillor Norm Kelly to opine that “[the report] is saying that life is going to be a little more comfortable in this city”).

Council has also approved a Climate Risk Assessment Tool, to be applied across agencies and departments as way of standardizing the assessment of climate risk in different areas. This tool will be used by City agencies to determine priorities for climate change mitigation. The Environment and Energy Office (formerly the Environment Office) will coordinate things.

The key, of course, is turning all the talk and research and recommendations into reality.

Mark Bekkering, a manager in the Environment and Energy Office, says one of the the key challenges is that so many of the needed solutions have implications across multiple agencies and departments. For example, the TTC may flood-proof its facilities, but if there’s no power to run the subways it won’t do much good. To that end, the various working groups have to move out of silos and take a holistic view of the anticipated problems.

What else would accelerate the process of readying Toronto for our new weather? Bekkering says three things would help:

The first would be increased public awareness of the problem, which was probably aided considerably by last week’s visuals of cars drifting down the DVP, and commuters being ferried from the second level of a drowned GO train (GO, by the way, does not usually give refunds for delays caused by extreme weather, though in this case passengers were offered $100 vouchers. On the other hand, there was a free boat ride.)

Specific regulation around ways that businesses and homeowners can make the city more resilient would also be helpful. One example would be basement backflow preventers. While subsidies for basement flood protection are currently available, a combined carrot and stick approach of financial aid and bylaws would encourage more homeowners to get with the program.

The third factor, of course, is money—something not readily available in the current fiscal environment (although it seems reasonable that if we can pull an extra billion out of our boxers to buy the votes of Scarborough subway enthusiasts, we could drop a few bucks to keep the city from being washed into Lake Ontario). Unlike New York, Toronto has no funds dedicated to climate change adaptation, and while some initiatives might not incur new costs (for example, the City’s parks division might change the types of trees it’s planting), others will. With no dedicated bucket of cash, most projects would have to be funded from existing departmental budgets. And the City already has a lengthy laundry list of “Adaptation Actions” to undertake, so new ones will have to get in line.

Getting out in front of climate change isn’t easy. Whether we’re doing as much as we need to, only time will tell.

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