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Think Tank: When the sea swallows your cities

Without building appropriate flood defences and engaging citizens, cities will be at risk of economic calamity.


Coastal cities know about the beauty of the sea but it is increasingly presenting them with a clear and present danger. Recent research has found that while the world is on course to experience a one inch rise in sea levels over the next decade, the growth is fourfold in coastal communities. This matters as they are home to more than 600 million people. Rising sea levels are not only a threat to livelihoods and homes but their very existence.


The triple threat of sea level rise, land sinking, and an increase in extreme weather events is putting coastal communities and their residents at tremendous risk. In the United States alone, according to its Geological Survey, “more than 75 per cent of declared Federal disasters are related to floods, and annual flood losses average almost $8 billion with over 90 fatalities per year".


Do cities take climate change seriously? Or seriously enough? Are they adequately prepared for the devastating impacts of flooding and extreme weather? It is difficult to say because there is no specific solution that applies to all cities. Climate change, and the effects of sea level rise, have layers upon layers of implications that create such a complex, tangled mess of challenges that it is difficult to provide one solution that addresses them all. Nonetheless, city leaders have a responsibility to plan accordingly and to act now. To wait, is to jeopardise the future of their city—especially the communities that will be most directly and negatively impacted.

Climate change, and the effects of sea level rise, have layers upon layers of implications that create such a complex, tangled mess of challenges

To begin this process, key questions should be considered carefully: what efforts has the city made to inform their residents of impending risks? How up to date are the city’s flood maps? Is the community insured against disaster? How quickly can businesses re-open if the city’s infrastructure is damaged? In certain instances, cities are unable to push a climate focused agenda when their community has not faced actual disaster. Given some of the economic implications of flood mapping and its subsequent negative effect on residential market value, certain cities will electively choose to ignore updates to risk maps because of constituent pushback. This near-sighted approach increases the damages and impacts of a future disaster by not adequately accepting and addressing the risks.


Typically, cities without an existing recovery plan, poor public awareness or efficient infrastructure will suffer the greatest consequences of natural disasters, specifically for the residents who inhabit them. The most obvious consequence is the actual damage caused by a disaster, but the more severe and longer lasting impact is a slower economic recovery for unprepared communities.


Building stability


Statistically, uninsured communities take the longest to recover from the damage incurred by a natural disaster. Due to the increase of natural disasters and the inherently long wait periods associated with federal aid distribution and insurance payouts, individuals and businesses experience massive hardships when faced with an unexpected disaster and financial burden, adversely affecting the city’s economy and growth. Response time is critical in determining the pace and effectiveness of any recovery. Whether it is a family, a business or an economy, a lack of cash flow quickly undermines the stability of each of these institutions and collectively the stability of the community itself.


In an effort to address such lags in payouts and access to capital during a time of greatest need, Dorothy was founded to close that payment lag time and keep the economic engines in a community running throughout the response and recovery periods. The innovative approaches to addressing capital needs following a natural disaster include unique coverage products that not only offer speed of payments, but also provide access to pre-approved capital before a victim evens knows they will need it.

Response time is critical in determining the pace and effectiveness of any recovery

The driving force for cities to take climate change and sea level rise seriously depends on the willingness of political leaders to invest in preparedness, enabling communities to recover in the quickest way possible. In certain instances, it is hard to make a case for massive infrastructure upgrades for a threat that may be 100 years away. It is difficult to get political support and even more difficult to divert taxpayer money for updates that will not directly affect those at risk. It becomes an easier argument for cities that face frequent storms and have first hand experience with recovery.


Incremental investments towards resilience, disaster coverage for communities and economic incentives for businesses to take pre-emptive precautions is probably the most feasible solution to establishing long term resilience. Are our city leaders up for the challenge? Will they invest in the long-term, prepare now for the worst and protect their constituents, particularly the most vulnerable, from devastating losses? Time will tell. But as the old adage says, “actions speak louder than words".


About the authors:


Michael Lake is the president and CEO of Leading Cities, a global non-profit organisation driving sustainability and resiliency for all by unlocking the potential of the world’s cities. From his previous work at the White House, serving multiple Presidents of the United States, to policy research for the former Prime Minister of Ireland, Michael’s career has been rooted in public service and focused on creating systemic change for greater sustainability, resiliency and equity.


Arianna Armelli is co-founder and CEO at Dorothy ( and has spent 10 years in the architecture, urban planning and construction industry. Her work on flood risk and disaster preparedness has been featured in eVolo, Archdaily and the New Yorker. Arianna is also co-founder and CEO at Dorothy, a company focused on providing financial recovery products to individuals and businesses at risk of natural disasters.


About Leading Cities:


Leading Cities, an international non-profit organisation, connects smart cities across the globe with innovations and insight to drive resiliency, equity, and sustainability. We believe that a methodical approach brings about the most transformative change. By cultivating a global network of forward thinkers from the public, private, academic, and non-profit sectors, we work collaboratively to mitigate the frustrations inherent to bringing about ambitious change.


Our drive to bring resilience and prosperity is undaunted, delivering advanced research, emerging trends, and technologies through consulting services from global experts. Leading Cities partners with government leaders, start-up companies, investors, and academics to keep cities evolving and working toward their potential, taking on challenges such as climate change, social justice, automation technology, cyber security, data analytics, accessibility, and global health.

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