Graceful Failure: Resiliency Lessons from Boulder

ARTICLE | Dec 28, 2015
Graceful failure design in Boulder: a bike way surrounded by green space where water can flow in the event of flooding.

In 2013, a major flood inspired the city of Boulder to think about climate resiliency a new way. To ensure consistent and comprehensive planning, the city now looks at resiliency across multiple sectors to address weaknesses and coordinate data and projections beyond single teams and areas of service delivery. Through the ECEP partnership facilitated by the National Center for Atmospheric Research, the city has embraced the idea of Graceful Failure, and uses it as a guiding principle in the planning process.  This idea

embodies consideration of resilience to catastrophic events at all stages of research, planning, design and implementation. It stresses the importance of incorporating an assessment of the predicted magnitude and impact of failure in an uncertain future, and incorporating responses to such failure as an integral component to planning and design stage. Failure encompasses all modes of unanticipated response to a situation: from the immediate consequences of a flood or wind-storm; to the longer-term impacts from prolonged drought and reduced water availability; or far-reaching consequences of forced migration due to sea level rise. By anticipating the range of scenarios that may occur if a system fails at the planning and research stage, the anticipated outcome is a controlled and resilient response to those failures that do occur. (ECEP)

In August of 2015, Boulder welcomed representatives from its CityLinks partner city, Shimla, to show them just what graceful failure looks like – and how the city’s geography and topographical features impact planning and climate decisions.

Located at the base of the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, the city has chosen to develop in certain areas and intentionally kept development from occurring in others to contain the city’s footprint. By choosing not to provide services past certain areas, the local government has been able to manage natural resources and service delivery in a way not often found in other U.S. cities.

Because of this, Boulder’s water resources sector is particularly strong. During the exchange, the CityLinks delegation toured facilities that utilize natural and manmade reservoirs for the purposes of hydro-electric generation and storage. For the team from Shimla, this was the first time they had been exposed to this type of water management and they were incredibly excited about the possibilities in their own context. Utilizing reservoirs could potentially help remedy some of water supply issues in Shimla, while generating a cleaner source of electricity through hydropower at the same time.

The delegation also explored several more detailed engineering schemes; one of which is Boulder’s Greenways Program. The program is an active effort by the city to buy vulnerable land in flood plains. As an example of graceful failure, the city was able to provide green space and recreation for residents while keeping critical infrastructure out of the lowest lying areas. The benefits of the program include environmental protection, habitat restoration, flood mitigation, and increased storm water drainage capacity.

The flood of 2013 also taught Boulder about the crucial role alternative sources of energy play in resilience building and adapting to climate change. Having the ability to produce power without diesel for emergency centers and water pumping and treatment plants is critical for flood resilience. Boulder is taking steps toward their commitment of becoming net zero by 2031. They see alternative energy as not only reducing their carbon foot print, but a way to ensure resiliency.

Throughout the exchange, the teams discussed ways to make the water sector in Shimla more resilient to climate change. On the return trip to Shimla, the CityLinks delegation will make recommendations for improved infrastructure and maintenance. Team members will also help municipal staff better understand different climate scenarios and the planning impacts they will have on various sectors.

You can learn more about the CityLinks Shimla - Boulder Climate Change Partnership here.

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