Article Features Julia Lave Johnston

Planning to Save: Increasing Your Community’s Resiliency

Julia Lave Johnston is program manager of the Institute for Local Government’s Sustainable Communities program and can be reached at For more about the program, visit The Institute for Local Government thanks Charlie Knox, a principal of PlaceWorks, Inc., for his contribution to this article.

Californians love the natural beauty of their state; many want to live by the ocean, in the forest or on a hill with a view. As a result, the state’s growing population continues moving into areas prone to natural disasters like fires, floods and landslides.

As communities grapple with these hazards, they are also being asked to address the impacts of climate change, including drought, rising sea level, storm surges and extreme heat.

Resiliency and Adaptation

Resiliency is a community’s sustained ability to use available resources to respond to, withstand and recover from adverse situations. Addressing resiliency and adaptation — the adjustment to changing circumstances — are the primary goals of hazard mitigation and safety planning.

Although addressing resiliency and adaptation may appear to require new plans and processes and threaten to tap already scarce resources, these issues are already part of many cities’ ongoing activities. Adaptation is typically included in any update to plans or budgets. Resiliency has long been a major driver for one of the most important services a city can provide: responding quickly to emergencies and changing situations. Emergency response is now considered a component of resiliency. Cities are incorporating resiliency principles into land-use and policy decisions to reduce and respond to risk — and effectively recover from and adapt to immediate disasters and long-term stressors like climate change.

New Law Expands Hazard Mitigation Requirements

Hazard mitigation is a broad term commonly defined as any action taken to reduce or eliminate the long-term risk to human life and property from natural or human-made hazards. The Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) encourages states and local governments to maintain approved and updated hazard mitigation plans if they want to receive the highest levels of natural disaster relief funding. Local governments must correlate their Local Hazard Mitigation Plans and their General Plan safety elements to integrate safety planning with land-use planning and decisions. The state has required safety elements since 1975 with a focus on reducing death, injuries, property damage and the economic and social impacts of natural hazards.

Cities will soon have more reasons to expand hazard mitigation planning to include climate adaptation and resiliency. A state law (SB 379, Chapter 608, Statutes of 2015) that takes effect Jan. 1, 2017, will require cities and counties to review their safety elements when they update their Local Hazard Mitigation Plans and include climate adaptation and resiliency strategies applicable to each jurisdiction. The state is currently updating its Adaptation Planning Guide, which provides guidance to regional and local communities on how to proactively address the impacts of climate change.

An Integrated Approach

Many cities are already integrating their climate adaptation and hazard mitigation planning efforts to comprehensively address potential community hazards by using existing processes and pooling funding. Dana Brechwald, a resilience planner with the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG), says that most communities complete a Local Hazard Mitigation Plan to ensure eligibility for FEMA benefits and a waiver for the local and state government match required for disaster funding. Projects identified in approved Local Hazard Mitigation Plans are also eligible for FEMA grants.

Because a Local Hazard Mitigation Plan is intended to address all the hazards a community faces, Brechwald says, it can be adapted and expanded to address the specific requirements of these other plans. Assessing hazards and identifying responsive strategies to build resilience all depend on similar planning processes.

ABAG encourages jurisdictions to take an “all hazards approach” and provides technical assistance to encourage communities in its region to integrate Local Hazard Mitigation Plans, safety elements and climate adaptation planning. Even though the Local Hazard Mitigation Plan requirements focus on past and current hazards, and climate action planning and adaptation focus on future hazards, making land-use and policy decisions that support resilience requires a comprehensive look at both current and future hazards. According to Brechwald, sometimes the most challenging part of leveraging existing processes is that each activity, although similar, can have a different lead department or organization with different stakeholders who use different language to describe their similar priorities.

Creating a Thriving Community: From Theory to Action

The City of Berkeley uses this integrated planning and implementation approach. Advancing the city’s resiliency requires working together to identify solutions that have multiple benefits and also address multiple challenges, according to Timothy Burroughs, Berkeley’s chief resilience officer and assistant to the city manager. “Many of the challenges that cities face, such as sea-level rise, drought, aging infrastructure, and racial and social inequity, are interconnected,” says Burroughs. “Our solutions to these challenges must also be interconnected and integrate the diverse input and expertise that exists in our communities.”

This approach builds community resilience by creating strong connections between neighbors; among public, private, nonprofit and academic institutions; among departments within the city government; and between San Francisco Bay Area local and regional governments. “These connections are critical in the event of a disaster, but also lead to more effective problem-solving day to day,” says Burroughs.

For example, Berkeley needed to replace one of its public parking garages. The replacement design offers an example of how one project can meet the criteria of addressing multiple issues and create multiple benefits. The garage will be rebuilt with solar panels and the potential for backup batteries, which can be used on a daily basis to charge electric vehicles, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and reduce energy costs for the garage while advancing clean local energy. The city also received a $1.5 million grant from the California Energy Commission to explore creating a “microgrid” that could isolate the garage’s clean renewable energy in the event of a power disruption and channel it to nearby facilities, such as City Hall or the building where public safety services are located, to ensure that crucial emergency response services stay online. This solution provides multiple environmental, financial and social benefits to the city and makes the community more resilient.

Is Planning Worth It?

The City of Chula Vista took a citywide approach to develop its Climate Adaptation Strategies in 2011. It formed a Climate Change Working Group with residents, business, education, nonprofit and utility representatives and conducted extensive public outreach and engagement over 11 months. The adaptation strategies built on earlier greenhouse gas mitigation plans from 2000 and 2008 and assigned to a variety of city departments activities that included working within the city as well as coordinating actions with public and private entities. Because financial resources were limited, stakeholders worked to select 11 strategies that leveraged existing funding and program resources. These include requiring new home plumbing to allow for the future addition of “gray water” systems and changing the city’s grading ordinance to address sea-level rise.

These actions did not require additional money from the General Fund but will make development in the city more resilient to the anticipated impacts of climate change.  Existing funding sources supported almost 50 percent of the three-year implementation plan. These resources allowed at least some of the components to be fully or partially implemented for each strategy. Although many of the activities in this implementation document were already planned and funded for other purposes, the plan provided an important framework to leverage existing actions in support of the city’s climate and resiliency work and allow for greater collaboration and results.

“Initially the lack of available general funds was seen as a barrier, but it was empowering to learn how many actions we could take with existing resources,” says Chula Vista City Manager Gary Halbert. “These actions help us build the foundation for future funding opportunities and engage stakeholders in thinking about what resiliency means in Chula Vista.”

Building Your City’s Resiliency

“Good strategies for leveraging additional funding include identifying current climate and resiliency policies and activities throughout the city’s departments, highlighting their co-benefits and reaching out to community partners,” says Steve Sanders, sustainability program director for the Institute for Local Government. “Communities that have a plan, developed through a community engagement process, are better prepared to compete for state and nonprofit funding.”

Cities are incorporating adaptation planning to create more resilient communities that can weather current and future challenges and thrive by using existing activities and plans including hazard mitigation planning, General Plans and specific plans, transportation plans, design standards, city council goal setting, the budgeting process and infrastructure investments. This creates new funding opportunities and can help avoid the huge cost of not being prepared when disaster strikes. It also builds a strong foundation for preserving the natural beauty of California and the communities that we call home. 

The Beacon Program

The City of Chula Vista participates in the Institute for Local Government’s Beacon Program, which provides a framework for local governments to share best practices that create healthier, more vibrant and sustainable communities. The program honors voluntary efforts by local governments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, save energy and adopt policies that promote sustainability. For more information about Chula Vista’s best practices, visit For more information about participating in the Beacon Program, visit www.

California Alliance of Regional Collaboratives for Climate Adaptation

The California Alliance of Regional Collaboratives for Climate Adaptation (ARCCA) is a statewide network of regional collaboratives working on climate adaptation as part of an efforts to enhance public health, protect natural systems, build economies and improve the quality of life. Members are public, private and/or nonprofit entities representing a region and committed to preparing the region for the emerging impacts of climate change, such as rising sea level, extreme storm events, wildfires, heat waves and drought. 

Through ARCCA, the five collaboratives share best practices and resources, identify strategies to overcome barriers and challenges, and conduct joint campaigns and projects. ARCCA actively works to advance important adaptation principles by engaging in state policy development, facilitating dialogue between key decision-makers and stakeholders, and creating valuable tools and resources. Visit for more information.

Definitions Related to Resiliency

Safety elements for General Plans are required by state law and describe the portion of the long-term community vision for protecting people and property from hazards. While safety elements can establish the importance of resilience and adaptation planning, the infrequency of their updating can make them less effective in dealing with emerging and constantly changing risks and threats.

Local Hazard Mitigation Plans fulfill state and federal requirements for resilience planning and can assist cities in reducing event response and recovery costs through preparedness. The interlinked nature of cross-departmental actions in a city’s Local Hazard Mitigation Plan is essential for municipal staff to understand in carrying out their diverse but mutually essential responsibilities to ensure public safety.

Climate Action Plans are comprehensive roadmaps that outline the specific activities that an agency will undertake to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate the potential effects of climate change. Although they can include efforts to increase environmental capacity to absorb carbon, such as reforestation, most municipal Climate Action Plans focus on policies and activities that reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Climate Adaptation Plans provide strategies to protect human health and the environment from the potential impacts of local and regional climate changes such as floods, wildfires, landslides, sea level rise, storm surges and changing temperatures. Adaptation plans focus on proactive steps communities can take to protect residents and property and are often used in conjunction with Climate Action Plans.

Sustainability Plans identify near-term actions, tied to the Capital Improvement Program, that help a community reach long-term environmental, community and financial sustainability goals. They can include activities that:

  • Reduce energy use and produce renewable energy,
  • Conserve and reuse water,
  • Promote clean and green tech industries,
  • Require green and healthy building measures,
  • Reduce and divert waste, and
  • Improve active recreation and transportation features.

Related Resources

FEMA funding for communities that have adopted Local Hazard Mitigation Plans

Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) Community Resiliency Program

City of Berkeley Resilience Strategy

City of Berkeley Climate Action Plan

Rockefeller Foundation 100 Resilient Cities

City of Chula Vista Climate Action Plan

City of Chula Vista Climate Adaptation Strategies

ILG Cap and Trade Resource Center

ILG Climate Action Planning Resources

State of California guidance for local climate adaptation planning

The Governor’s Office of Planning and Research is required by law to develop a clearinghouse by Jan. 1, 2017, for climate adaptation information, including information about funding opportunities for adaptation research, planning and projects (SB 246, Wieckowski, Chapter 606, Statutes of 2015).

Hazard Mitigation: Integrating Best Practices into Planning

The American Planning Association (APA) and FEMA collaborated to discuss how planning tools that are the mainstay of the planning professional — such as building codes, zoning, and land-use plans, redevelopment and specific plans — can support hazard mitigation and climate change.

Photo credits: Lowe Llaguno/ (flooding); Kevin Key/ (fire); ARCCA (map)

This article appears in the November 2016 issue of Western City
Did you like what you read here? Subscribe to Western City