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  • Dr. Marcus Moench

Is Boulder Resilience - or Not?


With support from the Rockefeller Foundation supported 100 Resilient Cities initiative, Boulder has just hired a “Chief Resilience Officer.” At the same time, as we approach the first anniversary of the September 2013 floods, discussions on resilience in the city and county are gaining momentum. As a result, it’s important to take stock of where we are.

Boulder is a resilient city. We are rapidly springing back from the flooding. During the floods neighborhoods pulled together to help each other and the city’s emergency response teams responded quickly to a situation both larger and different from any they had previously envisioned. Although most roads to the mountains washed out, we didn’t lose our water supply or wastewater system, power was only out for a few hours and communications systems continued to function. The bike-paths and parks along Boulder creek functioned as floodways. Their presence and the very limited loss of life reflected early visionary leadership on the part of individuals, such as Gilbert White, coupled with the efforts of the city and county administrations over decades to develop and implement plans, enforce codes, and purchase open-space. None of this could have been achieved in the absence of a supportive and engaged community. We’re resilient, or are we?

We came far closer to losing both our water supply and wastewater system during the floods than most people know [1]. If it weren’t for luck and very proactive “out of the box” responses by water supply and wastewater system managers the city would have had to evacuate or, at minimum, face far higher levels of long-term disruption. The floods weren’t the ones we’d planned for. Flows down Boulder creek, while large, were at levels that recur perhaps every 25 years; not the 100-year or 1000-year “big flood.” Instead it was the hillsides and small creeks along the Front Range that carried the brunt of the storm impacts ripping out roads and causing unanticipated disruption across broad areas. The capacity of our wastewater system was quickly overwhelmed, flooding basements and contaminating floodwaters. While we’ve managed to repair the roads so that they are passable and both the water and wastewater systems function, very little has been done to address the underlying vulnerabilities of the lifeline water, wastewater and transport systems on which we all depend.

At the household level, recovery is also slow. The most obvious impacts are on those who actually lost homes and either remain in temporary accommodation or have moved away. While some people have rebuilt, others have been unable to. Far more homeowners now carry additional debt incurred when they had to repair flooded basements or replace lost items. The impact on renters was probably as great or greater – lots of basement apartments lost or at least the occupants had to relocate or live in substandard accommodations. Some landlords didn’t do much for their renters. Displaced Hispanic families are having a hard time finding anyone who will rent to them. The impacts on them, the gaps between what FEMA or insurance cover and the costs of recovery, are hidden from public view. Similar impacts are the hidden contradictions between zoning, codes, and realities on the ground. How do you rebuild a home or the bridge to your land when the creek has moved, the flood zone is unclear, and a hydraulic flow study mandated by regulatory organizations would cost tens of thousands of dollars on top of already unaffordable reconstruction costs? What do you do if, as has happened to our neighbors, you moved into Boulder having lost your house to fire the previous year and are now facing a long process to reconstruct following the flood? As a community, we don’t even know who we’ve lost, nor do most people care. Families in the bottom tier may have moved out and almost no one would notice unless they happened to clean your house or do your yard-work or be in your child’s class at school. And you might not even notice then.

The individuals facing such challenges are resilient. They take one step at a time and complete the tasks immediately before them. The toll adds up however. Now, almost a year after the floods, many are still very much in the process of recovery. In a similar manner, Boulder is resilient but the real costs of events such as the flood are often both very real and hidden from public view.

So what is resilience? Is it just the ability to withstand an event such as the Boulder flood and recover, or is it something more? This is the challenge Boulder’s new Chief Resilience Officer and those working on long term recovery from the flood will have to answer. After all, the flood isn’t Boulder’s only challenge. Fires have had a devastating impact on mountain communities and could easily affect the city itself. Other hazards, such as extreme heat events, are likely as climate changes. As a result, resilience is important…but what is it really? Definitions vary. According to the main academic group working on social and ecological systems, resilience is “the ability to absorb disturbances, to be changed and then to re-organize and still have the same identity (retain the same basic structure and ways of functioning). It includes the ability to learn from the disturbance. A resilient system is forgiving of external shocks.”[2] When applied to cities, the Rockefeller Foundation defines a resilient city slightly differently. A resilient city is one that: “delivers basic needs; safeguards human life; protects, maintains and enhances assets; facilitates human relationships and identity; promotes knowledge; defends the rule of law, justice and equity; supports livelihoods; stimulates economic prosperity.” More commonly, resilience is generally defined in terms of the ability to spring back from disruption or to withstand and recover from stress. Daniel Homsey, the Director of San Francisco’s community resilience programs, talks very simply of resilience in terms of lifeline systems (water, power, communications, food and health) and relationships. To him, a resilient community is one where people know each other and can help each other in times of need and where lifeline systems won’t fail in any major event.

Boulder has mixed scores in relation to all of the above definitions. While as a city we have to a large extent recovered from the floods, many individuals, households and businesses have yet to do so. More importantly, there are clear areas where we skirted larger failures more by luck than due to any inherent resilience in our systems or communities. Failure of the power system, for example, would have knocked out water supplies, eliminated our ability to treat sewage, and hamstrung emergency operations. At present, Boulder residents have (?) little ability to affect how our power system is designed and operated or the sources of energy it depends on. As a result, the resilience of one of the most fundamental infrastructure systems we depend on is out of our control. Equally importantly, the degree to which Boulder as a community has really “learned” from the floods is open to question. Homes are generally being repaired using the same materials and approaches as before; roads, bridges and sewer systems are being repaired in ways that aren’t fundamentally any more resilient than before. Many communities, particularly those that experienced little direct impact from the flood, have moved on and aren’t actively engaged in debates over the on-going recovery or what could be done to respond either to the risks we’ve already experienced or those we are likely to face.

The upcoming anniversary of the flood and the resilience summit that is being planned represent an opportunity to reinvigorate discussion around pathways to adapt to the challenges Boulder faces. In some cases transformative approaches may be essential. It’s difficult to build resilience in infrastructure systems such as energy or sewage treatment that are not modular and depend in fundamental ways on large-scale interconnected components. Municipalization of energy, as Boulder is considering, could be one avenue for increasing resilience. Equally importantly, speaking as a long-term resident, building resilience may require strengthening or re-creating the connections that define Boulder and different areas within it as part of a community. This could require increased attention to equity – as a community we’re unaffordable and depend heavily on commuters to fill many jobs. To some extent Boulder also appears rigid – we expect the city to serve us without recognizing that as individuals, families and businesses we also need to bear part of the responsibility and contribute to the wider community. Finally, it’s unclear how flexible Boulder really is. We don’t, for example, have clear strategies for responding to the challenges that will emerge as our population ages. Rethinking elements of communities, the systems we depend on and the institutions that govern us may increasingly be essential.

Such changes would transform the basic nature of the systems and community connections we depend on. They could enable adaptation to evolving climatic conditions while also building resilience to a much wider range of change processes and potential disruptive events.



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