Norfolk: A Resilient City Taking Action

As a historic coastal city, Norfolk, Virginia has long learned to live with water. The city has always been vulnerable to flooding, but recent trends are no longer business as usual. Normal tide levels have risen 1.5 feet over the last hundred years and Norfolk is experiencing the fastest sea level rise of any place on the East Coast.

Rising sea levels and recurrent flooding remain a major and present threat. Coastal cities such as Norfolk understand that living with water means mitigating hazards, preparing for rising sea levels, and strengthening response and recovery plans. They also understand that living with water means economic opportunity and an attractive quality of life. That is why Norfolk, as part of their resilience strategy, is working to create the coastal community of the future and tackle its risks directly, and collaboratively.

As part of their broad-ranging resilience building efforts, the city has engaged everyone from local community groups to global experts to better understand its risks and its strengths—and it is already paying off in terms of investment and innovation.

The city of Norfolk partnered with Sandia National Labs, a federally funded energy research lab and a 100 Resilient Cities Platform Partner, to conduct an in-depth analysis of the city’s vulnerability to storm surge and better understand the economic impact and infrastructure interdependencies that a big storm event would have on Norfolk, the region, and the country. As a member city, Norfolk has leveraged valuable resources, tools and services, such as those offered by Sandia, to enhance its resilience building efforts. Sandia’s study was designed to simulate flooding scenarios and help support the case for action. Norfolk is taking action in several ways, including working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to develop holistic and integrated flood mitigation efforts that will strengthen the region and inform future investment.

In addition, with a deeper, data-driven understanding of their city’s risk – and how key areas and members of their community could be affected – Norfolk is promoting resilience thinking throughout its community. Apps like Helping Hands, developed in conjunction with local firms to provide emergency information and connection to residents, help Norfolk turn every citizen into a water manager. Through resilience thinking, every member of the community can be part of the solution.

Norfolk will host 100RC’s first Tactical Resilience workshop with The Street Plans Collaborative (Street Plans) which uses short-term, low-cost projects, like pop-up parks and bikeways, to create lasting change in cities. The event will focus on parcel-level scalable storm water retention techniques and community based alley activation. During this hands-on workshop, residents will find out what they can do now to help reduce flooding and how they can become active participants in a citywide, systemic approach to water management.

Norfolk’s efforts to build its resilience to a variety of possible risks are proving to have important effects on the city outside of flood mitigation directly and outside of the city boundaries. As Norfolk’s resilience strategy describes: “solutions to flooding can positively drive economic activity; innovative water management practices can be used to reconnect neighborhoods and drive economic vitality; and networks designed to ensure citizen safety during disruptive events can build neighborhood cohesion when the skies are blue.” Norfolk’s strategy views their challenges as opportunities to evolve in resilient ways and make lasting change.

Ratings agencies are increasingly weighing and studying the effects of developments related to the changing climate. In a report, Moody’s encouraged cities to continue investing and working to develop resilience-boosting strategies, recognizing 100RC’s partnership with Norfolk as a component of mitigating potential credit risks for the city and the whole Hampton Roads region. Resilient thinking and planning in Norfolk are stabilizing credit worthiness for the region.

Finally, one of the most exciting recognitions of Norfolk’s efforts came in January, when the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development through its National Disaster Resilience Competition (NDRC) awarded $120 million to support projects laid out in Norfolk’s resilience strategy.

Building the resilient coastal city of the future will not be easy. But Norfolk is not wasting any time. With strong local leadership that led to Norfolk being the third city in the world to hire a CRO and launch a resilient strategy, Norfolk is taking its challenges head-on and helping to lead a global movement to build urban resilience.