Perched over a harbour across from the bright lights of Vancouver’s city centre, a massive new residential development is pushing the boundaries of what it means to be climate resilient.
The development, called North Harbour, is being built by developer Concert Properties in North Vancouver to a set of novel standards that will mitigate against sea level rise and storm surge.
The new requirement is for the project to be raised 4.5 metres above sea level, well over a metre above the previous requirement. None of the building’s mechanical equipment will be installed below ground, which is the norm, to prevent damage from flooding.
“I think with this site, we really were on the leading edge of thinking about what the next chapter of planning for sea level rise looked like in British Columbia,” says Michael Epp, the director of planning for the City of North Vancouver.
The North Harbour project is a prominent example of a paradigm shift in civic planning to make cities and communities more weather-resistant. The storm that barrelled through Atlantic Canada last weekend swallowed homes in its fury, and was just the latest reminder of the power of nature to eat away at coastlines in the blink of an eye.
Because of climate disasters, insurers, municipal governments, developers and ordinary Canadians are waking up to the real cost of inaction.
A report released today by the Canadian Climate Institute concludes that damage from climate change will take a $25 billion bite out of the economy each year. Then there are costs to health, jobs and overall wellbeing, all of which will suffer as “heat-induced productivity losses and premature deaths shrink the workforce,” the report finds.
In other words, climate change takes a toll not just on the economy, but also on our overall health and well-being.
For city planners in North Vancouver, the flooding that washed out much of Calgary in 2013 was their teachable moment. It forced them to rethink how to deal with rising water and to plan ahead for climate scenarios all the way to the end of the century.
But the unfortunate reality, says Jesse Keenan, a professor of real estate at Tulane University in New Orleans, is that it often takes a disaster where you live to make change happen. The other problem is that information that would otherwise help make better decisions is simply lacking.
“One thing we don’t know in Canada very much about is the benefits of investing in flood mitigation,” says Jason Thistlethwaite, an expert in climate adaptation at the University of Waterloo.
His research has found that just six per cent of residents who live in flood-risk areas know they do, and the majority, 81 per cent, have not reviewed their local flood area maps.
“It’s difficult to imagine a property owner who’s desperately seeking a house to prioritize something like flood risk over, let’s say, a granite countertop or various fixtures in their home,” he said.
But the importance of getting a clear climate risk picture is becoming just as obvious as a home inspection or a study of an apartment’s sightlines.
In the United States, at least $108 billion in real estate valuation is at risk of literally going underwater, according to Don Bain, a senior advisor at Climate Central, a non-profit that looks at the impact of climate change on people’s lives.
“By mid-century,” he concludes in a recent report, “more than 648,000 individual tax parcels, totalling as many as 4.4 million acres, are projected to be at least partly below the relevant tidal boundary level.”
The world is starting to appreciate that there is a financial and health cost associated with polluting the atmosphere with reckless abandon.
“We’re at a phase where the capital markets are really beginning to understand this as a risk,” says Spenser Robinson, a professor of finance and real estate at Central Michigan University.
Large regulatory bodies like the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, he says, are proposing more stringent disclosure laws so that people understand the dangers associated with a range of financial products, including real estate.
But climate-risk factors, Robinson says, have yet to trickle down to the general investor level, and they need to.
“Right now, this is kind of some opaque black box concept that the average consumer can’t really understand.”
To address that, some real estate firms are starting to flag climate risk much like they do walkability scores.
For example, realtor.com has started putting environmental risk scores on some of its home listings.