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Silicon sinking city: the existential threat facing tech

Leading tech cities also happen to offer the greatest exposure to environmental threats. So what can city leaders do to protect people, buildings, reputation and revenue? Anna White reports

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London flooded, manipulated photo by Getty Images
London flooded, manipulated photo by Getty Images

A wave of climate change protests has swept across the world’s leading cities this year.


Three people glued themselves to a train in London’s Canary Wharf in April, while protesters in Brisbane blocked coal trains. In New York environmental activists staged a sit-in during the US midterms in the now-house leader Nancy Pelosi’s office and in Sydney thousands of school children went on strike.


These acts of civil disobedience have been well-planned, peaceful, and sometimes humorous – potted trees and a pink yacht were used as road blockades in London.


However, they took place against a backdrop of extreme and devastating weather events that prove the climate change point more viscerally than any semi-naked interruption of parliamentary proceedings.


In May, one million people were evacuated as Cyclone Fani slammed into the low-lying eastern coast of India, just two months after Mozambique’s Beira bore the brunt of Cyclone Idai. The city port was plunged into a full-blown humanitarian crisis.


Learn how to design resilient cities at Risk & Resilience on 8 November


The scale and frequency of such crises are set to increase. The burgeoning middle classes and the internationally mobile tech work force are flooding the world’s top cities just as the frequency and ferocity of extreme events intensifies. People in densely populated urban areas will become sitting ducks to climate change.


Climate change could reduce the value of financial assets by $2.5tn, and this number could increase 10-fold in a worst-case scenario


In fact, the United Nations forecasts that 68% of the world’s population will live in cities by 2050, up from 55%, driven mostly by the rural to urban movement in Asia and Africa.


There is an overlap between some of the leading tech cities and those with the greatest exposure to environmental threats. So what can city leaders do to protect people, buildings, reputation and revenue?


“Private capital is now chasing responsible investment opportunities,” says Basil Demeroutis, managing partner at FORE Partnership. Tech cities facing climate change still offer good returns, but also heightened risk.



Flooding near Austin, Texas (Picture: Getty)
Flooding near Austin, Texas (Picture: Getty)

As Earth heats up, so too does the frequency and severity of hurricanes, tornados, storm surges, flooding, heatwaves, droughts and wildfire, and new evidence suggests that climate change could also trigger more volcanic eruptions and earthquakes. In 2018, around 50 volcanoes of 1,500 active ones blew their top.


Professor Bill McGuire, an academic at UCL Earth Sciences, writes: “The thin layer of gases that hosts the weather and fosters global warming really does interact with the solid earth – the so-called geosphere – in such a way as to make climate change an even bigger threat.”


Research out of the Institute of Earth Sciences at Taipei’s Academia Sinica links typhoons ripping across Taiwan and the timing of small earthquakes beneath the island. An earthquake fault that is primed and ready to go is like a coiled spring and “all that is needed to set it off is quite literally the pressure of a handshake” – to coin a favourite phrase of geophysicist John McCloskey.


Taipei is the city with the highest economic exposure to natural threats between 2015 and 2025, where $137.69bn is at risk from typhoons, earthquakes, flooding and landslides, according to property group Savills.


The city with the second-highest exposure is Tokyo ($99.38bn), which also sits on the Savills 2019 Tech Cities ranking. Tokyo is 13th of the top 20 cities as measured by inflows of venture capital investment in the tech space, appeal to tech giants and young talent, and how successfully it nurtures start-ups into unicorns and vibrancy as a place to live and work.

Hong Kong is the seventh most at-risk city, particularly to storms, floods and wildfires. It is vulnerable to tropical cyclones between May and November each year, and is the 20th city on the tech index and has one of the world’s highest-value luxury property sectors.


The 2018 wildfire season in California was its deadliest and most destructive on record. The National Interagency Fire Center forecasts a new wave of wildfires to hit the northern part of the state this year. At what point will the worsening annual wildfires become an investment deterrent?


A fifth of London, which has one of the highest-value luxury property quarters, is a vast flood plain. Miami is drowning and yet condos are still being built on the water’s edge. In 2016, the realtor Zillow predicted that one out of eight homes in Florida would be underwater by 2100, a loss of $413bn of property.


Apply this to the entire planet and climate change could reduce the value of financial assets by $2.5tn, and this number could increase 10-fold in a worst-case scenario. 

In the event of a one-in-30-year storm, nearly 70,000 residential properties in London will be at risk of flooding and 12,000 commercial buildings

Sadiq Khan is counting on eco-investors to get behind his draft London Plan to future-proof the city. 


In the event of a one-in-30-year storm, nearly 70,000 residential properties in the UK capital will be at risk of flooding and 12,000 commercial buildings.
“As a growing city, London faces increasing pressure on housing, infrastructure, services, environment, and Londoners’ well-being and prosperity. Climate change will increase these existing pressures. It will make flooding more frequent and severe, threaten water resources, and increase the risk of overheating for buildings and infrastructure,” the draft of the London Plan reads. 
It cites four interwoven urban systems that are at risk of failure when under pressure – transport, health, energy and water. The reality includes the buckling of train tracks, healthy young adults suffering heat stress on the underground, the spread of the Legionnaires’ disease and city-wide power cuts.


Seemingly simple architectural changes can achieve a lot. Green roofs and walls will insulate buildings, supply biodiversity, help reduce flood risk, improve air quality, regulate energy demand, cool buildings, store rainwater and increase the efficiency of solar panels. 
However, only stock from certain eras lends itself to transformation into resilient eco-structures. 


“Offices from the 1980s were very lightweight with rib deck [industrial correlated roofing] and very reliant on mechanical services – so they are difficult to reuse in a meaningful way,” says Peter Fisher, director at Bennetts Associates. “Buildings from the 1960s – underneath the flimsy cladding – are pretty robust and you can knock them about, the same with the well-built properties from the Georgian period.” 


Economic exposure to natural threats in US dollars (Lloyds of London and Savills)

1. Taipei, Taiwan
GDP at risk

2. Tokyo, Japan

3. Manila, Philippines 

4. Seoul, South Korea

5. Shanghai, China

6. Osaka, Japan

7. Hong Kong

8. Istanbul, Turkey

9. Mexico City, Mexico

10. Lima, Peru
Swathes of Manchester, the City of London and business parks that date back to the 1980s are difficult to repurpose, he adds.
Using blinds will protect from solar glare, reducing the need for air conditioning and keeping rooms cool. Reflective paint helps bring down the temperature of a busy bus. 
“Our buildings need to be passive and simplified and we need to leave behind the generation that is still over-glazing,” says Fisher.
Khan’s plan references tree pits – trenches of planted trees designed to catch excess storm water, a technique used widely in Stockholm. As well as sucking up the water, the trees also use the oxygen from the rainwater and stop pools of trapped water becoming stagnant. 
Multibillion-pound infrastructure projects are also underway. The £4bn Thames Tideway super-sewer is being designed deep below the river bed to collect and transport waste that is currently spilling into the river from the overloaded Victorian sewers. A new reservoir will be built outside London and water companies will be regulated against major bursts, and a new water reuse plant will be erected in east London (Beckton) by the 2060s.


“Force a river or sea into ever higher, tighter walls and you risk merely displacing a flood to create destruction elsewhere”

The London Plan also emphasises the need for communication that prepares people for storms, droughts and heatwaves, especially considering the disproportionate and unfair impact of weather on the vulnerable. 
“The draft London Plan has kick-started a competition in the UK for regional cities to tackle climate change, with Manchester and Birmingham now putting resilience at the heart of its masterplanning,” Fisher adds. 
Hamburg is a step ahead. When its industrial docklands HafenCity was reimagined as the ‘new downtown’ it was designed to let the water in.
Germany’s second-largest city is one of the most environmentally conscious communities in the world. Every would-be developer has to sign an agreement saying they will build to the Gold standard, the European equivalent of LEED Platinum. Buildings are energy efficient, there is a high proportion of green roofs and solar panels, and the area obtains 92% of its energy from renewable sources. 
Made vulnerable by its low-lying location at the tidal mouth of the River Elbe, a project is underway to raise 103 kilometres of the levees around the city by 2.6 feet to keep creeping tides and seasonal high waters at bay. However, the walls are being built further inland.
This will create a new floodplain of water meadows to act as a sponge when the river spills over, allowing the Elbe to safely breath its banks. 
“Force a river or sea into ever higher, tighter walls and you risk merely displacing a flood to create destruction elsewhere,” writes European reporter Fergus O’Sullivan. 
Paul Tostevin, cities expert at Savills, adds: “HafenCity public realm has been designed to flood and be easily cleared up afterwards to draw the water away from the buildings.”
Copenhagen is also fighting flooding with flooding. Existing city parks were lowered so that when a storm strikes, the city’s green spaces can store plenty of water, keeping it away from residents’ basements.


City planners call them pocket parks, each connected to the harbour by surrounding streets where the pavements have been raised, leaving the middle as a shallow canal (or ‘cloudburst boulevards’) draining the temporary parks-turned-ponds. 
By concentrating wealth in urban centres, cities are increasing their exposure to the impact of natural disasters, intensified by climate change. 
Some cities, categorised as emerging or new world in investment terms, have an inherent resilience to such risk. While certain traditional investment centres have to work harder to maintain revenue and talent flows, the likes of Stockholm – a low disaster risk – are becoming more attractive. 
“Located away from earthquakes, droughts, famines, volcanoes, tornados and other global hazards, Stockholm is a resilient city to natural disasters,” says Tostevin. Only $2bn of GDP is at risk until 2025 and “this innovative city offers residents a high quality of life and an enviable work-life balance”, he adds. 
Other cities harness their surroundings. Iceland’s Reykjavik, with a high concentration of volcanoes, is the global centre for renewable energy research. Geothermal heating is responsible for around 95% of heating in the city and hydroelectricity provides all of its electricity. It aims to become completely fossil fuel-free by 2050. 
Benign environments in a rapidly changing world may yet become an important factor to investors and the global workforce.
“Developers and communities should view this [resilience] as more than just regulatory compliance,” says Roger Savage, director at consultancy Atkins Acuity. “There’s value to be created with environmentally responsive design of built and outside space.”

Anna White is a journalist, copywriter and communications consultant. She was head of property at the Telegraph Media Group and has worked for KPMG, PricewaterhouseCoopers and Ernst & Young.



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