When it comes to action on resilient infrastructure, look to our cities for leadership

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The American building stock as a whole turns over at a rate of only one percent per year. Transformation that takes a century to complete is not transformation. That means the existing building stock needs to be retrofitted for efficiency and resilience—and those retrofits need to be deep.

With the lack of federal leadership, states and cities are where the real action is occurring—making firm commitments to cut carbon emissions and provide a genuinely resilient infrastructure. And that’s happening through transparency, benchmarking, grading and labeling, and smart connected buildings.

New York

In New York, the city’s resilience strategy begins with the premise that buildings must be transformed to consume substantially less energy, dramatically reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, and be resilient to the conditions inherent in threats posed by a changing climate—all within 30 years. A city where the median building age is 90 years—with many predating the city’s first building code in 1938—and with a coastline that exceeds the length of that of Miami, Boston, San Francisco, and Los Angeles combined, New York is actively preparing for changing climate conditions, including more frequent and stronger coastal storms, rapid sea level rise, increasing increased precipitation, and extreme temperature rise.

To reach its goals—which includes an “80×50” plan dictating an 80% reduction in carbon greenhouse gas emissions by achieving carbon neutrality by 2050, the city has deployed programs to retrofit buildings and improve building resilience and sustainability. For example, programs like the Carbon Challenge and the NYC Retrofit Accelerator help building owners streamline energy efficiency retrofits, and now also provide free technical assistance and advisory services for building operators as well as help new construction projects move toward high performance. RetrofitNY, a program from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), enables cost-effective deep energy retrofits of multifamily buildings, without displacing residents. And the Climate Mobilization Act—a package of legislation that was just enacted in April 2019—establishes progressively more stringent emissions caps on New York City’s largest buildings between now and 2050, requires all new and some renovated buildings to feature green roofs or solar systems, and establishes a Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) Program to finance energy efficiency retrofits.

Benchmarking and grading are also playing a critical role in the city’s energy efficiency and carbon emissions reductions strategies. In New York City, all buildings larger than 25,000 square feet are already required to report annual energy and water consumption. But as of October 2020, those buildings must also obtain an Energy Star evaluation and post an “energy grade” at the building entrance. By requiring public awareness of a building’s energy efficiency, current owners are encouraged to make informed decisions regarding capital planning and operation of their buildings to improve performance, and occupants can make better decisions about how to improve the way they use their homes. Potential occupants and future owners are also given a snapshot of a building’s operational condition.

Washington, DC

In Washington, DC, the Clean Energy DC program is working toward ambitious goals by 2032, including reduction of energy use and greenhouse gas emissions by 50%. And by 2050, the city aims to be carbon neutral and climate resilient, including achieving a 50% reduction in energy consumption and drawing 50% of energy (electricity, thermal and transportation) from renewable sources.

Reaching the GHG goals, according to the Green Building and Climate Branch of the Washington, DC, Department of Energy and Environment, will require existing buildings to contribute 20% of the emissions reduction needed between now and 2050; the overall target will be reached through a combination of deep retrofits and new building energy standards. Existing buildings will improve performance through the implementation of a Building Energy Performance Standard, and new buildings will, by 2026, adopt a net zero energy building code.


Pittsburgh, which is home to one of the oldest building stocks in the country, is facing resilience challenges not only as a water-front community but also in terms of residents leaving the city for the suburbs, requiring new ways of thinking about efficient—and less costly—building energy use and reducing the resulting GHGs.

But the city of Pittsburgh is in the process of undergoing a transformation. It has been a part of 100 Resilient Cities, which has been helping cities deploy resilience strategies to adapt to 21st century changes in climate, population, and economy. It also is one of the largest 2030 Districts in the world—having committed more than 84 million square feet toward 50% reductions in energy use, water consumption, and transportation emissions by 2030, while also improving indoor air quality.

Cities are moving forward with climate goals at an unprecedented rate. Together with strategies to make their infrastructure more resilient to climate shocks, that movement finds its greatest opportunity in existing buildings.

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