Three years after the 2015 Paris Agreement, world leaders are still negotiating a work plan to deliver on the commitments to reduce carbon emissions to alleviate the impacts of climate change. As a result of the lack of direction and resources from federal governments, our local neighborhoods and commercial districts are falling far behind in taking steps to remain resilient through extreme weather events.

In particular, small businesses and retailers that lease ground floor spaces in our downtowns are the most vulnerable entities to events such as flooding, heatwaves, snowstorms, and forest fires. These environmental disasters often impact their supply chains by damaging goods and merchandise, or create barriers to access for customers by inundating streets and causing discomfort to pedestrians.

After Hurricane Florence in October, road closures in and around downtown Conway, SC, forced a local restaurant to stay closed for a few days because delivery trucks had been unable to reach the business to provide supplies. And in 2017, in Ventura and Santa Barbara CA, forest fires had resulted in many vacationers canceling reservations to the beach destinations, according to front desk employees at hotels in the region.

Despite being first responders during emergency situations and major sources of employment for local neighborhoods, many small businesses that have been affected by recent events across the country continue to lack the resources and capacity to implement adaptation and mitigation strategies that prevent future loss and impact. Many have had to turn to crowdsourcing funds or rely on grants from local place- based organizations such as Business Improvement Districts to be able to recover from disasters and to rebuild resiliently.

We discovered the real importance of local businesses as first responders while holding stakeholder interviews for a Market Study we conducted for Mermaid Avenue in Coney Island (NYC). The staff at local pharmacy, Mega Aid, reportedly provided medical assistance and medication to the older, vulnerable population living in NYCHA apartments on Coney Island following Superstorm Sandy in 2011. They were thrust into rescue efforts given that it took several days before anyone else from outside the community could safely reach the area to provide assistance. Unfortunately, as renters of their property, Mega Aid has had to rely on their own resources to rebuild post-Sandy and while they have expanded their store since Sandy, they still lack flood proof infrastructure such as flood gates.

The truth is there is much more that needs to be done in our commercial districts to close the resilience gap by,

  1. Preparing businesses for the impact of rising temperatures and instances of storms, and by
  2. Reducing their greenhouse gas emissions and waste sent to landfill altogether.

From larger investments in public realm improvements (disaster-proof neighborhood WiFi, cool pavements, and street trees) to smaller individual property improvements (dry- and wet- flood proofing) and store operation enhancements (good waste removal practices), our commercial districts can stand to be more resilient against extreme weather events.

Let’s take a look at best practice from cities like Los Angeles, Miami, and New York, where a mix of capital and regulatory strategies have been undertaken to ensure resilience measures enable the survival of small local businesses.

Public Realm Improvements

There is a mix of adaptation and mitigation strategies that can be undertaken in the public realm to make our downtowns and commercial districts more resilient to climate change and its impacts. In terms of adaptation, cities are not only enhancing and constructing large stormwater channeling systems but also investing in simpler strategies such as street trees, bioswales/ rain gardens, disaster-proof WiFi, and cool pavements.

Street Trees

Street trees provide a net cooling effect equivalent to ten room-size air conditioners operating 20 hours a day and much needed shade for pedestrians during warmer months. Street trees also reduce particulates and the amount of dust reaching the ground, creating a healthier, safer, and comfortable environment for customers in a commercial district.

In order to encourage the placement of street trees in neighborhoods and commercial corridors, cities like New York and Los Angeles have established tree planting programs that offer free street trees as requested by property owners and the public. Los Angeles, for example, gives away over 15,000 trees annually.

Bioswale/ Rain Garden

According to the Groundwater Foundation, rain gardens are effective in removing up to 90% of nutrients and chemicals and up to 80% of sediments from rainwater runoff, improving water quality in local waterways. If you’re unfamiliar with rain gardens, they’re simply planted areas designed to collect and manage storm water that runs off streets and sidewalks and are often designed as part of road medians, bulb outs, or public plazas.

To encourage property owners to undertake the construction of rain gardens or any other rainscaping projects, City of St Louis has offered a step-by-step guide and reimbursable grants. The grants, valued up to $3000 each, are applicable in designated areas determined by the City and only awarded to owners of commercial addresses.

Disaster-proof WiFi

During emergency situations, lines of communication can be vital to survival for local residents and business owners. To ensure reliable internet access during storm and flooding events, many neighborhoods and cities have developed weather-proof wireless transmitters or backup modems that allow locals to call for help and get up-to-date information.

Following Superstorm Sandy, the neighborhood of Red Hook in Brooklyn NY began installing wireless transmitters, or nano stations, on rooftops. These stations, maintained by local residents and business owners, provide communication between each station without the use of expensive, accident-prone cables, which are powered by huge solar panels positioned on rooftops.

LinkNYC kiosks installed throughout the City of New York to provide free public wifi are also flood resilient. According to LinkNYC, the kiosks are built on top of a fiber network which is more reliable during emergency events.  Furthermore, the kiosks were designed to be able to operate for 24-48 hours on back up battery power which means that in the event of an emergency or a natural disaster, the backup modems permit users to use the 911 button during a power outage.

Cool Pavements

Pavements cover large surface areas of our downtowns and commercial districts and what many people don’t notice is that conventional paving materials sometimes reach peak temperatures of 120-150°F! As such, to mitigate against heat islands, many cities are now turning to ‘cool pavements’ that reflect solar energy. Cool pavements are created with existing paving technologies such as asphalt and concrete, or with newer approaches using coatings or grass paving.

The City of Los Angeles leads the implementation of this technology as it pilots cool pavements for on-road use.

In addition, to reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions and waste sent to landfill, downtowns are increasingly encouraging alternative modes of transportation with complete street improvements that support walkability and bikeability, and introducing extensive networks of recycling stations and enforcing innovative commercial waste laws.

In New York, for example, all businesses are now required to recycle metal, glass bottles, rigid plastics, beverage cartons, and paper and cardboard following new rules established in 2016. The law is enforced by the Department of Sanitation.

Private Realm/ Individual Property Improvements

When it comes to adapting individual properties to rising temperatures and instances of storms, there are significantly fewer best-in-class practices given the limited resources and capacity of both property owners and tenants.

In Ellicott City MD for example, where two major flood incidents occurred within the span of 24 months, local coffee shop Bean Hollow Café was only able to rebuild its business with the help of neighbors who bridged the gap between insurance coverage and actual rebuilding costs.

Did you know that most residents and businesses in the US are uninsured against environmental disasters? In Miami Beach, for example, only 17% of non-residential buildings carry flood insurance even when about 93% of buildings in the area are located in a Special Flood Hazard Area as determined by FEMA. By comparison, the New Zealand earthquake insurance market has approximately 95% participation rate, which proved fundamental to the ongoing recovery efforts in the City of Christchurch after a magnitude 6.3 earthquake in 2011.

Dry- and Wet- Flood proofing

From flood gates to raised floors and movable shelves, there are myriad structural improvements that can be made to individual properties to adapt to flooding events. These improvements, however, are costly and tenants are often unwilling to invest in such work especially when they are signed on to short leases or occupying spaces on month-to-month leases (a common occurrence for small businesses in NYC, at least). Property owners, on the other hand, have no incentives to make such improvements.

Although NYC’S Department of Small Business Services offered free risk assessments and small grants (up to $3,000) to protect businesses against the event of a disaster following Superstorm Sandy; the program has since depleted its funding. Sadly, many businesses located in Sandy’s inundation and power outage zones still sit unprotected against future flood events.

Bracing and bolting

Likewise, with protections against seismic movements, individual properties need to be retrofitted with bracing around property perimeters and bolting of structures to their foundations. This work can cost anywhere between $3,500 and $5,500, and while the State of California’s Brace & Bolt grant program may help offset the costs, grants are currently only provided to homeowners.

Awnings

During hotter months, shoppers can often be found seeking shade under trees or storefront awnings. Heatwaves cause discomfort in some commercial districts we’ve worked in and the lack of awnings on sidewalks can deter customers from perusing businesses located only one block away.

As temperatures rise, we need to make sure awnings are allowed in commercial districts and made easy to install. Supporting storefront awnings through design guidelines and financial incentives/grants will be crucial to ensuring comfortable shopping environments during warm summer months.

 

While providing financial resources and incentives to property owners may be one way to advance these strategies, we must also demand these changes through zoning, regulatory requirements and building standards. Miami-based land use and zoning attorney and chairman of the new City of Miami Sea Level Rise committee, Wayne Pathman, puts it well when he says “… it’s very hard for a developer or builder to do something the code or government doesn’t require in their zoning or building code”.

Store Operation Enhancements

As we think long-term, there is much more that businesses in commercial districts can do to help reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions and waste sent to landfills (just a few factors of climate change).

Did you know that NYC businesses alone generate 3 million tons of waste per year?

To mitigate the impacts of climate changes, commercial businesses should be minimizing packaging and practicing good waste removal habits such as recycling and segregating food waste. Business owners can also make a dent in energy and water usage by opting for energy-saving and water-saving machinery. After all, these strategies can help drive down the cost of overall store operations by reducing payments for trash pickup and water/energy bills, or increasing tax benefits through food donations.

Although these store operations improvements can reap great benefits, educating business owners must come first in order to ensure stakeholder buy-in and successful implementation. If possible, regulatory changes should also signal to businesses the need for lower greenhouse gas emissions and better waste management practices. In NYC, for example, the city council approved a ban against single-use styrofoam containers. And businesses such as Dunkin Donuts have discontinued its use of styrofoam cups and replaced them with paper cups.

 

In Union Square NY, local business Breads Bakery leads the effort toward zero waste by diverting, recycling, or eliminating about 88% of its waste. Breads Bakery has made back-of-house changes like composting at every food station in its kitchen and sourcing local ingredients at the farmers market, and front-of-house changes such as installing composting/recycling bins for customers, switching to compostable straws, and providing reusable cups for water.

What happens if we don’t help our local businesses build resiliency?

Increasingly, small businesses hurt by environmental disasters are choosing to re-locate to other commercial districts and downtowns to minimize further loss and damage.  Returning to the example of Ellicott City MD, where two major flood incidents occurred within the span of 24 months, businesses have been reported to be ‘less enthusiastic about reopening’. The owner of local coffee shop, Bean Hollow on Main Street, for example already has plans to move her business to nearby town, Catsonville. Other stores seeking new locations following the second flood event include All Time Toys store and Salon Marielle, all locally-serving businesses.

When these businesses relocate, neighborhoods and districts lose important sources of employment and of course convenient goods and services. Furthermore, when not everyone returns to business-as-usual, it will undoubtedly affect the performance of other businesses that have decided to stay.

As we think about ways to prepare ourselves for the changes occurring in our climate, we need to make sure our local small businesses are a part of the conversation, and that they are afforded resources and opportunities to adapt and mitigate. Think about ways to expand storefront and tenant improvement programs to include climate adaptation retrofit. If you’re already funding new awnings and windows for a business located in a flood hazard zone, why not help fund a flood gate?

We are spending billions of dollars rebuilding disaster-damaged properties every time our communities and commercial corridors are hit when we could really be minimizing damage with adaptation work – whether in the public or private realms. After all, resilience is about being ready.

If your commercial district or downtown is leading climate resilience efforts with the support of local businesses, share your best practice with us!