We’ve got urgent learning to do about building climate resilience into our communities


By Hannah McShane


Losing power means much more than sitting in the dark. Without gas or another fuel source, it also means no heating and no way to cook food. If local pumping stations fail there may not be water to drink, cook or wash with. Internet and telecoms can go down, cutting off contact with the outside world and increasing the isolation and vulnerability for those already at risk.

Earlier this month a major storm hit the North East coast of Britain with winds of 98mph. (To put that into perspective, hurricane classification starts at 74 mph.) Around a quarter of a million homes across the North of England and Scotland lost power. Homes were damaged and huge swathes of forest felled while the northern power grid experienced the worst damage to its infrastructure in 20 years. Lives were lost. And a week later, tens of thousands of homes were still without power.

I was one of those affected. And working as I do on embedding climate action into housing planning and design, seeing the human impact of mass infrastructure failure so close to home reminded me all over again of the urgent need for all of us practitioners in the built environment to re-assess our approach on tackling extreme weather and mitigating against its impact.

We know extreme weather events are becoming more common. As global temperatures continue to rise and affect weather patterns, extreme weather events are expected to increase in frequency and intensity. We cannot stand still with this knowledge in front of us. We have to make sure that we are building mitigation into our every project. We are already doing this with measures such as flood risk, currently considered at various project stages from acquisition to planning. But that’s not enough: In the UK extreme weather also comes in the form of heat waves, cold spells, drought and strong winds and storms, each requiring consideration throughout the project lifecycle.

As a starting principle for this work, practitioners must remember that one size does not fit all. An example that came to light during the storms: Installing air source heat pumps, reliant on electricity, as a household’s only source of heat. This has left households extremely vulnerable during the recent storms, and often reliant on temporary gas or diesel solutions for heat. There’s simply no point installing renewable energy technologies where extreme weather will drive households back to carbon emitting solutions. We have to work through the issues point by point and scenario by scenario.

As we push towards zero carbon, we must also remember that our communities need resources to tackle the symptoms of climate change. In my small community in Northumberland we are lucky to have neighbours who check in, local businesses offering support and regular updates and communications from the infrastructure providers and local leadership. Despite this, we were unprepared for the extreme weather we experienced. The power of the storms trapped us inside our homes, while the roads were impassable and telecoms failed, leaving communications with the wider community impossible. A community emergency plan (CEP) is one place-based intervention that would have offered us the tools to plan for and respond appropriately in an emergency. Crucially, a CEP identifies local resources available to assist in times when emergency response units are stretched and coordinates the local response, supporting communities to become more resilient in the face of extreme weather events.

I’ll end with an ode to community spaces – not just nice to have or a space to build social capital, but a vital piece of infrastructure when the climate threatens our community cohesion. Over recent weeks, my local community spaces have become welfare hubs, offering warmth, hot food and drink and a place to connect. They became provision centres where local people could stock up on candles, batteries, logs and bottled water to see them through the next night without power. Always a central hub, these spaces became vital to our survival in extreme weather. It’s vital they should be part of every housing plan and their new importance understood as such we design new places – whether garden villages, town extensions or city centre masterplans.

The road towards climate change adaptation and mitigation is paved with good intentions. It’s vital that in pressing forward with new ideas and solutions we keep testing and learning so we can gather the knowledge and understanding to ensure that our actions always improve community resilience. We can’t afford to keep finding ourselves underprepared and ill-equipped for the new climate enveloping us.