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Building for people, not disasters

Talk of resilience in commercial real estate often centers around flood protection. I’m not sure that’s new or novel, but it certainly is practical in a world where floods are more frequent and severe, insurers are raising premiums on assets prone to flood, and investors balk at the notion of investing in flood-prone markets.

What does “resilience” mean to real estate?

But resilience is applied well beyond flooding. One of the more interesting applications is demographic resilience, the idea that a real estate asset could be a bulwark against cultural homogeneity, food scarcity, educational marginalization, or concrete saturation.

How? By moving towards mixed-use developments that integrate community living, outdoor recreation, learning, and sustainable food production. If it sounds utopian or unrealistic, think about chefs clipping from their rooftop herb garden or the trendy new mixed-use developments that have live, work, and play under one roof.

Now it’s starting to sound like the not-so-distant future. The Westfield Mall by my house in San Diego is an example. Apartments co-located with a retail center that includes exercise, vocational schools, the obligatory hipster coffee shop as a hub for community engagement, and even multi-modal public transport to boot.

Is this a model for real estate development (or redevelopment) that makes the asset more “resilient” economically, culturally, environmentally? I think so.

It’s more about how we build than what we build. We can build a bunker that could withstand a thousand year flood, but would people in that bunker thrive? Probably not. We have an opportunity to create an environment where we’re resilient to the environment while building a sustainable community in the process. (Read more on smart cities)

While resilience is a key pillar of sustainability, my takeaway is that it’s most interesting as a design philosophy: less about building walls to hold back the floods and more about building bridges between interdependent human requirements.

So, let’s see how many bridges we can build.