URI, Providence Resilience Partnership mobilizing city to protect infrastructure from climate change threats

KINGSTON, R.I. – March 29, 2021 – The University of Rhode Island and the newly-formed Providence Resilience Partnership are mobilizing business and civic leaders in the city of Providence to advocate for urgent action on infrastructure improvements in response to the growing threats from climate change.

A report written by Pam Rubinoff, associate coastal manager for URI’s Coastal Resources Center and Rhode Island Sea Grant, identified numerous vulnerabilities the city faces, including risks from storm surge, sea level rise and extreme rain events, that will increase in the next decade to unmanageable levels without immediate action.

“One of the key findings is that the city’s vulnerabilities affect different places and different people in different ways,” said Rubinoff. “The port area will face increasing concerns from storm surge; downtown is the lowest lying area and is already facing nuisance flooding that’s going to get worse; and the Woonasquatucket River is facing a variety of watershed and riverine issues. Social systems are at risk, small businesses are at risk, and infrastructure is at risk.”

The report combines information from dozens of previous studies and identifies topics that require further examination. It notes, for instance, that the lack of a single predictive flooding model that incorporates future climate conditions—like increased precipitation, coastal and river flooding, and rising seas—together with the hurricane barrier dynamics is an impediment to data-driven investment and decisions.

“Building resiliency means learning to manage the risks climate change will bring; it means learning to act rather than react to what we know is coming. It starts with assessing vulnerability and proceeds with taking action to limit the risks,” Rubinoff said. “The research revealed the broad and deep work already completed by city and state governments, from advocacy groups and in communities. This report synthesizes these resources and provides a foundation to build upon.”

The Providence Resilience Partnership was born from a forum of business and civic leaders hosted by URI and Brown University in 2019. Discussion about the city’s vulnerabilities inspired many of the attendees to form the partnership and mobilize the city to respond to the impending threats.

The Partnership believes that federal funding will soon become available to address critical infrastructure needs stemming from climate change. To receive funding, the city must plan now for the projects that will buffer against the most serious effects. Therefore, the Partnership is developing a list of 10 priority infrastructure projects, with input from scientists, engineers, planners, philanthropists and others.

“Our big mission is to make sure that we have an actual list of infrastructure projects that could be a focal point for public officials,” said Paul Tencher, an adviser to the Partnership and an adjunct faculty member in URI’s Harrington School of Communications and Media. “That list will include the things we need in the short term to prepare for climate resiliency and adaptation, things we need to protect the city and help it thrive. It will be a starting point so we can have a city-wide mobilization.”

The list of priority projects is expected within three months.

URI faculty and staff from a variety of disciplines have had a significant role in supporting resilience efforts in Providence over the past several years. Rubinoff and her colleagues at the Coastal Resources Center have been helping communities address coastal hazards for more than two decades, and together with others in Rhode Island have developed a number of tools that will support the Partnership’s mission. Initiatives by URI faculty and students with expertise in storm modeling, hurricane forecasting, port planning, ocean engineering, economics, landscape architecture and other fields provide significant contribution to the advances made to date and support future resilience efforts in Providence and statewide.

Due to the location of URI’s Nursing Education Center and its Providence Campus, the University also faces risks from climate change factors in the city center.

“The good news is that those facilities won’t be affected over the next several decades by rising seas, and they are behind the hurricane barrier, protected from storm surge,” Rubinoff said. “But in the longer term, that’s going to be an issue. In 50 years, there’s going to be over two feet of sea level rise with daily high tide flooding the area, and potentially impacts to the barrier structure.”

To read a copy of the report, visit the Providence Resilience Partnership’s website at www.providenceresilience.org.