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Is your city resilient? The Urbane Franchisor suggests a check


Photo by Nicholas Upton

Business owners and operators rightly think of themselves as a resilient bunch, generally ready for anything and unfazed by the unexpected. But sometimes problems are bigger than any individual or company, as we starkly witnessed while two U.S. states buckled from simultaneous natural disasters, and then Puerto Rico was battered by Hurricane Maria.

In each case, low-lying Florida swamplands, poorly designed sprawl in Houston and Puerto Rico’s creaky electrical grid exacerbated the impacts of these powerful storms, calling attention to a new buzzword in urban planning: resilience.

While sustainability is now commonly applied in companies and cities, urban resilience is a newer term that relates to the capacity of businesses, institutions, infrastructure and entire communities to adapt and survive chronic stresses or acute shocks, whatever they may be.

It pays to invest in thoughtfully planned, resilient cities, especially compared with the alternative of picking up pieces time and again in places that aren’t adequately prepared for a world of increasingly frequent hurricanes, droughts, floods, wildfires, blizzards, along with new-age concerns like cyber attacks, violent protests, high unemployment or mass migration.  

Hurricane Irma

The recent hurricanes prove resilience planning is crucial for both companies and municipalities. Above, Jersey Mike’s franchisees near Palm Beach assist in the Florida Keys after Hurricane Irma.

Given the costs of an entire market falling offline for days, weeks or months following a catastrophic event, franchisors and franchisees need to add resiliency into the plans when evaluating new or existing trade areas. Shock events are becoming increasingly frequent as we’ve recently seen, with 500-year droughts, fires and floods all occurring within the same decade, or even year in some cases.

Nobody is immune

Vivid examples of resilience can be found in cities across the country. In the wake of Katrina, the federal government invested billions in new seawalls, dikes and water pumps around New Orleans. After Sandy, New York replaced former island neighborhoods with coastal wetlands to blunt the impacts of the next storm. California has invested mightily in water conservation following its epic multi-year drought. Miami is combining reforms in transportation, economic equality and aging infrastructure as it seeks to prepare for steadily rising seas.

Without such efforts, which are highly collaborative and often challenging to enact, these areas that are home to more than 67 million Americans would be drastically less attractive for future investment, and possibly even uninsurable.

How do your city’s preparations stack up?

“Recent disasters have really shown how reliant we all are on these networked infrastructure and different interconnected systems,” said Sara Meerow, assistant professor at Arizona State University’s School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning. “No one is immune to these challenges and it’s really important if you’re going to be based in a city that you understand those linkages between environmental, technical and social systems, and how those different components are going to be able to withstand different shocks.”

As Puerto Rico illustrates, aging infrastructure can morph from a creeping problem to an urgent disaster in the right, very wrong circumstance. In this case, the island’s ongoing governmental fiscal challenge led to deferred infrastructure maintenance, resulting in a vulnerable electrical grid that many experts predict may take six months to fully restore. The productivity costs are almost incalculable.

The human toll of America’s recent disasters rightly grab the headlines, but there are business lessons to be told, as well.

Identifying competitive risks

There’s no shortage of articles or seminars telling businesses how to recover from disasters, but smarter operations should be proactive rather than reactive. Resilience planning means investing now to mitigate future disasters by examining all possible weak links, be they an aging upstream dam or a diesel generator that hasn’t been properly serviced.

At the store level, resilience means becoming active community members, encouraging your government leaders to consider resilience on an ongoing basis. At the headquarters level, companies should build their own resilience action plans, and consider adding in-house experts to coordinate longer-range planning that includes wider topics such as communication and web-based threats down to granular items such as storm water management and backup energy sources.

“One of the strengths of a resilient approach is that it gets you to think systemically and try to understand a city as this complex social environmental technical system, and think about where potential vulnerabilities are with that and how you can strengthen and address those,” Meerow said. “That’s critical for anyone working or living in a city to try to understand and prioritize that.”

Looking at some of the fastest growing U.S. cities—Austin, San Francisco, Raleigh, Denver, Phoenix and Houston—these are some of the hottest growth markets in franchising. Nobody would suggest avoiding such markets for their individual risk factors, but understanding a given city’s interdependencies and weak points should be part of the equation if deciding to invest in one location over another.

Resilience has gone mainstream in urban planning circles, but the concept of business resilience is still in its infancy. Everything from compliance failures, disruptive technology, worker strikes and supply chain failures are part of the equation—topics that are often examined separately at conferences, but rarely grouped together as a whole. It may be impossible to determine all of your company’s risks, but it’s worth trying to identify the biggest fish.

The problems of previous generations are being eclipsed by the challenges our cities and fellow residents now face in the present tense. Now more than ever, urban planning needs to be included in boardroom discussions and future growth plans, regardless of the industry.

Tom Kaiser, pictured on opposite page, is associate editor of Franchise Times and writes about urban tales  in franchising in each issue. Send story ideas to tkaiser@franchisetimes.com

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