For the city of Baltimore, flooding is a big concern — particularly after a major storm. But the city is investing heavily in what Shandas calls "green infrastructure."
As a result, officials are coming up with creative ways to cope with and potentially stave off future floods. Recently, the city put in a number of bioswales, or bits of architecture designed to help remove pollution from surface runoff that can accumulate after rain. This helps keep the water supply clean and ensure that people have access to clean drinking water.
Austin is another city in which Shandas said there is important sustainability work happening.
"We often write off the south as somewhere that’s going get hammered by heat waves and hurricanes, but there are some really interesting places like Austin," he said. Researchers there are planning for a warmer planet and ramping up their infrastructure to tackle climate change. In fact, Austin plans to be carbon neutral by 2020 — one of the most ambitious deadlines for any city on this list.
Phoenix might not be the first city you think of when it comes to safe havens from climate change. It faces substantial threats from increased heat and drought.
But from a sustainability perspective, Shandas said, researchers "are really connecting with the city and the universities and coming up with a collaborative model where the researchers and practitioners sit together and work out risks and identify potentially vulnerable spots and populations." And that's a model that other slightly better-positioned cities can learn from.
Like Denver, Salt Lake City has made a lot of progress in the last few years when it comes to preparing for natural disasters and emergencies. "There are some new researchers there that are doing great work and driving that," Shandas said.
"Denver is one of those places that keeps coming up on my radar because of its new infrastructure and the fact that it has lots and lots of smart planning going on," said Shandas.
When the city released its Climate Action Plan in 2007, it was one of the first large US cities to recognize the potential threats of climate change. Denver has gone on to come up with a set of sustainability goals for 2020, which it released in 2013, and a revised action plan for addressing global warming.
One of the largest studies on the impacts of heat waves took place in Chicago in the 1990s. An under-looked aspect of how well a city can adapt to natural disasters, that study found, is how connected people in a community are to one another. In Chicago, the people who fared worst during the heat wave were those who were isolated — typically people with lower incomes and less access to resources.
Since then, the city has taken measures to boost organization and community building, and that makes it a good candidate for future resilience. "Neighborhoods that are connected do better when these things happen," Riordan said.
Like a handful of other cities in the Pacific Northwest, Madison, Wisconsin scores well on most of the metrics Shandas is looking at, such as policy, community organization, and infrastructure.
"Seattle, Ann Arbor, Chicago, Madison — these are places that are far more likely to do better, relatively speaking, than a lot of the other parts of the country," he said.
Access to natural resources like water will be important in the coming decades, Shandas said, especially as the planet warms and lakes and rivers begin to dry up. That helps put Minneapolis toward the top of the rankings.
In addition to its "tremendous lakes," Minneapolis also has a "good climate action plan and well-coordinated systems of emergency management and planning," two things that will help it prepare for and bounce back from an event like a big storm, Shandas said.
San Francisco, California
As one of the most recently developed cities in the US, San Francisco is better equipped to take on many natural disasters, Shandas said. It also ranks second on a list of the 10 best cities for public transit, according to AllTransit, a ranking designed by two nonprofit research institutes. According to the measure, 98% of San Francisco's population lives within a half-mile of regularly-operating transportation, a key measure of the health of that piece of infrastructure.
"There are not many cities in the US that rank well in terms of infrastructure, but newer cities fare much better," Shandas said.
Portland was the first US city to come up with a plan to prepare for climate change. The city's historic Climate Action Plan, created in 1993, is a set of policies and initiatives aimed at slashing the city's carbon emissions. The goal is to cut them 40% by 2030 and 80% by 2050.
The Pacific Northwest is the best overall US region for escaping the brunt of climate change, Shandas said.
Cities in the area aren't perfect — "they have other challenges," he said, but added that "their infrastructure tends to be newer and more resilient to major shocks." That's is key when it comes to coping with heat and rising water.
Seattle is one of the most "well-positioned" of these cities, Shandas said.