Skip to main content


Log in

Fail-safe and safe-to-fail adaptation: decision-making for urban flooding under climate change

  • Published:
Climatic Change Aims and scope Submit manuscript


As climate change affects precipitation patterns, urban infrastructure may become more vulnerable to flooding. Flooding mitigation strategies must be developed such that the failure of infrastructure does not compromise people, activities, or other infrastructure. “Safe-to-fail” is an emerging paradigm that broadly describes adaptation scenarios that allow infrastructure to fail but control or minimize the consequences of the failure. Traditionally, infrastructure is designed as “fail-safe” where they provide robust protection when the risks are accurately predicted within a designed safety factor. However, the risks and uncertainties faced by urban infrastructure are becoming so great due to climate change that the “fail-safe” paradigm should be questioned. We propose a framework to assess potential flooding solutions based on multiple infrastructure resilience characteristics using a multi-criteria decision analysis (MCDA) analytic hierarchy process algorithm to prioritize “safe-to-fail” and “fail-safe” strategies depending on stakeholder preferences. Using urban flooding in Phoenix, Arizona, as a case study, we first estimate flooding intensity and evaluate roadway vulnerability using the Storm Water Management Model for a series of downpours that occurred on September 8, 2014. Results show the roadway types and locations that are vulnerable. Next, we identify a suite of adaptation strategies and characteristics of these strategies and attempt to more explicitly categorize flooding solutions as “safe-to-fail” and “fail-safe” with these characteristics. Lastly, we use MCDA to show how adaptation strategy rankings change when stakeholders have different preferences for particular adaptation characteristics.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in via an institution to check access.

Access this article

Price excludes VAT (USA)
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.

Instant access to the full article PDF.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2
Fig. 3

Similar content being viewed by others


Download references


This research is supported by several National Science Foundation awards from the IMEE (Nos. 1335556, 1335640, and 1635490), SRN (No. 1444755), TUES (No. 1245205), WSC (No. 1360509), and RIPS (No. 1441352) programs and by the CHI University Grant Program (software package PCSWMM).

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Yeowon Kim.

Electronic supplementary material


(DOCX 2173 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Check for updates. Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Kim, Y., Eisenberg, D.A., Bondank, E.N. et al. Fail-safe and safe-to-fail adaptation: decision-making for urban flooding under climate change. Climatic Change 145, 397–412 (2017).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: