Resiliency Planning for the Cities We Want Rather than the Cities We Have

This week finds me in Denver, CO talking at the Symposium for Sustainable Infrastructure whose theme is “The City We Have, The City We Want”. I’ve been thinking about resiliency a lot in the last few months, both as we continue to see increased frequency of extreme weather events and as I’ve been working with communities who are increasingly suffering from daily infrastructure failures. These can be the failure of transit systems to provide reliable service given condition of city streets and transit fleets, or frequent urban stormwater flooding reflecting both problems with aging grey infrastructure and poor housing conditions especially in low-income neighborhoods who disproportionately are located in low-elevation areas of the city, or even increased eviction rates which demonstrate our failure to provide sufficient housing infrastructure. 

South Platte River near downtown Denver has been redesigned with resiliency, placemaking and mobility elements creating an important community and environmental asset. (Photo: MZimmerman)

South Platte River near downtown Denver has been redesigned with resiliency, placemaking and mobility elements creating an important community and environmental asset. (Photo: MZimmerman)

In talking about infrastructure and resiliency, it is easy to focus on a specific project or system failure. Less frequently do we focus on who is disproportionately impacted and  how they can be more meaningfully engaged in designing solutions. A central tenant of resiliency is Interconnectedness – referring to the manner in which a group of objects interact with one another to form a complex whole that operates as system. We must expand our thinking about interconnectedness to include not only systems, but also interconnections between the physical, the economic, and the social which necessitates bridging silos across sectors, infrastructure classes and more directly with the public.

Presenting at the SSI Symposium, Arizona State University professor Sam Markolf correctly notes that “Protecting one infrastructure sector without considering its interactions with other systems can result in unaddressed vulnerabilities. Moving forward, indirect and non-physical pathways also warrant consideration and analysis. How we traditionally protect infrastructure may be insufficient for the future. Issues like climate non-stationarity, complex and interconnected systems, and human behavior and decision making can limit the effectiveness of robustness.”

In our efforts to create more resilient infrastructure, we need to better focus on the failures of existing infrastructure including its historic impact on our most vulnerable communities. Higher asthma and air pollution rates. Unsafe drinking water or street crossings. Physical barriers or lack of access. These are all elements of failure that we see in communities of color where interstates have been built through them, where landfills or utilities have been located, or where new investments have passed them by in favor of newer and more affluent developments on urban edges. My colleague Stephanie Gidigbi at NRDC writes about the opportunity we have in the United States to not only fix our infrastructure, but to “fix it for our future.”

Recent research by Harvard researchers Keenan, Hill and Gumber examines the real estate impacts of climate change and finds that resiliency and climate change may both become key drivers of gentrification and the displacement of low-income residents. We have seen this already playing out in Miami, FL where daily tidal flooding has shifted where people with means are choosing to live.

The Harvard study  calls out three main pathways for climate gentrification:

·       The “Superior Investment Pathway” is most common form and happens where investors start to shift capital to more elevated properties. 

·       The “Cost-Burden Pathway” occurs when climate change raises the cost of living so that only the wealthiest households can afford to stay in place where that is due to higher insurance costs, property taxes or climate related repairs.

·       The “Resilience Investment Pathway” occurs when the environment is re-engineered to be more resilient, which in turn, can make a community more desirable such as investing in parks, daylighting streams, planting street trees, etc.

Each of these pathways reflect larger structural and institutional forces that reinforce racial disparities and economic inequality.   

Resiliency is about breaking down silos. We need to break down silos between infrastructure assets and between engineers, planners, and architects. Silos must also come down between these technical experts and the community whether that is defined as being rate payers, system users, elected officials or those living near infrastructure facilities. In her work on resiliency, Jen Cross, the Director of Research at the Institute for the Built Environment at Colorado State University recognizes 5 components of resiliency planning. These include Diversity, Connectivity, Multi-functionality, Modularity, and Participatory.  These apply well when thinking about the new infrastructure systems we are working today to design. They also work when we think about how we work with community. This involves shifting our communications from a hazard-focus to one focused on disruptions and lifelines – elements that neighborhoods and households naturally reflect in how we navigate our communities and personal resiliency. 

Over the last few years, MZ Strategies has worked with a cross-disciplinary team led by Douglass Sims and Sarah Dougherty at NRDC to identify the pathway for communities to realize “High Road Infrastructure.” High Road Infrastructure deliver numerous economic, social and environmental benefits—such as jobs, placemaking, and climate resiliency – in addition to meeting the core functions for which the infrastructure project is designed be it mobility, clean water, or energy. In our work on High Road Infrastructure we have created several products to help describe the benefits that can be realized, provide case studies, and recommend a 10-step process for public and private sector partners to work together and with community to design projects early and often with an eye towards maximizing co-benefits and engaging community.  Our research has found that rather than focusing on infrastructure as an expensive, ongoing crisis, we can systematically capitalize on infrastructure improvements as a driver of multifaceted and equitable transformation and growth.

high road steps.jpg

The High Road Infrastructure approach responds to market shifts including the ways in which climate impacts are being incorporated into analysis of financial risk, credit ratings, and return on investment. In turn, the private sector is increasingly accepting of the “triple bottom line” giving equal weight to long-term social, economic, and environmental outcomes. Companies are finding that this is less risky and more resilient than a traditional approach that simply maximizes short-term profits. For the public sector, the traditional approach to infrastructure aims to minimize upfront front cost. The High Road approach applies long-term, holistic thinking to public sector decisions.

The 10-step High Road Infrastructure process includes:

Step 1: Establish Community Priorities Within a High Road Policy Framework

Step 2: Prioritize High Road Projects and Define Project Delivery Alternatives

Step 3: Identify and Screen Applicable Funding Sources: Important High Road elements for this step include counting funding in the form of future cost savings as future revenues, bundling non-revenue generating projects with revenue-generating projects where possible to leverage average costs and aligning funding sources to deliver community benefits early in the project lifecycle wherever possible.

Step 4: Identify and Screen Relevant Finance and Project Delivery Strategies

Step 5: Identify and Screen Procurement Mechanisms

Step 6: Identify Specific Target Investors

Step 7: Identify Project Bundling and Aggregation Needs and Opportunities

Step 8: Conduct Technical Studies to Confirm Viability

Step 9: Finalize Project Sponsor/Investor Plans and Arrangements

Step 10: Close the Deal and Develop Implementation Plan

 Creating a more resilient future requires thinking and acting in new ways. To paraphrase Albert Einstein,  “We cannot solve the problems of the future with the thinking of the past.” Creating more resilient infrastructure involves prioritizing interconnected solutions that seek multiple co-benefits that go beyond a single infrastructure purpose. It requires engaging with communities in different ways that recognizes them as partners in how and what we design to ensure greater accessibility, equity, and resiliency to major and minor disruptions. Finally, it requires us to work across sectors and silos to examine a fuller range of alternatives before settling for the quick or easy pathway which may “fix” the short-term infrastructure problem but not the long-term use, cost and sustainability of the system.