Perspectives

The Quest for Resilience Leads to New Alliances

Interest is growing in approaches that look for redundancies to overcome infrastructure's risks and vulnerabilities.

by / March 13, 2017

What an extraordinary scenario: After five years of the most extreme drought in California's recorded history, statewide rain and snow have been at their highest levels in at least a decade. Yet state and local officials last month were forced to issue flood evacuation orders to nearly 190,000 Northern California residents due to structural damage at the massive Oroville Dam.

Beyond the imminent peril (which passed), the longer-term threat still remains that flood damage to a spillway at the dam might impact its water storage capacity. Reduced capacity in Lake Oroville, the state's second-largest reservoir, could limit delivery of summer water to farmers and cities in Central and Southern California for yet another year.

From drought to flooding and back to possible water shortages all in the span of a few months, it's no wonder under these types of conditions that officials are looking for new approaches to making regions and communities more resilient. For California, that would mean a future with less reliance on large statewide infrastructure solutions such as dams, aqueducts and pumping plants to move water long distances.

In their place, experts are pointing to the benefits of more localized systems with multiple redundancies. "If a major disruption happens, you lose the entire solution," Amy Armstrong, a vice president of the Rockefeller Foundation's 100 Resilient Cities project, explained in an interview. "We're trying to get people to think about more adaptable, flexible solutions that'll build resilience for the long term."

Judith Rodin, the foundation's president, launched the global project in 2013, offering to partner with a select group of international cities to help develop the field of urban resilience. Selection from among nearly 1,100 applicants was completed last May, and two dozen cities in the United States were among the 100 chosen for the project. They are being provided with four types of assistance: financial support to hire a chief resilience officer (CRO), expertise for developing a robust resilience strategy, access to partners providing technologies for building resilience, and membership in the 100 Resilient Cities Network.

Members of the network are already reporting progress. Armstrong said CROs are talking with their mayors about vulnerabilities, breaking down bureaucratic silos, shifting lines of authority and developing new resiliency plans. And members are citing the benefits of being connected and learning from each other. The work the CROs are doing isn't easy, Armstrong said, so it's really valuable to have a community of practitioners.

Beyond simply getting people to talk about infrastructure risks and weaknesses, a significant challenge for advocates of resiliency is the longstanding governing paradigm that prioritizes efficiency over all things. A resilient approach isn't always more efficient. But by creating redundancies and adding flexibility, better outcomes can be obtained. Building a big pipe to bring water to a city is certainly an efficient solution but, as California cities are learning, it may not be the best solution for system-wide resilience.

To foster resilience, for example, CROs could bring transportation and public works planners together with parks departments to create mixed-use solutions to capture and reuse local water resources while helping to control flooding. As Catherine Nagel, executive director of the City Parks Alliance, wrote in a recent Governing commentary, "Urban parks are the very definition of mixed use."

Of course, building community resilience is about much more than preparing for and managing catastrophic events. Technology can play a major role. Advances in data visualization technology already are helping city planners understand more deeply how the various systems of a city interact -- to pinpoint, for instance, exactly where the flooding of a stormwater system will affect the adjacent transportation network and buildings.

Perhaps the greatest benefit of efforts like the 100 Resilient Cities project and these new tools is the opportunity to visualize not only vulnerabilities but also opportunities to build the resilience communities need. A picture is, after all, worth a thousand words.

This story originally appeared on Governing.