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Experts: Cities Must Think Differently About Resilience Planning

Resilience planning means a lot of things to different communities. In San Francisco, a panel of infrastructure and design experts shared their thoughts on how to combat increased flooding due to a rise in sea level.

Resilience planning involves understanding the most pressing issues within a community, and working across sectors of private industry, community groups and local governments to help combat those issues.

While there has primarily been a focus on natural obstacles, including floods, fires and earthquakes, true resilience takes into account man-made factors such as high unemployment, resource-strapped public transit systems or inequity in access to public services.

At the San Francisco Bridge conference June 1, Oakland Chief Resilience Officer (CRO) Kiran Jain guided a discussion on how cities need to incorporate resilient strategies into any city planning effort. With the rise of sea levels, coastal cities share common risks of increased flooding and redesigning the built environment to better drain excess water. Climate change has caused an increase in extreme weather events for inland cities that local communities need to meet as well.

Joining Jain was Amy Chester, managing director for Rebuild by Design, an organization that helped rebuild parts of the New Jersey after it was battered by Hurricane Sandy. In the wake of the 2012 storm, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development appointed the Sandy Rebuilding Task Force and launched a design competition that coupled innovation and global expertise with community development.

Teams were challenged to “build back better and stronger,” said Chester. “We needed to think about what our communities look like in the future.” While the storm caused millions of dollars in damages, it also presented an opportunity to build better than before and correct some of the design flaws from an older time, she explained.

However, resilience in every community looks different, said Chester. When we start a project, “we don't know what we should be building.” The only way to build something that will mitigate risks and work for all members of the community is to engage with “local stakeholders, not just community organizers, but local developers, property owners and local governments.”

The design effort led to the culmination of several projects including a public park that acted as a flood wall, without having to build an unsightly and one-use wall. Chester explained how one project, rebuilding the Meadowlands to withstand sea-level rise and increased flooding. One strategy, she explained was to use rolling hills in a park to act as a barrier and flood drainage site.

Due to the success of the program on the East Coast, the team, along with the Rockefeller Foundation, issued a new competition on the West Coast. On May 31, the group launched the Bay Area: Resilient by Design competition for designers, architects and tech folks to create projects to deal with increasing storms, floods and seismic vulnerabilities.

“Building off the success we saw with the Rebuild by Design Hurricane Sandy Design Competition, we are excited to implement this innovative challenge which will transform the Rebuild model from one of disaster response to resilience planning,” said Chester in the release.

Oakland, a major partner in the competition, released its own Resilient Oakland Playbook. The document provides strategies for equitable access to quality education and jobs, housing security, and community safety. It prepares for shocks like earthquakes and stresses like climate change. The playbook “sets forth nearly 40 actions designed to be collaborative, data-driven and equitable in our outcomes," said Jain.

One of those projects is an ambitious idea to transform a neighborhood in North Oakland as an EcoBlock. Josiah Cain, director of innovation for Sherwood Design Engineers, who joined that panel, has helped Jain in designing the block to create deep energy efficiency in all homes through shared rooftop solar panels, creating a solar-powered microgrid with smart controls and onsite energy storage that can operate autonomously.

The project is really an “infrastructure overhaul,” he said. While still in the development phase, leaders of the program is hoping to serve as a model to transform low- to moderate-income neighborhoods to be powered by clean energy and be carbon neutral and drought-tolerant, while reducing stresses on the electric grid and the wastewater treatment system. “Some of the most exciting things are happening in water infrastructure.”

According to 100 Resilient Cities, a group put together by the Rockefeller Foundation, resilience is “the capacity of individuals, communities, institutions, businesses and systems within a city to survive, adapt and grow no matter what kinds of chronic stresses and acute shocks they experience.” Cities need to adopt and incorporate resilience strategies that take into account community-specific stresses.

Ryan McCauley was a staff writer for Government Technology magazine from October 2016 through July 2017, and previously served as the publication's editorial assistant.