A scene from the Jersey shore after Hurricane Sandy.
Resilience has typically been defined as an ability to bounce back from, and to withstand, shocks and crises. These can include natural disasters but also terrorist strikes, sudden economic downturns, or major industrial accidents. The term was borrowed from the field of ecology, but it has taken root in community planning and has important implications for how and where we build and for the kinds of human capital we develop. It is inherently a complex topic.
That complexity raises the question of how entities outside communities can encourage or foster greater resilience within them. Is it all up to local planners and elected officials, or is there a role for state and federal governance and perhaps private philanthropy? If so, what is that role?
Last fall, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), followed up on its Rebuild by Design initiative that followed Hurricane Sandy by unveiling the National Disaster Resilience Competition (NDRC). The new effort makes nearly $1 billion in grants available to eligible jurisdictions. Details about the HUD Notice of Funding Availability (NOFA) and the overall competition are available elsewhere on the APA website, on the HUD website, and on several other sites allied to or supportive of the competition (also listed on the APA page linked above), most notably including the Rockefeller Foundation. The idea was to encourage communities to develop proposals that would address community resilience needs in a holistic fashion. At the same time, because the money was tied to the Sandy supplemental appropriations for HUD’s Community Development Block Grant-Disaster Recovery program, the proposals needed to tie those needs back to a presidential disaster declaration between 2011 and 2013, and meet other CDBG requirements relating to vulnerable and disadvantaged sectors of the community. Those requirements establish a threshold of eligibility for states and communities that can be challenging to meet while setting their sights even higher. In all, the NOFA listed 67 eligible jurisdictions. These included 48 states (only South Carolina and Nevada had no declarations during the relevant period), and 19 other counties and municipalities, plus Puerto Rico. Louisiana and Illinois had adjacent local jurisdictions eligible in both the Chicago and New Orleans metropolitan areas.
Because only HUD can legally explain the NOFA but is unable to directly help jurisdictions develop their applications, the Rockefeller Foundation, already supporting other resilience initiatives, chose to support the competition by providing such technical assistance. It did this with extensive help from HR&A Advisors, a consulting firm, by organizing five regional “resilience academies,” in Atlanta, Seattle, Kansas City, Boston, and Chicago. These provided an excellent vehicle for using the talents of at least some of the APA members who volunteered their time for our Planners Resilience Network, whose names we shared with both HUD and Rockefeller. The Rockefeller consultants enlisted dozens of design professionals as subject matter experts (SMEs) and facilitators to staff the workshops. I participated as an SME in the Chicago academy, which was held January 29-30 at the James Hotel. Both groups were assigned during the events to specific applicant teams as they worked through their ideas, but also participated in critiques of presentations by other applicants. HUD personnel were on hand to answer questions about the NOFA, and Enterprise Community Partners representatives held counseling sessions with each applicant team.
The overall idea was to help the teams refine their ideas and broaden their thinking about resilience, overcome siloes and boundaries, and collaborate with neighbors. Judging from my own experience, I would say that in most cases the applicant teams moved quite far from their initial concepts in just two days. There is a tendency in local and state government to tailor proposals narrowly to fit the needs of highly stovepiped funding sources at the federal level, which can be notoriously limiting with regard to the range of acceptable options. Even HUD in its FAQs has broadened its interpretation of its own NOFA in recent weeks.
One challenge in particular that I noted in Chicago was that many of the issues states and other jurisdictions face do not stop at their boundaries. In the Midwest, for instance, major river systems—the Missouri, Mississippi, and Ohio, in particular—form those boundaries, but the floodplain management issues clearly involve both sides, whether it be Wisconsin/Minnesota or Ohio/Kentucky, to name just two examples. There can be little doubt that similar issues prevail across the country. What the academy organizers—and HUD—hoped to convey was that collaboration across such boundaries not only would be rewarded but is absolutely vital to long-term regional success in creating disaster resilience.
The formula worked in part because it minimized set presentations in order to maximize team discussions and feedback. There were basic presentations about the concept of resilience, defining risks, and how to apply innovative thinking to resilience problems. More importantly, however, the academies focused their efforts on a well-considered progression of exercises throughout the two days. These exercises led participants through the identification of resilience opportunities in their target communities, to understanding the risks they face, then to expanding their approach, before the first critique, which forced each team to decide on the “elevator speech” that would communicate the key elements of their proposal in about five minutes, subject to feedback from the SMEs and facilitators. Mastering the art of identifying a handful of key bullet points about a complex proposal to increase community or regional resilience for a particular area in reference to particular hazards and disaster events is not as easy as it may sound, and it probably does not even sound easy. It is fair to say that some master this challenge better than others, but what is important is that all went home with the experience of having to defend and rethink their ideas and how they could be tied together into a coherent strategy that met also met the threshold requirements for the HUD grants. That is no small request to make of these teams, but many were game to at least try to rise to the occasion. That is progress.
The second, slightly shorter day allowed these teams to refine their approach through a leverage and consultation exercise, followed by a post-lunch second critique, closing out with an opportunity to finalize their approach before going home. The morning also offered five topic area breakout sessions where applicants could choose to learn more about particular hazard types or about leverage and creative financing.
Although the more conceptual Phase I proposals are due March 16, allowing HUD to winnow the list for the Phase II proposals that will nail down specific projects, it is virtually a certainty that nearly every team will be meeting with its counterparts at home to take their ideas farther and respond to the challenges posed during the academies. No one ever said planning is easy. Planning with the goal of achieving community resilience is even tougher. Representatives for the Rockefeller Foundation repeatedly emphasized that, even for communities that do not make the cut, the process of participating in these academies may still enrich their approaches to such issues for the future. No one should have gone home empty-handed.