Engaging for Sustainability

I know. My very title for this blog post sounds to some like yet another naïve stab at kumbaya. Well, stay with me, anyway. We are talking about solving problems in our communities, and the more people who get behind the solution, the more successful it is likely to be.

Kristin Baja, right, with Dubuque Mayor Roy Buol before her presentation.

What I am really aiming to write about, in the narrowest sense, is a morning keynote presentation by Kristin Baja at the tenth annual Growing Sustainable Communities conference in Dubuque, Iowa, on October 4. The City of Dubuque has been hosting this event from the outset, and I rather like the riverside convention center where they host it. Hell, I rather like the mystique of the Mississippi River, the very reason Dubuque exists. I’m fascinated enough that I thought the conference a good venue for meeting people who might be useful to my pet project since leaving the American Planning Association (APA) at the end of May: a two-book series on the 1993 and 2008 Midwest floods. Dubuque is one of those communities that understands that environmentally healthy communities are a necessary path to the future.

That is why they engaged Kristin Baja, a former planner for the city of Baltimore who was instrumental in effecting significant changes in planning that recognized the fundamental problems that Baltimore needed to address, both socially and environmentally. She openly states that Baltimore was built on a legacy of racism that must be overcome through new approaches that must complement the city’s efforts to address climate change. The poor tend to be more vulnerable to natural hazards. Recently, Baja left her city position to become the Climate Resilience Officer for the Urban Sustainability Directors Network. In this new role, she is essentially bringing what she learned at the local level to the national stage.

What she seems to have learned most, and emphasized in her keynote, is the value of empathy, a quality often sorely lacking in national politics. I frankly think we are more likely to relearn its value at the community level, where we can engage directly and personally with our neighbors. Perhaps then we can reapply it to national policy discussions if we can get past the angry tweets and the noise of shouting talk show hosts.

Baja started with a display of many of the same points I have made in this blog before. The climate is changing, and we have plenty of evidence to make this point if we can get people to listen. We cannot afford to continue to confuse weather with climate, for instance, by using one snowstorm to ridicule the entire notion of global warming. “Weather is your mood, climate is your personality,” she suggested, and it is not a bad analogy for helping people to grasp the distinction between short-term and long-term trends. If we are to achieve resilience in our communities, it will be essential to understand that we must build community strength in the face of both shocks, which are sudden and unexpected changes, and stressors, those long-time problems that weaken a community’s social fabric, like high unemployment, poverty, racism, and distrust of authority. If community leaders want to overcome some of that malaise, it is critical that they foster and sustain mutual trust, be accountable, keep promises, share power, value people’s time, and focus on community cohesion. It may be a tall order, but I would add one other factor. When a community finds such leaders, it needs to honor them. Too often, the best intentions are drowned in a tidal wave of vitriol.

I will not reprise every aspect of Baja’s captivating presentation. What I want to share is the underlying logic of her approach. She first came to my attention when I learned about Baltimore’s now well-known DP3 project, which stands for Disaster Preparedness and Planning Project. DP3 resulted in the approval in 2013 of a combined local hazard mitigation plan and climate adaptation plan. Baja participated in a July 2016 webinar I organized for APA on the subject of merging climate adaptation and hazard mitigation plans.

Hazard mitigation plans have been produced by the thousands by state and local governments ever since the Disaster Mitigation Act of 2000 decreed that they would be ineligible for federal mitigation grants, which pay for many hazard mitigation projects after disasters, unless they adopted a FEMA-approved plan. All states now have such plans, and about 20,000 units of local government have adopted them, often participating in multijurisdictional efforts. But almost universally, until a few creative cities like Baltimore began to outline a new approach, these plans have been backward-looking in identifying local hazards. Why? Because the standard approach is to project future hazards based on historical patterns. The problem is that climate change is disrupting those expectations and exacerbating existing vulnerabilities. The path to resilience lies in using climate science data to anticipate the hazards of the future. Baltimore accomplished that by integrating data about climate trends into its hazard mitigation plan, thus elegantly addressing both existing and future hazards. Baja was at the center of this activity.

But her innovative style goes farther. She worked on the use of vacant lots in cities for development of green infrastructure to help remedy urban flooding. In March of this year, she attended the first of two day-long roundtables APA organized with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on ways to integrate climate science into the local planning process. She was feisty and persuasive as usual, and we all appreciated her contributions.

Ultimately, what Baja discussed with the audience was not merely the policy changes that are needed to produce climate-resilient communities, but the practices of community engagement that would undergird those policies and make them stick, embed them in municipal and regional civic culture. She unleashed her own flood of ideas about how to do this, including training staff, as she has done recently in Dubuque, with training games that make the undertaking fun, such as a “Game of Floods.” The laundry list that rolled from her tongue and flowed from the PowerPoint screen included these tips for engaging members of the community and removing barriers to participation in civic meetings:

  • Go to people
  • Partner with community leaders
  • Provide transportation
  • Provide food and beverages
  • Provide childcare or activities with children
  • Consider language barriers
  • Translate signs and data
  • Insure compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act
  • Collect stories
  • Approach all stakeholders with empathy
  • Provide interactive and fun ways of engagement
  • Invite participation on advisory committees

One of her approaches, used in Baltimore to give life to these ideas, was to create a community ambassador network to empower the very people who often labor to advance these ideas through small neighborhood organizations with no financial support from the city. Recognizing the contribution these people make to their city goes a long way to strengthening the trust that supports progressive policy making.

There is a method to the madness of making this all work. Baja is not the only person who has discovered the value of empowering volunteers for good planning, but she herself is now a full-time ambassador through USDN. I’d say they found the right person.

Bike tour of Dubuque’s riverfront at the end of the conference.


Jim Schwab

Resilience Defined and Practiced

DSCF1077As I write this today, representatives of 190 nations are in Paris apparently have reached a historic consensus on a new climate agreement. Because I am not there and you will read about it in the news soon enough, this article is not about that agreement, but about the very practical concept of community resilience. No matter what the nations of the world decide, communities must face the very real impacts of climate change and of all natural disasters facing them. I am going to rely heavily on a lecture I delivered on October 22 at Iowa State University as a guest of its lecture series.

Before discussing resilience, however, I want to underscore the urgent reasons why the world has been gathered in Paris for the past two weeks, even in the face of security scares arising from terrorist activities there over the past year. The theory that greenhouse gases affect global temperatures by trapping the sun’s heat that would otherwise radiate back into space has been around since the late 19th century. In 1958, the Scripps Institution of Oceanography began measuring the concentration of carbon dioxide, the primary greenhouse gas, in the atmosphere at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii. At the time, it was already at 316 parts per million, above the historic level of 280 preceding the modern industrial age, in which we have pumped huge quantities of greenhouse gases into the air through the burning of fossil fuels. The level has climbed steadily ever since and has just recently passed 400. Scientists have already determined that 350 is the highest safe level for maintaining global temperatures within the evolutionary range of human history. Thus, we scramble to find ways to slow the rise and eventually return to that level, which prevailed around 1988. As we cope with the impacts of these higher levels with increased weather volatility and sea level rise, the need for communities to adapt to the new circumstances has become increasingly compelling and urgent. Some are clearly more ready than others for a variety of reasons, including governmental capacity and political will.

The concept of resilience is at the center of much current practice and discussion in the field of disaster recovery, but it is actually much broader. The Rockefeller Foundation has been arguing that it really relates not only to shocks—events that present immediate threats such as natural disasters—but also to chronic stressors, which can be forces that strain the resources of a community over an extended period of time, such as high crime, pollution, or poverty. Certainly, the inability to cope with those chronic stresses can set up a community for much more calamitous response in the face of sudden shocks. Rockefeller, however, is using the concept of resilience in reference to cities in its 100 Resilient Cities program, and some other uses may demand different frameworks for the issue.

In the lecture at Iowa State University, “Holistic Approaches to a Resilient Future,” I undertook a quick overview of some of the definitions of resilience that span the different perspectives within which it has been used. I’d like here to focus on those definitions and some closing comments that followed them.

While stating that my overview did not necessarily contain the best or the most definitive definitions, I suggested it was at least a representative sample. I started by noting that the concept largely originated in the field of ecology, the study of natural systems, and offered this definition from the Stockholm Resilience Centre:

Ecosystem resilience is a measure of how much disturbance (like storms, fire or pollutants) an ecosystem can handle without shifting into a qualitatively different state. It is like the capacity of a system to both withstand shocks and surprises and to rebuild itself if damaged.

Nature left to itself tends to repair the damage from storms and natural events, but we have often compromised the ecosystems that support us, such that they do not recover as well or at all in the face of major shocks. But the concept of resilience has also been applied to engineered, or physical, systems, and I then offered this definition from a professional reference work, Resilience Engineering in Practice:

The intrinsic ability of a system to adjust its functioning prior to, during, or following changes and disturbances, so that it can sustain required operations under both expected and unexpected conditions.

Here, the focus is not on the resilience of nature itself, but on our ability to create or design systems that are capable of continuing to function in the face of adverse circumstances.

But can people themselves be resilient? Obviously, the answer is yes, and we frequently talk about individuals in that way, but what about whole communities or groups? The Stockholm Resilience Centre offers a different definition in a social context:

Social resilience is the ability of human communities to withstand and recover from stresses, such as environmental change or social, economic, or political upheaval. Resilience in societies and their life-supporting ecosystems is crucial in maintaining options for future human development.

The point is that, while communities tend to have their own ethos and unique human resources, they are not naturally self-governing. Governance in fact is a well-learned art that involves leadership by some, passive acceptance by others, and many shades of involvement in between. Can governance itself be resilient? I offered the following definition offered by some urban planning scholars in a 2009 article in the Journal of Environmental Planning and Management (52 (6): 739-56:

Instead of repeated damage and continual demands for federal disaster assistance, resilient communities proactively protect themselves against hazards, build self-sufficiency, and become more sustainable. Resilience is the capacity to absorb severe shock and return to a desired state following a disaster. It involves technical, organizational, social, and economic dimensions. It is fostered not only by government, but also by individual, organization, and business actions.

By then, I felt the audience might be struggling to keep track of the many nuances embedded in those more specific definitions, so I ended the overview with the much simpler statement that the National Academy of Sciences used in its landmark 2012 report, Disaster Resilience: A National Imperative. It defined resilience as simply

the ability to prepare and plan for, absorb, recover from, and more successfully adapt to adverse events.

I then noted that resilience bears an important relationship to the concept of sustainability, which gained prominence following a 1988 United Nations report, Our Common Future. Borrowing from what I wrote in our own APA Planning Advisory Service Report from a year ago, Planning for Post-Disaster Recovery: Next Generation, I stated that fundamentally, resilience allows a community to respond to and recover effectively from specific events; sustainability is a frame of reference that aims to preserve for future generations the resources and opportunities that exist for current generations. Resilience can help to ensure that those resources and opportunities are not squandered through poor preparation for adverse events. It is not in and of itself, however, a broad enough framework for the more long-term goals of truly visionary planning. The two concepts need to work hand in hand.

It is important to understand some of what stands in the way of building resilient communities, so I spent a few minutes summarizing some key points in this regard:

  • Lack of trust in government. I noted that the source of distrust can be very different, ranging from historic racial and social inequities to a deliberate view of government as the enemy. The former, I noted, was a huge factor in recovery from Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, where a host of such inequities poisoned the atmosphere and sometimes undermined planning. The latter is typified by the Tea Party and similar conservative movements, where the aim often seems to be to undermine faith in government by making it incapable of effective response. Exactly how that leads us to any sort of positive future has never been clear to me.
  • Procrastination. Human beings are capable of a good deal of denial, and the willingness to postpone actions to address vulnerabilities that may not be exposed in a mayor’s term of office is rampant in local government. Yet there are statesmen among us who care about their legacy and perceive the need for action to reduce a community’s level of risk. I closed by borrowing a slide from Abby Finis, of the Great Plains Institute, who had concluded a presentation earlier in October at the Sustainable Communities Network annual conference in Dubuque, Iowa, by quoting me from the PAS Report cited above: “It is impossible to know when a community’s moment of truth will come, but procrastination clearly isn’t a viable option.”

All of this points to a need for visionary champions, whether they be citizen activists or political leaders, who will advocate for better planning for resilience on a sustained basis. These people tend to foster inclusive dialogue to help bring the public aboard with a heightened understanding of the problems their communities face and who then help create the very success stories we need to inspire others. Rebecca Solnit talks about such people in her inspiring book, A Paradise Built in Hell.

But there is nothing terribly new about this. Communities faced with disaster have been rising to the occasion for a long time. Chicago drastically upgraded its building codes after the Great Chicago Fire in 1871, which remains a primary reason you will find so much masonry construction in the city. If we were able to learn from a disaster nearly 150 years ago, before the modern concept of resilience was even in active use, why can we not learn far more today? The object lessons are plentiful. Even before Hurricane Katrina launched a boatload of new books addressing disaster recovery, Lawrence J. Vale and Thomas J. Campanella compiled examples from around the world in The Resilient City: How Modern Cities Recover from Disaster. What’s new is that at last we are consciously thinking about resilience before disaster, instead of waiting until it strikes. That’s important in view of the climate adaptation challenges that lie ahead.

Jim Schwab



Bounce Forward? But, of Course!

In recent years, there has been growing interest in and activity around the concept of resilience. For many people long involved in trying to make the world’s communities safer from disasters, the interest has been heartwarming. The underlying idea is that a community should be better positioned to “bounce back” from a disaster, recovering more efficiently and quickly. A major natural disaster—tornado, hurricane, earthquake—need not be a death sentence or leave a community flat on its back for years. There are numerous ways in which we can do better. We can prepare better, mitigate better, plan better—but to what end?

Some resilience advocates are almost scared by the current interest. After all, look at what happened to the concept of sustainability, subjected by now to years of corporate whitewash and a relentless watering down of the essential message, as originally framed, that we have a moral obligation to future generations to leave them with the same opportunities to enjoy prosperity by reducing our ecological footprint, taking better care of the earth’s resources. Sustainability by its very nature ought to be challenging, yet too many things are too easily labeled sustainable, and the word loses its moral authority in the process.

Could the message of resilience be watered down in the same way?

For a long time, federal and state policies with regard to disaster assistance focused on supporting no more than the replacement of what existed before disaster struck. We’ll help you build back, but we won’t help you build a Cadillac. As federal policy, particularly within the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), increasingly emphasized hazard mitigation in order to minimize losses in future disasters, however, the idea behind such thinking became increasingly suspect. If you could make a community more resistant to future disasters, if you could reduce that community’s future reliance on outside assistance in managing recovery, why would you not want to make that investment? In the 1993 Midwest floods, in particular, the use of federal Hazard Mitigation Grant Program money to buy out flood-prone properties and create public open space in floodplains at least meant removing some development from harm’s way. That opened the door to even more forward thinking. Some relocated communities, like Valmeyer, Illinois, went much farther and adopted green building codes. The “green rebuild” of Greensburg, Kansas, after its 2007 tornado built on this idea.

DSCF1844Indeed, is there really anything wrong with leaving a community better off than it was before? By the time the Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force issued its report in 2013, this bridge appears to have been crossed. The task force answer was clearly that we want very much to rebuild communities that would be more resilient in the face of future disasters. Ideally, that would not mean that such communities would merely regain their pre-disaster status quo more quickly, although that seems to have been the goal for more than a few communities after Sandy. The bigger vision just never materialized. At the same time, however, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has been seeking ways, most recently through the National Disaster Resilience Competition, to encourage states and communities to think about improvements that, in particular, instill greater resilience among their most vulnerable populations.

The question won’t go away, and fortunately, there are plenty of people, particularly within the growing community of climate change adaptation professionals, who remain engaged. This is a very good thing because, in the face of phenomena like climate change and sea level rise, hazard mitigation faces the prospect of running hard merely to stay in place, a la Alice in Wonderland. Elevate homes, retreat from the seashore, and you find in another generation that you have gained little or nothing because average temperatures are rising and the sea is following you to higher ground. This is precisely why the latest guidance from FEMA on hazard mitigation assistance insists that states and communities must begin to account for climate change in the hazard mitigation plans that qualify them for federal grants. There is little sense in spending federal money to mitigate the same problem repeatedly when you can do it once with more foresight.

At the risk of oversimplifying the underlying questions, which can and do fill volumes of scholarly and professional analysis these days, I lay this out as the background for introducing a remarkable new document unleashed into this debate by The Kresge Foundation. Bounce Forward, a strategy paper from Island Press and the foundation, which funded the project, raises the question of what constitutes “urban resilience in the era of climate change.” At the outset, it confronts the fear I cited at the beginning of this blog post—that of losing the essential poignancy of the message of resilience. It states:

But the transformative potential of resilience is far from assured. There are several potential pitfalls. Notably, if resilience is conceived simply as “bouncing back” from disaster, it could prove harmful, by reinforcing systems that compound the risks our cities face. More insidiously, the concept of resilience could be co-opted by opponents of meaningful reform. And if efforts to build resilience do not also mitigate climate change, they will be of limited use.

I sense an echo here. For some years, at the American Planning Association and some allied organizations, we have talked of “building back better” as the real goal of disaster recovery. (See Planning for Post-Disaster Recovery: Next Generation.)* But resilience is about much more than effective recovery from disasters. It is also about positioning a community’s human and institutional resources to respond to all manner of setbacks, whether stemming from chronic decline and social pressures, or from the impact of nature on the built environment, to deal more creatively with those problems so as to evolve a society that can help its least advantaged sectors in responding to those threats and to become more prosperous and confident. A commitment to social justice must be inherent in the formula. A society that imposes unfair environmental burdens upon, and denies opportunities to, its most economically challenged elements cannot be resilient in any meaningful way. Such a society is merely perpetuating its vulnerabilities. A community is only as strong as its weakest link. In an “era of rapid change,” the Kresge report says, in effect, that weakest link is getting weaker, inequalities are growing and will be magnified by the impacts of climate change, and the concept of resilience means nothing or worse if it does not address these issues.

The aim of Bounce Forward is to create a framework for doing so. Stronger social cohesion and more inclusive community decision making are among the ingredients essential to this transformation. What’s more, as such reports go, this one is a very good read.

Jim Schwab

*I wish to note that, at the invitation of The Kresge Foundation, I have participated over the past year as a member of its Project Advisory Committee for a study of community resilience being prepared by Stratus Consultants, which is still being completed. I also represented APA at a Kresge Foundation symposium on resilience at the Garrison Institute, held last June in Garrison, NY. Because of our common agendas, APA has had an active interest in supporting the Kresge initiatives on this subject.