The City of New Orleans is moving forward to construct the first portions of a city-wide network of green infrastructure projects to address chronic and extreme flooding. Implementing these kinds of innovative, green projects is notoriously tough, though, so how did New Orleans get to where they are now?
Infrastructure project development is a team sport. Just like a relay race, there are clear legs — catalyst, predevelopment, construction, and operations & maintenance — multiple team members, and important “exchange zones” where the baton must be passed from one runner to another. When the baton is dropped, projects stall. Clear lines of sight from one development phase to the next is key to ensuring resilience projects are not just planned, but get over the finish line to deliver long-term benefits to the communities they serve.
Catalyst Leg — Kicking off on the Right Foot (6–18 months)
The catalyst stage involves identifying and conceptualizing the design of an infrastructure project that responds to community needs. Like in a relay race, a false start, or a trip coming off the block, can stop a project in its tracks. The catalyst leg is the least thought about stage of project development — by cities, investors, government funders, design and engineering firms alike — but it is vital to long-term success.
In this first stage, cities define project scope and scale, and determine what they want the project to achieve, ideally through a set of initial design specifications. For example, a city may decide that it seeks to protect a specific geographic area from a 200-year storm and to minimize disruptions to critical services and businesses in the case of an extreme event using natural infrastructure (e.g. constructed wetlands) whenever appropriate. A different city may decide during its catalyst phase that it wants to address its traffic congestion by constructing new light rail, rather than rapid bus transit. It’s important to emphasize that activities should be project-specific, not broad-based polices, strategies or plans. Specific activities that are typically completed during the catalyst phase include: designate and empower city project champion & her team; collect, review and analyze project-specific baseline data; explore different funding/financing options; and build coalition and political support.
Heading out of the catalyst leg into the first exchange zone, the city should have two things. First, it must have a conceptual design of the project. Conceptual design is roughly equivalent to “10% design” — which includes sketches or drawings (often in illustration software), along with back of envelope cost and performance estimates. Second, the city should have enough data and community enthusiasm to support applications for funding predevelopment.
Led by the champion, most of the activities completed during the catalyst phase are conducted by city staff. However, as infrastructure challenges have become more complicated and solutions more integrated, cities are leaning on non-traditional methods for support. Competitions like RE.invest and the HUD Rebuild by Design Competition have provided cities with access to a relatively small group of firms dedicated to the catalyst phase. In addition, more and more cities are publishing Requests for Ideas (RFIs) to source new ideas during the earliest stages of the catalyst phase.
The amount of funding required for the catalyst stage is modest, but funding is very limited. Some philanthropies have begun to fund the catalyst stage via competitions and technical assistance. But barring that support, cities often struggle to carve out dedicated capacity and resources to get through the first leg of infrastructure project development and set a resilience project up for success.
In 2010, New Orleans kicked off its catalyst phase to address systemic flood and subsidence concerns via the Greater New Orleans Urban Water Plan, which was funded by a federal Community Development Block Grant and informed by significant planning work completed since Hurricane Katrina in 2005.