Passing the Baton: Taking Resilience from Strategy to Construction & Operation

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.

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Sustainability You Can Count On

Almost always, conversations about measurement and sustainability focus on the measurement of systems: reductions in energy usage, for example, or the number of affordable housing units built throughout an entire city. Setting metrics to measure the sustainability of systems is important, but too often, conversations about the measurement of systems sustainability is separated completely from conversations about the measurement of specific projects. Project-specific modeling, monitoring and evaluation is absolutely essential if specific projects are to have political and community buy-in, and often times, if they are to be funded or financed. As the field of sustainability transitions more and more from planning to implementation, project-specific measurement is paramount.

Community members need to see themselves and their loved ones in projects in order to support them, especially if taxes, construction or service disruptions are involved. Residents, business owners and community leaders want to know “how will this project impact me?” They want to know the amount of money they will save on their water or electricity bills, the reduction in the number of days that the beach will be closed due to water quality issues, how many jobs will be created, how much shorter their commutes will be. Infrastructure projects – explicitly “sustainable” projects or otherwise – that do not know the answers to questions like these have difficulty getting off the ground.

Furthermore, modeling and measuring project-specific outcomes like these can often form the basis of a project’s funding applications or a more innovative public-private partnership. Here are some examples where project-specific modeling, monitoring and evaluation are essential and often prerequisite to project finance:

Reduction in flood insurance claims that results from a coastal protection project like constructed wetlands or seawall to unlock financing from a resilience bond or catastrophe bond

Reduction in stormwater runoff that results from city-wide green infrastructure to take advantage of an environmental impact bond like DC Water’s

Reduction in energy use that results from a blue roof project to use PACE (Property-Assessed Clean Energy) Financing

Reduction in environmental health metrics, like asthma attacks, that results after targeted home counseling to utilize a Social Impact Bond

Increases in property values resulting from public space improvements, like new parks or recreation facilities, to use Tax Increment Financing (TIF) in a way that’s beneficial to the community

The challenge to planning, sustainability and resilience professionals is to link broader systems sustainability measurements to these less familiar kinds of project-specific measurements. Doing so will require strategic coordination and collaboration with the staff leading specific projects (think: public works directors, city engineers). It’s this kind of integration that will help sustainability professionals break down often lofty sustainability goals and targets into tangible, implementable projects and programs, spurring investment in green projects at scale.

To the folks in communities pursuing sustainable, resilient or innovative infrastructure projects: We included examples in this piece about project-specific measurements that are necessary to gain community and leadership buy-in or unlock specific financing sources. What big examples did we miss?