What Being 18 Months Into an Urban Resilience Strategy Looks Like

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New Orleans has $200 million, a multi-disciplinary team and a network of partners with which to address infrastructure needs ahead of future shocks and stresses.

New Orleans secured more than $200 million for critical infrastructure and is midway through the city’s largest-ever capital program, 18 months since releasing the world’s first comprehensive urban resilience strategy.

Having established the Office of Resilience and Sustainability and built a multi-disciplinary team, including everything from climate action to design leadership, New Orleans is prepared to fund projects combining water management and storm protection with workforce development and neighborhood revitalization.

The city is currently upgrading drainage infrastructure and repairing streets to reduce flood risk in the future, partnering with environmental management company Veolia and reinsurance company Swiss Re to prioritize system upgrades.

“Working with limited resources is precisely the reason for operating with a resilience lens. In many ways, resilience is, for us, synonymous with being strategic,” New Orleans Chief Resilience Officer Jeff Herbert wrote in an email to Route Fifty. “When we are approaching an issue—whether it is transportation or water management—we are working to ensure environmental, social, and infrastructural goals can be met.”

In June, New Orleans created the Resilience Project Design Committee to ensure all new projects prioritize resilience and streamline multi-departmental review.

Resilience priorities have been integrated into the city’s strategic framework and budgeting process, so every public investment delivers multiple benefits.

“Budget alignment brings a very powerful structural perspective to their resilience efforts,” Michael Berkowitz, 100 Resilient Cities president, said in a phone interview.

New Orleans is a member city of the New York City-based Rockefeller Foundation initiative, of which Veolia and Swiss Re are platform partners.

Almost all 41 actions listed in the “Resilient New Orleans” strategy had committed partners when it was released, Herbert said.

Modelling, risk management and operations planning for water and energy systems will be handled by private sector partners, and Veolia and Swiss Re are analyzing assets while accounting for flood and wind mitigation and efficiency and energy upgrades.

As part of its contract, the city gets a guarantee of service from Veolia for a high-risk, 1-in-1,000-year storm to perform facility mitigations like higher storm walls. Veolia, in turn, buys insurance from Swiss Re to cover such a storm—saving New Orleans operational costs while making improvements. Both companies are hoping to prove the concept to other cities.

A Community Adaptation Program is in the works to connect homeowners with private contractors to adapt residences and gardens with water management infrastructure like bioswales and rain barrels. Rain gardens act like sponges rather than funnels and can mitigate the impacts of less-serious nuisance flooding, but residents must be educated on their benefits first.

“Partnerships are also helping to facilitate the generation and analysis of data in new ways for the City,” Herbert wrote. “Working together with national and international firms, we are developing a suite of new digital tools to support decision making for climate adaptation and collaborative planning for green infrastructure development.”

The Trust for Public Land is developing an online, project prioritization tool for New Orleans called Climate-Smart Cities that maps plans with physical and social resilience in mind. For instance, a user can mark areas where reducing the urban heat island effect is desired and also where large numbers of low-income seniors reside to ultimately site a tree-planting project for maximum impact.

Meanwhile, Dutch research institute Deltares is building an adaptation planning support tool for New Orleans that will allow stakeholders and residents to more easily influence the conceptual design of green infrastructure.

Groups of users can draw climate adaptations like permeable paving on a tabletop touch screen map that projects each measure’s performance at reducing flood risk and subsidence, improving water quality, and cooling the urban environment. Stakeholders won’t need to be experts to test alternatives and co-create green infrastructure projects.

And New Orleans has plenty of energetic stakeholders, philanthropists, neighborhoods, academic institutions, businesses and officials, who Herbert now serves as the single point of contact for in aligning efforts.

Buy-in from Mayor Mitch Landrieu has been critical in enabling the chief resilience officer, his team and stakeholders, Berkowitz said, and allowed Herbert to go out and win more than $141 million in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s National Disaster Resilience Competition and, additionally, Federal Emergency Management Agency hazard mitigation grant money.

“The mayor is not just checking in; he’s involved,” Berkowitz said. “If you can align all actors around common goals, you’re really able to move the needle on your resilience profile.”

Resilience culture begins by brainstorming focus areas across departments, Herbert said, and generating a work plan. New Orleans took 10 years of community outreach and planning to entrench adaptation and equity as urban values that will span generations of neighbors checking on neighbors.

“At the same time, each principle is paired with tangible actions for the short term, which is essential for any organization to succeed and to consistently demonstrate the public validity of the strategy,” Herbert said. “By focusing on long-term vision and short-term action, a resilience strategy can serve as a set of principles that will outlast a political administration as well as a work plan to guide a multi-disciplinary team.”

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