HUD’s resilience revolution
By Jeff Byles
April 11, 2016
At first glance, Minot, North Dakota, might not look like a cauldron of resilience innovation. This modest city of about 50,000 on the Souris River is mainly known to the outside world for a nearby air force base stocked with Stratofortress bombers and Minuteman missiles, surrounded by a sprawling Midwestern farmscape.
But after severe floods on the Souris in 2011 displaced 12,000 people — at the same time that a boom in the nearby Bakken oil fields sent housing costs soaring and sapped social cohesion — Minot became the eye of a resilience whirlwind. Working with a crack team of climate specialists, hydraulic modelers, housing experts, economic developers, and landscape architects, the City has crafted a multipronged strategy to build new microcommunities safely out of harm’s way. In the process, it has forged common cause with counterparts across the Canadian border to control flooding and targeted a new educational center to diversify the downtown economy. To top it all off, Minot marshaled more than $337 million through a one-half-cent sales tax to fund regional flood protection.
On January 29, these impressive efforts vaulted the city to a spot among 13 winners of the National Disaster Resilience Competition, who together will share nearly $1 billion in recovery funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Taking home an award of $74 million, Minot wants to show the world how to confront climate change while empowering citizens to take charge of their own destiny. “When we wrote Minot’s application,” said Lee Staab, Minot’s city manager, “I thought it was important for other smaller communities to say, hey — these folks in Minot have got some great ideas, and that’s what we can do for our community too.”
Building back better
That a place like Minot could have a shot as a global resilience leader reflects a powerful new way of thinking about how the United States spends staggering sums of money in the wake of storms, floods, and hurricanes.
According to the Rockefeller Foundation, the federal government spent $136 billion on disaster relief between 2011 and 2013 — a figure that translates to nearly $400 for every household every year. Like most disaster-recovery funds, those dollars largely went to repairing, restoring, and repaving existing community assets. “The vast majority is being used to lovingly rebuild things exactly as they were, exactly where they were,” said Harriet Tregoning, who leads HUD’s Office of Community Planning and Development.
So a few years ago, HUD embarked upon a transformative effort to rethink the way those dollars are spent. While the agency has long promoted smart rebuilding strategies, under President Obama — and particularly in the wake of Hurricane Sandy — HUD has sharply shifted the focus from short-term fixes to long-term recovery, and toward ensuring that communities take thoughtful, innovative, and resilient actions to address future risks.
Those efforts ramped up in 2013, when, through the Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force, the agency launched Rebuild by Design, a competition that awarded $930 million in disaster recovery funds to seven winning ideas across the Hurricane Sandy–affected region. The results, ranging from a “living breakwater” for Staten Island to a much-debated plan for flood defenses in Hoboken, proved that community innovation can leapfrog forward when federal, state, local, and philanthropic goals align. “Rebuild by Design really exemplified what a competition can do and the creativity that can be unleashed,” Tregoning said. “It’s very different than how we have historically allocated this disaster recovery money.”
HUD has sharply shifted the focus from short-term fixes to long-term recovery.
HUD again turned to the competition model when it came time to identify unmet recovery needs across the country’s most impacted communities. “We wanted to take the best of Rebuild by Design and the best of what we had learned about the power of the federal government as a convener to bring different parties together to drive innovation,” said Marion McFadden, HUD’s deputy assistant secretary for grant programs. Where Rebuild by Design focused on outside practitioners — bringing creative minds from around the world to develop solutions in concert with local jurisdictions — this time around HUD focused on the jurisdictions themselves. “We wanted to leave a legacy of thinking about resilience, and we thought engaging the cities and states and counties directly was the best way to do that.”
The 16-month-long National Disaster Resilience Competition was open to states and communities impacted by a presidentially declared major disaster between 2011 and 2013. That amounted to 67 eligible applicants, ranging from Shelby County, Tennessee (major flooding), to the state of Alaska (severe storms and landslides) to California (raging wildfires) and nearly every state in between. Of the total $1 billion in available funding, $181 million was set aside for New York and New Jersey due to the outsize damage from Hurricane Sandy and earlier storms in 2011.
By throwing down a billion dollars in an aggressive time frame we got [these communities] to move more quickly.
With the support of the Rockefeller Foundation, HUD devised a two-phase competition: a framing phase asked applicants to broadly consider their recovery needs and vulnerabilities, while a second phase delved into project implementation. Throughout, HUD seized the opportunity to galvanize housing, infrastructure, and economic development agencies to act upon chronic challenges. “The billion dollars we had served as an accelerant,” said McFadden. “We had communities that were thinking about it, but by throwing down a billion dollars in an aggressive time frame we got them to move more quickly.”
Infrastructure as force multiplier
Amid the rush to rebuild, communities often don’t think through all the needs a single project can serve. So when it came time to pick the winners, emphasis was placed on projects that Christian Gabriel, an evaluator for the competition, called “force multipliers” — multiuse assets that serve several purposes at once. “From a physical standpoint, there was a lot of interest in infrastructure with an evolutionary quality,” said Gabriel, who is the national design director for landscape architecture at the U.S. General Services Administration. “A seawall can have recreational assets and other benefits that extend well beyond the acute needs of a particular natural event.”
The winning New York City initiative known as the Lower Manhattan Protect and Connect Project, for example, received $176 million for a flood protection system that would integrate recreational space, walkways, bicycle paths, and retail space, while also upgrading building systems and infrastructure in response to climate stressors. The project advances a vision for Lower Manhattan known as the “Big U,” which proposed a sprawling system of storm-surge barriers that double as dynamic public space. (A first phase of the concept, focused on Manhattan’s East Side south of 23rd Street, was awarded $335 million through Rebuild by Design and is expected to break ground in 2017.)
Part of HUD’s calculus was that it can enlist the nation’s road builders, bridge designers, and stormwater project sponsors as resilience partners to amplify the federal government’s investment. “The opportunity to build resilience into your capital projects is an opportunity that exists every day,” Tregoning said. “In some cases those cobenefits might have a very short payback period.” To quantify each project’s impact, the competition called for a benefit/cost analysis that would account for the entire range of social and community services resilience projects can provide. As Tregoning put it: “Why would anyone ever build another levy if a waterfront park could provide the same level of flood protection?”
Why would anyone ever build another levy if a waterfront park could provide the same level of flood protection?
A new community planning model
Among the barriers to building back smarter, HUD concluded, is that too few community-planning models exist to frame all the problems a project needs to solve. Tried-and-true grant templates, outreach activities, and government silos all had to be torpedoed if the competition were to succeed. For this HUD turned to Rockefeller, which committed $8 million to support the competition.
Drawing on its experience as lead supporter for Rebuild by Design, Rockefeller and its partners convened nine “resilience academies” around the country that brought applicants together with 350 public- and private-sector experts.“We wanted to signal loud and clear and upfront that this wasn’t your typical CDBG-DR request,” said Samuel Carter, associate director for the Rockefeller Foundation, referring to HUD’s routine disaster-recovery funding. “It would be a much heavier lift. What’s needed to make places more resilient is actually a new way of working.”
In turn, Rockefeller tapped external advisors to develop custom-tailored crash courses to help applicants understand hazards — whether flooding, wind damage, or wildfires — and how to best prepare for the future. Drawing on a range of resources (including Arup’s City Resilience Index, developed with Rockefeller support), the team armed applicants with state-of-the-art resilience thinking. “One of the critical elements of Rebuild by Design was having good, solid, interdisciplinary teams,” Carter added, noting that each jurisdiction was urged to draw together competencies from government, private-sector, and academic partners. “Even that first step was surprising to people.”
What’s needed to make places more resilient is actually a new way of working.
HUD, meanwhile, engaged more than two dozen federal agencies as participants in the competition. For places like Minot, a world away from the nation’s power brokers, this process was transformative. “Minot doesn’t show up on most maps of the US,” said Staab, the city manager. “To have all those agencies together at the same time and have the city of Minot introduced to those folks was priceless.”
Safeguarding social capital
In line with all of HUD’s community development funding, the competition focused on vulnerable populations and ensured that their voices were heard at the planning table. Such was the case in Colorado, which embarked upon a statewide resiliency framework following almost $4 billion in flood damage in 2013 — plus wildfires that destroyed nearly 1,250 homes over three years and tornadoes for good measure. While the state, one of 40 competition finalists, was not an ultimate winner, the initiative helped propel its resilience work forward. “One of the key positive takeaways of the rigorous application process was the valuable local input we received,” said Molly Urbina, executive director of the Colorado Resiliency and Recovery Office. “We brought stakeholders together that may not have had this conversation in one room. That relationship-building structure will continue to be invaluable.”
Colorado’s approach also reflects a broad emphasis on putting people at the core of resilience change. “You can’t have a conversation about vulnerability reduction without starting with people and the notion of social capital,” said Iain Hyde, the Colorado resilience office’s deputy director. The state Resiliency Framework, finalized last year, outlines business recovery tactics and longer-term tools to address chronic social stresses, including community inclusion mapping, post-disaster counseling, and ways the built environment can boost connectedness.
Social capital was also a focus in Virginia, whose winning proposal was awarded $120 million. While creating a network of distributed green infrastructure to retain and cleanse stormwater — envisioning every property owner as a microscale water manager — the state proposed a showpiece of water-sector workforce development: a Coastal Resilience Lab and Accelerator Center that promises to generate jobs through resilience innovation. “The fact is, we’re going to be spending a lot of money in the region on water management solutions,” said Chris Thompson, deputy director of housing for Virginia’s Department of Housing and Community Development. “Why not use that as an advantage and figure out how we can capitalize on some of those solutions?”
Like the most powerful ideas to emerge from the competition, turning climate calamity into opportunity is at the heart of Virginia’s thinking. “This region has a reason for being on the water,” said Christine Morris, Norfolk’s chief resilience officer, who helped spearhead Virginia’s application. “It will look different in a hundred years, but it’s a chance to integrate with water and fly with it.”
In other words, if water is redrawing Norfolk’s map — where 144 miles of shoreline are home to pockets of concentrated poverty and public housing — why not take this chance to foster more mixed-income and mixed-use neighborhoods? To make places where the city’s most medically fragile, financially unprepared, and socially disconnected people can thrive?
“Water is going places where it didn’t go before. We can use that opportunity to make neighborhoods more beautiful and connect communities in ways that other cities can learn from,” Morris said, aptly summarizing HUD’s ambitious approach to resilience. “Our strategy is to create the coastal community of the future.”
Lisa Dickson, Arup’s climate risk and resiliency leader for the Americas, contributed to this article.