Climate change is having powerful impacts at the local, national, and federal levels, and adapting to those changes stands as one of the primary challenges for the built environment and for the sustainability of communities.
“The hard truth is that we really have to rebuild and build new with the expectation of likely extreme weather in the future,” said Harriet Tregoning, principal deputy assistant secretary, Office of Community Planning and Development Resilience at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Tregoning was one of the panelists at ULI’s Housing Opportunity 2015 conference in Minneapolis who shared their views on emerging best practices for building resilient communities, including lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy as well as current initiatives underway.
Communities across the United States are facing significant risks because of rising sea levels and extreme weather events such as storms, heavy rains, and heat waves. In many places, these risks are projected to only worsen. Extreme weather events are increasing both in frequency and severity. Since 2010, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has declared 360 major disasters.
Communities recovering in the wake of a disaster often want to rebuild things exactly as they were, and exactly where they were. Resilience tends to refer to an area’s ability to endure a shock or stress. Yet resilience also affords the opportunity not just to bounce back, but to bounce forward and emerge as a better, stronger community because of it, Tregoning noted. For example, why build a berm or levy for flood protection if a waterfront park would provide the same benefit and also create a community amenity?
One of the biggest hurdles to resilience planning is cost. Some estimates forecast that achieving national resilience would require spending more than $1 trillion, which is more than the country spent on creating its Interstate Highway System, noted David Dixon, a senior principal and urban design group leader at Stantec in Boston. Those federal dollars face a lot of competition from transportation, housing, health care, and a host of other projects. “What that means is that we have to make resilience dollars those dollars, too,” Dixon said.
A key theme of the panel discussion was focusing on how public and private groups can invest in communities so that they do not get benefits only when disasters strike, but those funds also are used to make the lives better for people in those communities. HUD has spent more than $43 billion since 2005 on long-term disaster recovery. The money that HUD has put toward disaster recovery has typically been distributed only by formula.
Recently, HUD partnered with the Rockefeller Foundation to create a $1 billion National Disaster Resilience Competition aimed at encouraging communities to use data, science, and new ideas to move forward in both rebuilding and planning for future resilience. The competition, which is open through October 27, allows communities to present project proposals with the chance to win awards between $1 million and $500 million. “We don’t have enough money to spend only for resilience. But why wouldn’t every transportation project and water and sewer project and building project have resilience built into it?” Tregoning asked.
Lessons Learned from Katrina
Dixon was involved in post-Katrina master planning for New Orleans, and he pointed to the many lessons learned during that rebuilding process. Billions of dollars came to New Orleans around what is now called resilience. Dollars were spent on raising houses, but not making them more livable. The pumps pumping water out of New Orleans were improved, but the canals were not touched. But if the canals had been turned into public canals and parks, they would have held five or six times as much water, Dixon said.
Basically, the billions of dollars that came to New Orleans were not targeted toward quality of life or equity or livability, but it did not even occur to anyone that they should be, noted Dixon. So, one of the big lessons learned from Katrina is that the resilience agenda also has to be a quality-of-life agenda, an economic opportunity agenda, and an equity agenda, he said.
Another important lesson learned in New Orleans, as well as in other rebuilding projects, is that it is important to preserve communities in place, Dixon said. “It’s not about picking up 50,000 people from New Orleans East, which was widely advocated, and moving them to a safer place,” he said. A case in point is an east Baltimore development initiative that moved a neighborhood about four blocks to make room for new research facilities for Johns Hopkins. That effort cost more than $500,000 per family. “Believe me, it is much less expensive and much more humane to preserve communities and ties and fabric in place,” he added.
Bouncing Forward Instead of Back
Despite the attention that Hurricane Katrina drew to some of the problems and missteps in New Orleans, there also have been some success stories. Providence Community Housing is one nonprofit housing developer and operator that was born in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. “New Orleans has deep, deep roots. People were forced to leave under circumstances that they did not create, and we wanted to make a home for them to come back to,” said Terri North, president and chief executive officer of Providence.
Providence and its partners have built or renovated 1,179 affordable rental units, 45 market-rate rental units, and 91 for-sale homes in New Orleans and Jefferson Parish that the nonprofit also now operates. Providence made a point to emphasize the creation of homeownership opportunities with low- to moderate-income options as an important step to stabilize the community, North added.
One of the key projects for Providence has been rebuilding Faubourg Lafitte, which is a public housing project in the heart of New Orleans. It is a joint commitment between Providence and Enterprise Community Partners. Phase I of the mixed-income project includes a total of 812 units—510 on-site units and 302 off-site units that combined include a total of 568 affordable rentals and 244 market-rate rentals or homes for sale.
“We [went] to the community and asked them what they wanted to see,” said North. They wanted Lafitte to look like the rest of the community, and not the 1940s barracks-style public housing project that had previously existed. So, the post-Katrina redevelopment provided an opportunity to make much-needed improvements to the quality and raise the standard of housing for residents. The proposed Phase II, which is not yet funded, calls for the construction of an additional 688 units of off-site development.
Ultimately, planning for resilience will be an important component of future development given the large concentration of the U.S. economy in cities threatened by global sea-level rise due to climate change. A tremendous amount of capital is flowing to new urban development at the same time that communities have to spend a lot of money on resilience. “We have an opportunity that we probably haven’t had since before the depression in terms of where investment flows are going,” said Dixon. One of the chief tasks going forward is to meld resilience planning with that new urban agenda, he added.