Planning a More Resilient Future: Four Takeaways From the 2017 Resilient Cities Summit

This post was co-authored by Katharine Burgess, Jeremy Sigmon and Cooper Martin.

Last week, an inspirational group of mayors, senior city officials, and nationally-recognized experts gathered in Stowe, Vermont, for the 2017 Resilient Cities Summit, hosted by the National League of Cities (NLC), the Urban Land Institute (ULI), and the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC). Against the scenic backdrop of Stowe’s mountain views and rustic charm, the group of 60 attendees from across the nation discussed how cities can be more prepared for climate risk and achieve a more resilient future.

After a successful 2016 summit focused on successful environmental planning and solutions for sustainable land use, the 2017 summit centered around how to finance resilient infrastructure and implement actions to build more resilient communities. Summit sessions discussed identifying funding sources, prioritizing equity in resilience planning, and motivating support for investing in a more resilient city.

While the challenges that attendees face back at home vary from sea level rise and heat islands to earthquakes and severe storms, it was striking how much city leaders found they had in common in their approaches to community resilience. Here are four key takeaways from this year’s summit:

1) Local Leaders Must Be Willing to Reimagine Their City

At its core, a resilient city is one that is thriving and evolving rather than simply surviving. Resilient cities are adaptive, competitive and equitable, and this requires local leaders to position their city to respond to changes. Resilient city leaders should have an outlook for infrastructure and land use that incorporates the next 20, 30 or even 50 years as opposed to a time frame that only extends through the length of their term. This often requires cities to do something they’ve never done before, whether it’s changing how they finance redevelopment projects or how they use data to inform decision-making.

The status quo might be comfortable, and governments are rightfully risk-averse, but elected leaders also have a responsibility to reach for the future. In today’s world, contexts are constantly in flux, whether they are based on economic, social, climatic or other factors. The city that thinks about tomorrow’s risks and vulnerabilities and acts on that future in a collaborative, equitable fashion will ultimately be more resilient.

Mayors Lily Mei of Fremont, California, Dennis Doyle of Beaverton, Oregon, and Mark Mitchell of Tempe, Arizona, join other mayors, city staff and national experts at the 2017 Resilient Cities Summit. (NLC)

2) Financing a Resilient City Requires New, Innovative Funding Sources

Cities must be able to find the funds necessary to implement the critical solutions to their resilience challenges. Participants at this year’s summit pointed out that the trend for federal funding for these initiatives has been on the decline for years, so cities need to build off available programs, work with the private sector, get creative, and leverage every dollar, including allocations in existing capital improvement plans.

Resilience requires a thoughtful planning process that extends beyond a single project or initiative. Rather than focusing on the specific outcome of building a new roadway, pipeline or sea wall, for example, cities should instead focus on the variety of possible services that investment can provide. A central idea is to approach reinvestment from a perspective that seeks maximal co-benefits in order to solve multiple problems at once. One participant asked if cities are asking their engineers and planners to think big enough. For instance, a needed flood barrier could be designed to also serve as a park that adds community space and boosts real estate value while, in parallel, offering drainage solutions for the surrounding neighborhoods.

There are also emerging forms of financing, such as the growing green bond market. The first green bond was issued in the United States in 2013 and designates proceeds to projects with environmental or climatic benefits. Since then, $269 billion in green bonds have been issued, with most of these funds used for water- and energy-based projects. The total number of bond issuances to date has been smaller than it could have been because not all bonds that can be classified as “green” are issued as such. New resources such as the recently-issued Green Bond Guidelines for the Real Estate Sector — which will help real estate projects such as green buildings attract and invest capital by slashing energy and environmental impacts — can help this market expand.

In addition to exploring emerging financial tools and new forms of financing, summit participants discussed how to better engage with the private sector and involve the private sector in both funding and envisioning resilient urban outcomes. Stormwater management regulations in Washington, D.C. — which require new real estate projects to incorporate green infrastructure or use market-based solutions to mitigate off-site impacts — offer examples of how the public and private sectors can jointly contribute to the implementation of resilient infrastructure.

Mayors discuss local perspectives and strategies for building resiliency. (NLC)

3) Resiliency Requires Inclusive Outreach and Engagement

In most areas of the country, low-income, elderly and minority communities are impacted more severely by extreme weather events and climate change. Low-income communities are often located in parts of cities which are most vulnerable to extreme weather, and households can lack resources to bounce back from devastating events. Residents also often lack resources to be sufficiently prepared for an extreme event or to evacuate if and when necessary.

Cities must ensure that investments in resilience are transparent and open to all members of the community. Gathering reliable data is an important aspect in this regard. For example, in New York City, data and GIS mapping are used to inform city staff about which areas are most at risk to the heat island effect by showing which neighborhoods suffer from the highest incidence of heat-related deaths. This information is currently being used to inform tree planting and cool roof initiatives.

Summit participants also highlighted the importance of directly engaging community constituents in the planning process. While unintended, an open call for participation may not yield a balanced set of community interests. Rather than engagement by proxy, groups that are expected to be significantly at risk should be especially sought out and directly engaged. Cities that hold many different styles of meetings and prioritize the early involvement of residents are better-equipped during decision making processes, which therefore lays the groundwork for implementation.

Lastly, engagement requires action and follow-through to maintain trust, especially in communities that are already overburdened by economic and social forces. Soliciting input and establishing a shared vision for the future is one thing — but in cities throughout the country, these communities have seen plans, promises and administrations come and go. Cycles of inaction must be broken.

4) The Public Sector Can’t Go It Alone – Collaboration Is a Necessity

While mayors and other city officials play a critical role in leading their communities to a more resilient future, they cannot do so alone. Banks, utilities, insurers, business leaders and community groups all play an important role and should be part of the planning process. Importantly, cities must work across departments to ensure staff at all levels are collaborating, speaking the same language, and building awareness on what resilience is and how it impacts everything from public works to economic development.

Private and nonprofit partners can help offset costs and provide new pathways to long-term funding. For example, in Cincinnati, Ohio, the nonprofit Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation (3CDC) has led a dramatic transformation in a downtown neighborhood called Over-The-Rhine. The business community raised $50 million and created 3CDC to respond to deteriorating conditions. 3CDC in turn brought together the city’s major employers and public officials to leverage the $50 million into more than $1 billion in the last seven years through an array of creative financing techniques and partnerships. It has achieved a remarkable turnaround in both the downtown area and in Over-The-Rhine, which was once described as “the worst neighborhood in America.” This transformation is considered the best model in the country of the impact public-private partnerships led by the private sector can have in cities.

Former Pittsburgh Mayor and Senior Resident Fellow at the Urban Land Institute Tom Murphy delivers closing remarks. (NLC)

Cities should also look to surrounding communities to build a more regional approach to resilience solutions. Climate vulnerabilities do not respect municipal boundaries, so regional collaboration is particularly important when it comes to envisioning and developing resilient infrastructure. Whether it’s creating a forum for discussion or pooling resources for large-scale projects, solidifying relationships with nearby cities that face similar challenges is an important step to enhancing urban resilience and, intentionally, one of the powerful opportunities enabled by the 2017 Resilient Cities Summit.

Looking Ahead

No one runs for office on a platform of “community resilience,” but the underlying issues of public safety, infrastructure maintenance, land use and economic opportunity are central to any administration. Local leaders must see the relationships between these issues in order to identify opportunities to achieve multiple benefits with their capital investments and have a clear, positive vision about what kind of community they want these investments to create. The result will be a network of resilient cities that will ultimately make America a stronger nation.

After three years of hosting the Resilient Cities Summit, the partners have convened nearly 50 cities and have examined a complex web of topics related to community resilience. NLC, ULI and USGBC invite all cities to learn from these important discussions, which are captured in the 2015 summit report and the 2016 summit report. Stay tuned for future articles and a full report from the 2017 Resilient Cities Summit.

Featured image: Mt. Mansfield provides a noteworthy backdrop to the landscape in Stowe, Vermont, site of the 2017 Resilient Cities Summit. (Getty Images)

About the authors:

Katharine Burgess is the director of urban resilience at the Urban Land Institute.

Jeremy Sigmon is the director of technical policy at the U.S. Green Building Council.

Cooper Martin is the program director of the Sustainable Cities Institute at the National League of Cities.