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100 Lafayette St
Baton Rouge, LA, 70801
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The Louisiana Smart Growth Summit is the premier interdisciplinary forum promoting dialogue focusing on resilience, livability, planning, design  infrastructure, development, placemaking, public transit, transportation, connectivity, policymaking and economic development.

Resilience as A Framework

The Rockefeller Foundation details their 100 Resilient Cities Challenge to the attendees at the 2015 Louisiana Smart Growth Summit. The effort is designed to help cities around the world become more resilient to the physical, social, and economic challenges that are a growing part of the 21st century. 

Resiliency as a Framework for Progress

During the Summit’s opening plenary, Ron Sims – former King County Executive and former Deputy Director of HUD – gave Baton Rouge something to smile about.  He said, “I don’t recognize Baton Rouge from what it was 10 years ago.  It is incredible.  I love looking at the river and the boats on it.  The levee walk I took today was great.  People are friendly and the food is really good.”

Important progress has been made – and must continue if we want Baton Rouge to become the vibrant, prosperous city we aspire to be. Amidst staggering budget deficits, worsening traffic congestion and rising seas, contemplating the future of our state is not for the faint of heart.  Brookings fellow and LOCUS president Chris Leinberger didn’t mince words during his plenary: “You’re lagging.  You’re not on the cutting edge.  You’re being lapped by folks you shouldn’t be lapped by.”

But despite some daunting challenges, this is also a time of hope and opportunity for the state.  With Edwards in the governor’s office, Shawn Wilson at DOTD, Bob Rivers as New Orleans' planning director, Frank Duke settling into his role as Baton Rouge’s new Planning Director, and new leadership on the horizon for many parishes in the region, those who believe our state, cities and towns can do better will have partners who are similarly committed to making progress on the issues most important to our future: economic development, sustainable infrastructure, public health, equitable access to opportunity, quality of life – in short, resilience.

Resilience was a framing concept for the 2015 Smart Growth Summit. The Rockefeller Foundation’s Resilient Cities effort and the New Orleans Resiliency Plan that has been developed as part of Rockefeller’s global initiative to build urban resiliency were both featured.  Our speakers noted that since hurricanes Katrina and Rita, we’ve shifted from disaster-response mode to thinking more about how to position our region to weather the impacts of disaster with fewer losses and disruptions – and somewhere along the way, “resilience” has become a household word. 

However, the definition of “resilience” has also become broad and amorphous. What exactly are we talking about when we discuss resilience? Seeking to assign more specific meaning to the now-ubiquitous term, Rockefeller has conducted extensive research on what, in fact, constitutes resiliency.  They identified more than 100 indicators and grouped them into 12 categories including everything from social cohesion; communications, technology and mobility infrastructure; environmental stewardship; effective leadership; engaged stakeholders; to integrated development planning and more.  Their analysis suggests that resilience depends on strategic integration and development of people, resources and infrastructure.

Traditionally, resilience refers to the capacity of a system to maintain or recover functionality in the event of disruption or disturbance. For their purposes, Rockefeller defines resilience as “the capacity of cities to function so that people living and working in cities – particularly the poor and vulnerable – survive and thrive no matter what stresses or shocks they encounter.” Rockefeller notes that this “marks a deliberate shift away from traditional disaster risk management” model to a focus on “enhancing the performance of a system in the face of multiple hazards.”  In other words, a shift away from attempting to anticipate the impacts of disaster events such as hurricanes and oil spills to a focus on strengthening social networks and economic, environmental, transportation and other essential systems that support a city.  When these systems, networks and assets are strong and well protected, cities and people are able to weather both chronic stresses, such as economic downturn or climate change, and acute disruptions, such as a severe weather event or chemical plant explosion.

Defined as such, resiliency includes much of what we already know about the essential elements of vibrant and prosperous cities.  However, the concept also provides an additional lens through which to consider the importance of investing in things that often take a back seat, such as well-designed community spaces and inclusive outreach processes that facilitate civic engagement and social cohesion; data and technology that enhance the performance and integration of transportation, communication and health systems; and creating redundancies that allow critical systems to remain viable in the face of potentially disruptive events. 

Resilience doesn’t just happen – we must plan for it.  And resilience is context-specific – what resilience means for New Orleans is necessarily different than what it looks like in Baton Rouge, Gonzales or Cameron Parish. Resilience must be built according to the particular needs of our communities, region and state.  Because of its focus on data, community outreach, and shared visioning, planning has an important role to play in identifying specific needs and building resilience, and Smart Growth strategies are ideally suited for making progress toward resiliency objectives.  Speakers at the Smart Growth Summit provided a number of important takeaways than can inform resilience-building efforts in the specific context of the capital region – takeaways that our elected officials, policy makers, practitioners and community leaders should all keep in mind as we work together for a better, more resilient Baton Rouge.    

The Resiliency panel featuring Leah Flax, program officer for Rockefeller; Jeff Hebert, New Orleans Chief Resiliency Officer; and Theresa O’Donnell, Dallas Chief Resiliency Officer, explored one of the fundamental challenges of planning for resiliency. As Flax put it, “how do we make citizens’ lives better today while planning for the future?” Within the constraints of existing resources, how do we address immediate and pressing needs, while laying the groundwork for an aspirational future? This dilemma looms large for Louisiana, especially as our budget woes continue to mount.  How do we invest in next-wave transportation technology when our streets and highways are in dire need of repair?  How do we prioritize access to quality public spaces when so many don’t even have access to safe, affordable housing? Where do we find the resources to improve awareness of public services and information when we’re struggling to fund public agencies across the board?  As Jeff Hebert explained, investing in resilience means looking for “both/ and” opportunities and developing innovative strategies – such as training unemployed workers for jobs in green energy – that address both the immediate concern (unemployment) and help build resilience for the long term (developing green energy sources).     

Louisiana and New Orleans were recently awarded grants by HUD’s National Disaster Resilience Competition for $92M and $141.2M respectively.  Hopefully, in the spirit of the grant competition, designed to support efforts to “embrace resilience as a way to build a better future,” this infusion of resources will provide meaningful opportunities to invest in strategies that will deliver both near-term benefits while also building lasting resilience for the state and region. 

Stay tuned for subsequent “Beyond the Summit” essays that will highlight additional Summit themes and further develop the notion of using resilience as a framework for addressing issues of concern, such as housing, transportation, and public health.