Our nation’s infrastructure will crumble without resilience


For those of us who work in cities, it was great to hear New York Sen. Charles Schumer’s announcement this week that one of his first legislative priorities—should he become Senate majority leader—would be a large infrastructure program. While political outcomes are difficult to predict, there is consensus in both parties that our nation’s infrastructure, particularly in our cities, is in dire need of improvement. However, what is missing from the discussion is a comprehensive approach which can only be achieved by integrating ‘resilience’ in any new infrastructure legislation and project blueprints.

As public budgets shrink, local infrastructure crumbles, and the challenges of the 21st century bring new pressures, cities must find creative ways to improve existing infrastructure and develop new infrastructure. Here is where resilience comes in: resilience is about making sure that you get the most out of every dollar you spend, and that you focus on solving multiple problems at once. Public infrastructure projects that serve multiple purposes represent significant cost savings to taxpayers and improve quality of life for everyone.

Here is an example that Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton raised in a speech earlier this month. In the wake of Hurricane Sandy there were calls for a flood wall around lower Manhattan. But the path the city, state and federal government took was far better – instead of just building a wall, they are creating a system of parks which will provide the same protection, provide additional greenspace for the city, and improve community cohesion by giving people public space to meet and socialize. Instead of gray infrastructure, the city will have a brand new park.
Clinton has pledged to spend $275 billion to rebuild our infrastructure in five years and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has vowed to spend double that amount on infrastructure should he take office. Regardless of who wins the White House or majorities in Congress, our policymakers need to update regulations for infrastructure projects in the same smart way. Government needs to change how urban infrastructure is designed and managed, leverage existing funding in new ways, and use innovative financing mechanisms and private-public partnership models. In other words, we need resilient infrastructure.

Take a look at New Orleans. Through the city’s work with 100 Resilient Cities, the local government built a comprehensive resilience strategy with smart requirements: public projects have to solve multiple city threats and challenges at the same time, they need input from local community groups, they have to respond to the city’s long-term planning, and the projects cannot produce unintended negative effects.

After Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans needed storm water management infrastructure. The city updated their zoning ordinance to require most new developments to adopt green infrastructure practices to manage storm water. The city also continues to work to promote the development of their regional water management cluster, Greater New Orleans, Inc., since flooding knows no boundaries. In addition, all water projects include workforce development components. In partnership with GNO, Inc. and the Data Center, New Orleans is promoting the growth of the water management sector and training the workforce on new skills. This is how you build resilience.

With respect to our national infrastructure, we need to mirror what is happening in New Orleans, and many of our cities. Congress must work across the aisle and secure infrastructure wins that benefit both parties: when lawmakers create infrastructure jobs at home, when they solve multiple issues with one project, and when they save taxpayers money, constituents are happy.

Infrastructure is about more than underground pipes and concrete roads. As any of the recent infrastructure-related tragedies will tell you, it’s about protecting the safety and well-being of our nation’s families in both the short and long-term, in good times and bad.

Regardless of which political party takes over the House and Senate, or even the White House, our nation’s cities are counting on our policymakers to integrate holistic resilience in any new infrastructure bills. Our lives depend on it.

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