On June 2, 2014, Shaun Donovan, the Secretary of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, announced the winners of Rebuild by Design, an international competition formed in response to the devastation left by Hurricane Sandy in the New York area. As one of the largest and most ambitious design competitions ever held, most people in the design world—especially those with an interest in green infrastructure—probably remember seeing the images of the winning designs as they flooded across the internet.

The central theme of Rebuild by Design, fittingly, was “resilience,” a concept that the competition helped cement in the mainstream consciousness as a broad framework for how society can better adapt to a rapidly changing world and better recover from unexpected upheavals when they occur. The Rockefeller Foundation was the lead funding partner for the competition and took a central role in supporting the unusually rigorous design process, which was structured as an iterative, collaborative progression with a high degree of public input. And the man who spearheaded the effort on behalf of the Rockefeller Foundation was Samuel Carter, a managing director of the foundation who oversees much of their resilience portfolio.

“I think this second anniversary of Rebuild by Design is an important moment for everyone in the region to reflect on the progress we’ve made, of what more we need to do, and to really celebrate the moment,” Carter says. This month, gb&d celebrates the achievement of the resilience movement by inviting Carter to share some of the lessons he’s learned over the last 10 years as one of the nation’s foremost resilience experts—he formerly coordinated and led the day to day operations of the SSRC Katrina Task Force, an international consortium of scientists and policymakers formed in the wake of the disaster in New Orleans—as well as his vision for “Resilience, version 2.0.”

Part 1 Roots of the Resilience Movement

gb&d: What were some of the formative experiences that led to your career path as a thought leader in the resilience movement?

Samuel Carter: I started getting interested in what we now call the field of resilience back in undergrad in the early 2000s when I studied something called media ecology. This is a weird discipline that was pioneered by Neil Postman at New York University, which thinks about ecology not in the exclusive sense of the environment, but as a way of thinking about communications and media studies as a complete ecosystem with many different actors and many different forces—essentially thinking about it as a holistic system.

gb&d: How did the focus on media studies transform into a career focused on the environment, in an ecological sense?

Carter: Along the way, I took a lot of environmental studies courses and I read Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, which really transformed my thinking about not just the environment as a holistic system, but about the entire urban environment as a system, and even larger systems as well. All that very much informed my decision to pursue public policy and urban planning in graduate school. I wanted to approach the planning public policy lens because it was important to me to be able to influence the actual structure of decision-making and the rules within which things were happening.

gb&d: And you found yourself in the midst of a very exciting environment after graduate school, which was seminal in the resilience movement. Tell us about that.

Carter: I was actually still in grad school when I took a position at an outfit called the Social Science Research Council (SSRC), a think tank established by The Rockefeller Foundation in the 1920s, which at that time was focused on getting America out of the Depression, and acted as an advisor to Congress about the type of social safety nets that were needed. Flash forward almost 100 years, and the SSRC was focused on coordinating the various social science fields to get people working on priority agendas. They brought me in specifically for a very large project focused on Katrina—in particular documenting displaced populations from that storm. The job of coordinating multiple teams of social science researchers that were out in the field working with communities that had faced this major natural disaster, people whose lives had been organized around all these different social and ecological systems, was when things really started to click for me around resilience as a conceptual framework for doing my work.

gb&d: What were your initial impressions?

Carter: What I noticed as I talked to these people that were displaced and as I worked in the city of New Orleans itself was that most people were still thinking through a very narrow lens—of housing, or of policies to attract people back, or how to restore the coastline, how to rebuild the levees. It was actually very hard to find a productive discourse in which people could combine all these things and think holistically about the city and what it needed. As I went through that process and began to engage in the literature around resilience, which was starting to percolate at that time—this was 2006 and 2007, a time when some seminal books like [B. H. Walker’s] Resilience Thinking came out—that was the discourse that resonated most with what I was seeing on the ground with these incredibly complicated situations.

PART 2 Resilience on the Ground

gb&d: What is your opinion of the United States’ national resilience policy framework at this point?

Carter: I would say there are multiple frameworks. There is a lot of really good work being led by the [federal] Council on Environmental Quality, and in the Obama administration more broadly, that is advancing the resilience agenda in productive ways for people around the country. There is great work that has been done by NIST, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, which has a disaster recovery framework around resilience. And there has been great work done at HUD with the National Disaster Resilience Competition, which provides a way for communities to engage with resilience thinking. What’s exciting is how much we’re seeing cities and states pick these concepts up and run with them. Communities with vastly different challenges and vastly different political environments are finding a lot of traction with the concept.

gb&d: Tell us about the National Disaster Resilience Competition.

Carter: That’s been a big part of my work for the last year and a half or so—it’s the next version of Rebuild by Design. When Congress allocated those funds for disaster recovery, they didn’t exclusively make them available to the Sandy region, they made them available to any place in the country that had a nationally declared disaster between 2011 and 2013. There were 67 different communities around the country that were eligible to participate. In January of this year, proposals from eight states and five municipalities were announced as winners. The project in Louisiana to relocate the community of Isle de Jean Charles was one of those selected.

gb&d: How was this competition similar or different than Rebuild by Design?

Carter: We knew we couldn’t follow a Rebuild by Design model where we asked international teams to form, because the number of communities that were eligible to compete was simply so great, but we wanted to find a way to make that kind of a process accessible to the entire country. We created something called a Resilience Academy, which is a sequence of short, intense moments of collaborative work where we would bring a network of experts into each geographic region and enable the competing jurisdictions to come learn from each other, using resilience as a framework. It was a real delight to see that through to execution, because what we heard from all the jurisdictions that went through that process was that the academies were a real departure from their normal way of working. It’s similar to what I was describing in the early days around Katrina when everyone was still working in their silos. Everyone was on a single path with a single mission, hitting their own targets. What the Academy enabled people to do, even if it was only over the course of a few three-day sprints, was to step out of their comfort zones and think big about what was possible.

gb&d: What are some of the most important projects on the ground?

Carter: I think there are two really key test cases that are going on right now with respect to climate adaptation where entire communities are having to relocate. One is the native communities in coastal Alaska, where their land is literally eroding away as a result of rising sea levels and melting permafrost. The other is in Louisiana, where the Isle de Jean Charles is in a similar situation. We are in a bit of a new paradigm. This is a moment where we as a society have to reorient ourselves to the future in some very tangible ways.

gb&d: What are the first steps for these communities to relocate and start building new and different infrastructure?

Carter: The communities going through this transformative process have some initial hurdles to face because our policy environment is not necessarily set up to deal with these kinds of challenges. There are folks in the federal government who are trying to navigate this maze of policies, which is actually the ground-breaking work that is going to make it easier to make these adjustments moving forward. It is completely expected that there would be these kinds of challenges. The question is how do we organize ourselves to realign policies with the realities that we now face? I think it’s important that there is a vision for how things need to go, and a lot of the work that The Rockefeller Foundation does is to try to articulate that vision, and express in actionable ways what is possible.

Part 3 Resilience V2

gb&d: What’s next for you now that the National Disaster Resilience Competition has wrapped up?

Carter: Now the Foundation is pivoting and wondering, where else can the Resilience Academy be useful? So our work moving forward is to think about where, globally, we could use the Resilience Academy format to help communities make transformative leaps in their thinking around strategies and projects. We are currently in the process of finalizing that program.

gb&d: And what about Rebuild by Design—have any of the winning projects broken ground at this point?

Carter: The six winning designs were awarded funding about a year and a half ago and are now well on their way toward implementation, but they are still in the design phase. One of the key things that needs to happen with projects of this scale are environmental impact studies, and those are all moving at the pace that was expected. One of the interesting things about this process is that the funding is time bound—even if the projects get every possible extension allowable to them, they still have to be completed by 2022, which with the scale of the infrastructure we’re talking about is actually quite an aggressive timeframe. So there’s going to be real tangible progress, very visible to New Yorkers and folks in New Jersey very soon.

gb&d: Now that the concept of resilience has gained such currency, how do you envision its next evolution? Resilience V2, if you will.

Carter: For folks like me who have been working actively in the space for 10 years, right now is very much a moment for the world to recognize how this work can happen. As complicated as it is, as place-based as it is, we’ve found a way to do it creatively, to work with communities and ultimately to fund projects. It’s something we’re very proud of here at the foundation. In the future, I see resilience as moving more and more toward embodying a holistic notion of systems. Currently it tends to get organized around specific hazards. So, for instance, people might talk about climate resilience or resilience to coastal issues. But one of the things that is interesting to me is how these different sectors of the field are starting to marry out of need, because if you’re only dealing with one particular type of hazard or one particular type of geography, and you’re not dealing with other elements of our communities like the social or the economic, you’re not actually getting the value from the resilience intervention that you might otherwise. My hope for the field is that we continue to collaborate across disciplines and across geographies to really think holistically about the places that we love and care about and really position ourselves for strength looking forward.

gb&d: Is there a project underway today that you think fully embodies that approach?

Carter: In addition to the State of Louisiana project involving the Isle de Jean Charles, there was a very interesting proposal from the City of New Orleans, which was awarded funding through the National Disaster Resilience Competition (NDRC). It came together on the 10-year anniversary of Katrina, so it was a special moment for the city after having been through a number of planning processes and trying various incremental changes. They’ve proposed a Resilience District for the city in a neighborhood called Gentilly. What’s interesting about their proposal is, counter to how the city has been engineered for the last hundred years, that they are proposing to create ways that the city can live with the water that is coming in, and that will be coming in. They plan to create water gardens throughout the community and to reclaim land in ways that create beautiful new parks that have the dual purpose of a public amenity and are also a safe space for flooding. And they’ve proposed to reorganize transportation infrastructure in ways that allow for safe flooding of the street, while still allowing people to use them.

It is a very exciting project just from a physical standpoint. But especially exciting about it for me is that it really embodies the resilience thinking that we are promoting at the foundation in that it’s also a major economic development program for the city. Over 50% of African-American men in New Orleans are unemployed in the formal workforce. What that says is that there is a huge gap of opportunity, and there is not the connection of talent with jobs. The city sees resilience and water management as their future economy, in the same way that it is for the Dutch, where managing water has been a major driver of their economy for centuries. The project will actually create a whole new stream of funding for jobs in water engineering, urban planning, operations and maintenance of the parks, etc. It will be a laboratory to develop some of the best practices in water management in an urban context—in a city that is something like 4 feet below sea level on average. It is
a wonderful embodiment of the spirit of resilience.

Connect with Samuel Carter: LinkedIn

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