New Orleans' efforts to solve its water problem -- on full display this month as rain flooded streets across the city -- might also address another challenge the city faces: crime.
The connection isn't obvious, but it's there, said Jeff Hebert, the city's newly minted chief resilience officer, and other city officials in a recent interview. If you look at New Orleans with an eye toward resilience, you start to see the city's challenges -- and potential solutions -- are connected, Hebert said.
Identifying those intersections and solutions is the essence of Hebert's new job, which is funded through a grant from 100 Resilient Cities, an offshoot of the Rockefeller Foundation focused on helping cities thrive in the face of adversity.
The grant program, which was announced in September but officially got underway in January, will run for two years. When it's finished, the hope is, the city will have completed a self-assessment of its vulnerabilities, identified areas where solutions can make the broadest impact, and laid out a plan of action.
Rather than put money into short-term solutions, the idea is to spark a fundamental shift in the way the city works so that, when bad things happen, the city's better prepared to absorb the shock.
"Part of our job is to catalyze long-term, institutional change," said Bryna Lipper, a Resilient Cities vice president.
To explain how the program might work in practical terms, the officials used the flooding example.
For the past century, Hebert said, the city focused on how to get water out of the city as fast and efficiently as possible. In doing, so, it destabilized the soil, making street maintenance ruinously expensive, as the shifting and subsiding ground made freshly paved streets into obstacle courses in just a a few years.
A better strategy is to create a drainage system that allows water to settle into the soil slowly, over time. Implementing that change, though, requires a new mindset not only for city engineers but also for residents, officials said.
On an individual level, residents need to stop pushing water off their properties, whether intentionally, through downspouts and gutters, or inadvertently through excessive driveway paving, Hebert said.
From the city's standpoint, the Sewerage and Water Board and other agencies have to take a long-term view when making engineering decisions, said Chief Administrative Officer Andy Kopplin.
The city is already implementing strategies to achieve those changes, adopting theGreater New Orleans Urban Water Plan, which includes a $9 billion package of sustainable drainage projects.
The city hopes to transform the challenge of revamping flood control into an economic development opportunity.
A training program at Delgado Community College will train some 250 workers for jobs at the Sewerage & Water Board, connecting jobs created by Water Plan with some of the estimated 52 percent of black men in the city who are unemployed.
Future policy changes could help spur private investment. For example, government could encourage property owners to do their part by building rain gardens on their property, as the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority has done on some of the empty lots it owns. If that takes off, it could create an exportable cottage industry of rain garden design and construction, Kopplin said.
The idea is to address one urgent need -- flooding, in this case -- in such a way that it addresses other needs, such as economic opportunity and, by extension, crime, the officials said.
In Chicago, the city was able to spur the growth of a green infrastructure sector by adopting green building standards and mandating them for public buildings, Hebert said.
Hebert said he is in the process of identifying other vulnerabilities that, with the right policy approach, can be turned into strengths.
That work is still in its nascent stages, he said.
When that's complete, the city will narrow its focus on three to five areas and design a clearly actionable plan to address them, Lipper said. Where the city may lack the capacity, whether through lack of expertise or other support, the Resilient Cities program is set up to connect them with the resources they need, she said.
When the next disaster strikes, be it economic or natural, the city will be better equipped to deal with it, Lipper said.
"Resilience, to us, is the city's ability, in terms of its institutions, individual systems and infrastructure, not just to recover from catastrophes but ... to adapt and grow and have a healthy and prosperous future in times of uncertainty," Lipper said.