THE BLOG

A Roadmap for Resilient Infrastructure Investment

03/25/2015 02:42 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2015

Cities are built around silos. Water treatment plants are handled by the water utility; roads and bridges fall to the department of transportation; power grids are maintained by electric companies. Under this system, there are some major gaps--needs at the seams of sectors can go unmet, failures in one area can domino into another--but, more importantly, opportunities to make our communities stronger and more resilient can go unrecognized when no one is looking at the big picture.

As public budget shrink and local infrastructure crumbles, cities can't afford to let opportunities for big infrastructure improvements pass them by. The RE.invest Initiative was launched two years ago with the generous support of the Rockefeller Foundation to help cities solve two problems at once: building resilience and attracting new funding for infrastructure.

Usually investments to make infrastructure, like water and energy systems, more resilient are seen as extra costs. RE.invest was designed to show how the reverse could be true--how planning for resilience up front could create cost savings and open up new financing opportunities for local governments. For the past two years, the RE.invest team worked with eight cities across the U.S. to design environmentally and financially sustainable infrastructure projects. Each of our partner cities identified a range of challenges, such as protecting communities from severe weather events and coastal flooding, and RE.invest brought together a dedicated technical team of engineers, lawyers, and finance experts to help craft new cross-sector infrastructure solutions to meet these local needs.

The resulting solutions are featured in RE.invest's final report A Roadmap for Resilience, which brings together lessons on how to cost-effectively design whole city systems rather than siloed pilot projects.

Resilience is about systems, not just projects. Resilient storm water management isn't about one water treatment plant with a billion-dollar price tag. It is about streets paved with porous pavement and rain gardens or underground parking garages that can act as bathtubs to catch floodwaters during bad storms (both of which are real-life solutions being pursued by RE.invest cities).

When a city decides to approach its infrastructure with an eye towards resilience, it needs new methods for aligning public and private interests to help cities find financially viable projects. The main innovation of RE.invest was that it tackled this problem at the stage of "predevelopment"--all the activities that go into designing and developing a major infrastructure project before construction.

Starting early in the infrastructure development process creates space to integrate design and financing in new ways so that parking can help pay for flood management or insurance savings can be captured to rebuild seawalls. Funding resilience is not only about finding more money, it's about helping cities design new solutions rather than building more of the same.

An investment in expensive infrastructure can be hard for elected officials and municipal leaders to sell to constituents. When it comes to resilience, success is often something that doesn't happen. Despite the best efforts of comedians like John Oliver, there is no ribbon cutting for lots of small projects that fit together to make a better system. Politicians don't see a huge swelling of popular support for a flood that didn't happen because the new storm water system performed better than the old system.

This work--the planning, the investigating and ideating, bringing together stakeholders from utilities and finance--isn't glamorous. In fact, if you do it well, it should only be noticed by the most invested residents. But it is vital. A water main breaks every two minutes across the U.S. Instead of looking for the closest Band-Aid, cities and developers should think bigger and figure out what else they can fix at the same time to save money over time and reinvest in resilience.