Sea Change: Community-Centered Planning in an Era of Risk and Uncertainty

Rising seas, rampant wildfires, hurricanes and tornadoes, flooding, extreme drought: Our climate emergency is now playing out in real time. How should policymakers, planners, architects, social scientists, and educators help address these complex issues in an age of increasing disruption, risk, and uncertainty? 

To address these challenges, the Rockefeller Foundation—in collaboration with the Walton Family Foundation; our firm, Concordia; the Resilient Cities Catalyst; and the University of New Orleans—brought together some of the best climate change thinking to form the Global Transformation Roundtable. Our goal was to identify the immediate and long-range challenges, then look for strategies and solutions to tackle the complex and interrelated climate risks, for people living in coastal Louisiana and other compromised communities around the world.

The research was implemented through a series of small meetings, focus groups, exploratory convenings, research papers, and dialogues. A diverse group of 82 people, ranging from global leaders in climate change adaptation and social equity to local community stakeholders, participated in the process, which included four convenings. 

The first one, held at the Ashe Cultural Arts Center in New Orleans, focused on a $93 million planning effort funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development called Louisiana Strategic Adaptations for Future Environments (LA SAFE). The project was designed to explore how six Louisiana coastal communities could become more resilient by expanding the traditional approach to planning for stormwater management to simultaneously include housing resettlement, transportation, economic development, education, recreation, and culture. 

The second meeting took place in the small coastal community of Buras, Louisiana, where participants included some of local residents who are most immediately impacted by the state’s coastal vulnerability, as well as international adaptation experts from Denmark, Vietnam, and Argentina. The third convening was held at the Rockefeller Center in Bellagio, Italy, where the focus shifted to climate change planning through the lens of a so-called Blue-Green Economy, the integration of sustainable development and green growth. This approach highlights a coordinated development between the marine ecosystem and the coastal economy..The final meeting was held on the New Orleans Mississippi Riverfront at Tulane University’s ByWater Institute. Here participants explored the resources available for deployment of a Blue-Green Economy in Louisiana, including the billions of dollars already allocated for coastal restoration, water and watershed management, and climate adaptation. 

The ultimate goal was to engage with a wide group of local, regional, national, and global stakeholders to identify challenges and then codesign solutions and strategies for adapting to the uncertain future, with equity and advocacy as central considerations. Here’s a summary of findings in each of these domains.

CHALLENGES: There is a general lack of understanding about the order and continually growing magnitude of threats, hazards, and risks associated with climate change. But when armed with trustworthy information and processes, communities can be empowered to make more informed decisions about their future quality of life. There is also a need for better data collection and management, and for a more systemic approach to planning and development, enhancing trust in local governments, measuring social impacts of disasters, and monitoring how issues around race and income intersect with all the above. Because of its vast low-lying coastal and river topographies and socioeconomically diverse population, Louisiana lies at the epicenter of knowledge around these challenges and the mechanisms needed to address them. However, much of this knowledge still exists in organizational silos with specific missions and goals that are not always aligned to properly leverage the personal and financial resources needed to address transformational change at a scale that is commensurate with the increasing risks.

SOLUTIONS: Even the best governmental leadership is not enough. A lack of residents’ trust toward government-as-a-whole is a critical issue that must be addressed through more effective ways to cultivate a stronger sense of togetherness and to create effective networks of support. Honest and accurate information must be made easily available in a way that allows our most vulnerable populations to make educated decisions about the flood risks and other hazards they face. An investment in the kind of research that seeks to understand how impending physical transformations also affect other needs of coastal residents is also urgently needed, especially for low-income and ethnic minority populations, which are disproportionately located in high-risk flood and disaster areas. 

STRATEGIES: The world is already too late in preventing impacts of flood risk in the future. The consequences will now be measured in the unnecessary loss of lives, damaged and destroyed communities, and diminished economic prosperity. Unless they are abated, these challenges will continue to persist and to multiply over time. To be most effective, solutions must include strategies that exist across a full range of interrelated physical, cultural, social, economic, organizational, and educational impacts and stressors. 

At the end of the three-day convening in Bellagio, we outlined a set of guiding principles:  

  • Promote the highest principles of honesty and integrity in all planning for transformational change. 
  • Establish and maintain equity and agency for all people in determining future paths forward. 
  • Develop and apply proven scientific and evidence-based data in the creation of all future development decisions and plans.
  • Make immediate systemic and sustainable investments that maximize the impact of our limited public resources. 
  • Engage and educate whole communities in the need for systemic and transformational solutions. 

In his book The Systems View of Life, Fritjof Capra observed: “As the twenty-first century unfolds, it is becoming more and more evident that the major problems of our time—energy, the environment, climate change, food security, financial security—cannot be understood in isolation. There are solutions to the major problems of our time; some of them even simple. But they require a radical shift in our perceptions, our thinking, our values. Unfortunately, this realization has not yet dawned on most of our political leaders, who are unable to ‘connect the dots,’ to use a popular phrase. They fail to see how the major problems of our time are all interrelated. Moreover, they refuse to recognize how their so-called solutions affect future generations.” 

Three big ideas encapsulate many of the challenges, solutions, and strategies discussed. First is the need for a more open and authentic process for engaging stakeholders; second is the need for a more systemic means of problem solving; and third is the need for a more ecological way of thinking about our work, jobs, and economy.

But how will we know when we’re on the right track? 

We will know we’re on the right track with transformative stakeholder engagement when planners and governments are no longer sending out invites to community meetings and blaming the community when only small numbers of people show up. As with all other market-driven enterprises, the group responsible for engaging must acknowledge when a process is not authentic, trustworthy, or interesting enough to fill the room with active participants. And the outcomes generated must be evaluated not on whether people filled out the appropriate forms, but instead on how the real work of moving the community’s shared goals and objectives forward got done as a result of the process. In short, it’s about whether the principles of democracy were honored and the challenges were resolved, as evaluated by the public that we’re all meant to serve. 

We’ll know we’re on the right track with transformative systems thinking when we can see a mindset from government agencies, nongovernmental organizations, and the public that measures success by accounting for how many times an investment can be leveraged to produce multiple outcomes. We can’t settle for agencies and organizations that put their individual politics above the politics of the common good. The new measurement for success must be a process where the whole can be shown to be better, stronger, and more efficient than simply the sum of its parts. 

We’ll know we’re on the right track with a transformative economic mindset when we’re free to measure the success of our economic system through a more comprehensive lens. A more harmonious approach to employment, perhaps around a new and more naturalistic Blue-Green Economy, can result in the most sustainable financial and environmentally economical outcomes for present and future generations. 

Featured image via the Rockefeller Foundation. 



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