What happens after the flood? After the water recedes, and cleanup and repairs begin, how do we decide to rebuild our communities for the long term? The 5th Anniversary of Superstorm Sandy striking New York is just weeks away. Memories of that event are still fresh for many. Now with events in Puerto Rico, the Caribbean and southern US the last few weeks it really is ” déjà vu” all over again. As these catastrophic flood events happen again, are we learning enough to reduce the impact of the next disaster?
This article, the 2nd in a series posted here at my blog OutsideNewYork, is a summary of some lessons learned as well as my hopes for how we can all do better. I think these lessons are applicable elsewhere, whether the gentrified Gold Coast or some Small Island Developing State. The theme of this article is OUTREACH AND ENGAGEMENT.
The past five years have taught us a lot. The process of reconstruction and redevelopment, led by various government agencies, has helped to reveal both strengths and shortcomings of the planning and rebuilding approach that takes place in the U.S. after disasters.
The “Rebuild By Design” project was launched in 2013 after Superstorm Sandy It was designed to be a catalytic process to help reshape how we, as society, rebuild after catastrophic events. Interdisciplinary teams came together to generate ideas that could fend off wind and water and also protect people and property. Research and outreach was conducted out-of-doors, to bring the planning and design process to “the people,” everywhere they could be found. Inclusion was the hallmark.
Following a two year visioning and planning process that spanned the entire NY metro area, the Hudson River “Rebuild By Design” project was one of seven projects selected for implementation. Hoboken and adjacent areas in Weehawken and Jersey garnered $230 million of an initial $930M in total awarded to New Jersey, New York and Connecticut for these seven projects. This summer the preferred alternative was selected by the State of New Jersey.
The spectrum of engagement:
Aware –> Informed –>Educated –> Engaged
Flood prevention is a complex subject, where layers of technical information are cross-cut by personal experience and anecdote. “Engagement” in long-range projects doesn’t just “happen.” It is not happening just because there are people gathered together in a meeting. Within the spectrums of knowledge and emotion, there are many precursor intersections before someone gets engaged. “Does it matter to me?” and “Do I care enough?”are two typical questions asked at the outset. If the problem is too big or too complicated it can be discouraging for people. We have to design these processes to help change their minds. We have to keep them in the room and get them to come back.
First, a person has to be Aware both that there is a problem and a way to potentially fix it. Then they have to want to become Informed about the project. They need an appetite, or they won’t understand how this project can can successfully address the need. For any individual in today’s age, this is a big threshold. Should I get involved?
Now the person has to decide whether to participate, considering factors like if their involvement will make a difference. Do they have the time? Committing to a process requires resources. Time away from work plus child care stresses and costs make involvement in these projects feel like a personal loss more than a gain for most people.
Through the process, they can start to understand the need and the opportunity. They are moving from the basic level of Awareness through Informed to now being Educated on the subject. This is a pivotal moment. This is the place we need to bring society to: the point at which people understand the need and they have enough knowledge to speak and act in an informed way. Even if they cannot commit to getting involved in the whole process, this is the tipping point, that we need to help society reach – whether they are renters, ratepayers, citizens, or students.
For the body public to be successfully cultivated within something like a Flood Control project, it takes three or four interactions-through meetings, tours, poster or classroom sessions-to get to the point at which a person is Engaged in the process. Engagement is an end result following a series of productive, successful interactions along the way. Now how can we get there?
Engaging People Starting with Where They Are
No matter the project, there is a well-scripted process for the public involvement component. But the efforts such as the meetings are so scripted they feel perfunctory, not sincere. The tools used in the process are not really engaging to most people. Given a choice between powerpoint, Spotify, and YouTube, it is clear how most people choose to spend their time. Modern life has brought us to a new reality where our lives are consumed by either gadgets or filled with static. Given the wide, wide level of knowledge most people have about flood and climate vulnerability, there is a need for dynamic and adaptable engagement tools that can build on what people know already and help them to understand more.
Create a Culture of Engagement Within the Project
Rebuild By Design was launched the summer after Superstorm Sandy as a catalytic process to reshape how we, as society, should rebuild. While it built it’s brand on undertaking broad and frequent efforts to engage the widest cross section of affected residents, the reality is that once control of the projects was ceded to government agencies the process became infused with the pre-existing culture of those agencies. One person recently described the public process to date as “robust.” I almost choked on my jello. The culture of these projects has to become less technocratic and more populist. Someone needs to ask the question: who is NOT involved? And then they need to go get them to the next event…
Identify Obstacles to Involvement. Work to Overcome Them
There are many obstacles to residents getting engaged in the process. Some people work nights. The meetings are formal and not child-friendly. The process spans years. Some people don’t even know it’s happening. The Hoboken RBD process was actually three different, parallel processes. Most of us didn’t realize it until it was almost too late.
The process developed after Sandy for the implementation of our Rebuild By Design process required the creation of a Citizen Advisory Group and a Citizen Outreach Plan. While the bones were there at the beginning, we needed more muscle and a bigger brain to maintain effective engagement over the past two years. Despite the dozens of consultants working on the project, it never seemed like engagement was a priority for any of them. This must change.
Keep Welcoming People In and Fill In Gaps that Open Up
Our CAG included almost 40 members, tapped from range of faith-based groups, social service organizations, and concerned citizens. The members came from different parts of the city, and brought with them different skills and expertise. But over any multi-year process things happen. Initial interest slopes down. If ideas are not welcome then cynicism grows. Over time fatigue sets in. Turnover in the community means that people move away, taking a lot of knowledge, historic connection, and understanding with them. New people need to be brought up to speed. The process needs to compensate for the fact that social fabric erodes and new threads need to be inserted to strengthen the whole.
Find Ways to Cultivate the Next Generation of Citizens
The next generation will be the one responsible to operate and maintain this $230M construction project. Today’s voters were in 7th Grade when Sandy happened. Our inability or unwillingness to try and engage the next generation of citizens is a notable failure of this project and, I think, of our society as well. We just keeping rushing to rebuild. Hoboken is not unique. Despite our intention to get educators and schools involved in the process, even putting ideas in the Citizen Outreach Plan, outside of the CAG’s effort to cultivate this constituency very, very little effort was made. Meanwhile in Staten Island, the RBD “Living Breakwaters” project has produced a real spirit of collaboration by working with schools and teachers. There are great examples out there, but we have to look for them.
Try Different Things
Along the way we also tried different approaches, some of which succeeded. We did not want the CAG to become an exclusive group holding a rubber stamp for the State’s plan. Along the way we welcomed new members, including the dissent and diversity of opinion they brought with them. It wasn’t always a smooth process, but since it’s a complicated project no one really expected it to be smooth.
We also succeeded, at times, in getting the process out of the quiet, stale conference rooms and into the community. We organized walking tours, bus tours, and informal meetings amongst our CAG and with the City. Meetings were held in different parts of the project area, at different times of day, and often with different formats that better allowed dialogue. If you barely understand the subject, will you dare to ask a question in front of a room full of people? In sum, we need to embrace process that enables more dialogue, and is not just restricted to the typical “Q&A” format.
Ask and Expect More from Public Officials
Looking back, there was meaningful participation of approximately 30% of the CAG. This was even true amongst the CAG leadership, unfortunately. Even in the final push this past spring, when Final Comments on the Environmental Impact Statement and the Amendments to move the funding to the State, people we expected the most from were utterly, totally disengaged. Looking back, it’s likely some of them were distracted by other events, such as fundraisers for their own political campaigns and those of other aspiring politicians they support. For such an important project, engagement and involvement needs to grow continually in the next phase – by citizens and elected leaders alike.
Make Outreach as Important as Engineering
The Citizen Outreach Plan was a useful guidance document, but many ideas were not implemented. The document was drafted very early in the process by thoughtful project and city staff, with input from the CAG. For all the professionals working on the project, however, there was no one whose primary responsibility was to increase engagement or involvement in the community. This should change.
For a project that seeks to spend $230 million to build an infrastructure that residents will have to pony up to operate and maintain, we need to have more people engaged over time, not less. For the next phase, responsibility for outreach and engagement needs to be taken more seriously than it has been over the past 29 months.
Current events in Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and many other places reminds us that physical protection is only one-third of the resiliency equation. Our preparedness as individuals is the first layer of protection. Our friends, neighbors and families are the second. The third is Government, including the first responders.
While the $230M Hudson River “Rebuild By Design”project seeks to create a new layer of physical flood defense, it will only succeed if the process that leads to its creation strengthens the social fabric of the community as a whole. “Engagement” and “public involvement” should not be seen simply as perfunctory elements of the public process, like boxes to be checked. Rather we have to recognize and invest in them as genuine value-addeds that will make the final plan more robust, achievable, and
It won’t be enough for the project to be built on schedule or on budget. Let’s skip the ribbon cutting. The only test that will matter is this: when disaster strikes next, will the whole system-human & built-survive and succeed together? If we don’t cultivate our social capacity by engaging more people along the way, it won’t matter how robust is the engineering.
October 3, 2017