100 Resilient Cities: An Interview with Eric Wilson

Resiliency

Susan Askew
Susan Askew

100 Resilient Cities: An Interview with Eric Wilson:

Project includes miami beach, miami, miami-dade county

This week, a team of experts assembled by the Urban Land Institute (ULI) was in Miami Beach to review the City’s stormwater water management and climate adaptation strategy. The so-called “red team” was a campaign promise of Mayor Dan Gelber. The review was paid for through a grant from 100 Resilient Cities, a project of the Rockefeller Foundation “to help cities worldwide build resilience to the growing social, economic, and physical challenges they face in the 21st century”. Miami Beach, Miami, and Miami-Dade County are part of the initiative through a partnership called Resilient Greater Miami and the Beaches.
 
Eric Wilson, 100RC’s Associate Director for City and Practice Management, joined the ULI panel here this week. We caught up with him after a day in which the group took a tour to see Miami Beach’s resiliency projects firsthand.
 
Wilson said the Greater Miami and the Beaches partnership is “the only interjurisdictional partnership in our [100 Resilient Cities] cohort. It’s super unique. It evolved out of a series of conversations that, of course, concluded the region’s resiliency challenges don’t stop at boundaries and it’s really an all-hands on deck challenge to resolve some of our resiliency challenges.”
 
The partnership was “eagerly accepted into the network”, he said. He’s been working with the team since about September of 2016. 100RC provides grants to drive a resilience strategy. “In this case, of course, it’s a shared resilience strategy that we’re hoping to issue by the end of the year.” The strategy, he said, will highlight joint actions … to build regional resilience.”
 
“It’s not just environmental to include sea level rise and climate challenges,” he added. “We’re also talking about some of the major social and economic resilience challenges that are present here in Greater Miami.”
 
Wilson said each of the jurisdictions has a Chief Resiliency Officer working together on the regional strategy, each chairing a group looking at specific issues including the nexus of transportation issues and affordable housing, job training and economic empowerment. Those “big economic inequities” emerged in conversations as being “on par with some of the sea level rise challenges the region is facing,” Wilson said.
 
“Of course, we really want to stay focused on the issues but be aware of the relationships across the issues,” he noted. “We want to design projects that achieve multiple benefits.” The goal, he said is “to address as many of these challenges as possible.”
 
The Resilient Greater Miami and the Beaches strategy will “focus on leadership and how we work together on jurisdictional boundaries … The infrastructure moves are going to be big ones and we’re going to have to make them fairly quickly if we’re really going to adapt in this era of ‘weather weirdness’ as we call it.”

The “external philanthropy” of a 100RC initiative “sometimes help give the staff some coverage, an independent space to look at these things … to dive into these things with political coverage,” Wilson said.
 
“Part of our grant agreement recognizes that public sector folks don’t have the easiest access to tools to help them address resilience challenges,” he added. “We try to curate a variety of different kinds of tools and services, academic partners, non-profit organizations, sometimes for-profit,” in helping the cities in the 100RC network.
 
Referring to this week’s ULI assessment, he said, “ULI has a deep bench on these kinds of issues, real estate, urbanism type issues.” Through the ULI technical assistance program, workshops are convened with a “diverse range of professionals that have experience in particular areas and do a deep dive in a particular city, at the request of the city,” Wilson said.
 
“So many cities in 100RC are coastal,” he said. “Miami Beach is one of the first out of the gate to really be confronting what our public realm is going to look like in the face of our sea level rise challenges.” 
 
Noting the “very strong staff” working on resiliency projects here, he said, “Miami Beach is truly a place where it’s been out of the gate on doing sea level rise adaptation and I think because there have been so many challenges in the public realm over recent years, it has raised awareness and been a catalyst for public conversations and debate over what our community is really going to look like…  It’s a healthy debate to have because it’s one that’s going to have to happen in coastal cities around the world. We see it as all-hands on deck now to start looking at this.”
 
“We’re very happy to be able to participate at this point in time” with the ULI review. “I think this is going to be really helpful in guiding investment decisions and catalyzing public conversation in cities in our network and beyond because we’re all going to have to be addressing this.”
 
The ULI group toured some of the City’s major resilience projects including Sunset Harbor and Indian Creek. The team received updates on the stormwater infrastructure program, the new Convention Center, sustainability initiatives in parks, land use and zoning initiatives and challenges, and historic preservation considerations.
 
Wilson said the Miami Beach staff was “pretty forthright in discussing all of these and some of the challenges that have been brought up in the community”.

Calling Hibiscus Island “super fascinating”, Willson said, “Coordinating the public realm and the private realm is obviously going to be a big challenge here no matter what options we take.” Some of that is cultural, he said. “As Americans, we have expectations about how we think our public realm should look and function and feel and when it starts to deviate from that it makes us anxious.”
 
Elevated roads are among those challenges. “It’s different. It’s not something we expect, not the kind of physical environment that we experience on a day to day basis,” he said.
 
Wilson said he wanted to “underscore that we did bring up issues of equity and how is the City making decisions about infrastructure investments, where and how and who are the louder voices in the room that may influence decisions about infrastructure investment one way or the other and how are those decisions made. We all agreed that those decisions are very hard and they’re all diffuse.” What happens here, he said, will be different than what happens in Miami.  But, the conversations will need to take place in each community about where infrastructure investments happen “and where we include folks in the design of those infrastructure investments”.
 
Wilson who used to work for the City of New York said, as a City employee he never had the bandwidth to reflect on decisions. “There’s such little opportunity to step back and assess how things are going.”  Now, as part of the 100RC team, he said “I finally get to equip cities with the resources they need to step back and look at the way that they do work… We need to be constantly under self-reflection.”
 
“There is this problem of unintended consequences and we do want to be doing what makes sense for taxpayer money, doing the right things that’s consistent with the values and mission of our local governments,” he said. In the case of the City of Miami Beach which has experience with its resiliency strategy, Wilson said it’s important “that we step back and assess and understand what’s going on and after we build every project, ask is this performing to the level we want it to perform, achieving the outcomes we wanted to achieve in undertaking this?”
 
“My experience in New York and now with cities I work with at 100RC, it’s always a work in progress,” he said.
  
 

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