How public and private partnerships can empower resilient communities

by American City & County Contributor
Dec 06, 2017

By Rives Taylor

As a storm develops, the responsibility to prepare citizens to enter shelter or evacuate often bridges both public and private entities. Hurricane Harvey in particular brought widespread rain and flooding that required a great deal of communication including radio, TV and extensive social media coverage. 

But communication is only one, albeit vital, piece of a long-term recovery plan. 

In cities and states faced with the shock and stress of natural disasters, resilience is the end goal. Relief efforts start with first responders tasked with clearing debris, but often have much broader implications. Together with public infrastructure teams and engineering consultants, first responders can assess power, water and infrastructure needs. This partnership can jump-start short-term recovery, but also pave the way for long-term preparedness. 

Public officials in concert with federal and state agencies need to elevate communication and the coordination with local residents and commercial landowners. From this assessment, public leaders can uncover planning opportunities that will help not just rebuild what was there before, but will come back even better. 

This helps avoid “fix it fast”-type decisions and looks toward solutions that best serve the community, ensuring their longevity in the wake of future storms. Rather than surface-level recovery that often takes the form of buying up ruined property and redeveloping it, public officials and decision makers must employ a collaborative planning process that prioritizes long-term benefit. Partnerships like these—which directly affect the safety and wellbeing of citizens—could, ultimately, be utilized much better.

Partnering for the future

These partnerships do not pop up overnight—lest in the presence of a powerful storm. Each phase of post-storm landfall requires education, community support and a balance of public-private incentives. To foster these relationships, public officials in effected regions don’t necessarily need outside experts on private architecture and engineering, but rather a consolidation of homegrown best practices. As an architect working in this space, we work to create structures and spaces that are able to withstand the threats of tomorrow and well into the future. However, design, architecture and engineering firms often face obstacles in terms of putting their concepts into action.

Developing a future-looking recovery toolkit requires a broader educational and cultural shift. While citizens understand how to stay safe in the short term, they lack knowledge about long-term solutions their cities and towns might need. Some firms have created ad hoc groups around this issue to express their points of view. Others like the American Institute of Architects and Urban Land Institute  have perspectives on building more resilient communities, but are still working to implement them in the real world and make them more accessible to the general public through a cross-discipline, multi-organizational planning event. 

These design organizations should take strides and partner with public officials to educate the community on best practices for preparation in order to optimize their thinking. Local representatives also have a better sense of long-term needs than most state or federal-level thinkers and would bring immediate impact to friends, neighbors and community members. With their vision and firsthand experience in these locations, planning becomes easier and more informed. 

Where do we go from here?

The first step toward creating this collaboration may be to create a focused planning group within the larger regional mindset. Existing strategic planning groups would benefit from oversight at a county level that is further integrated with regional planning to ensure the best results.

This, along with communication beyond the typical recovery updates would be extremely helpful, particularly in the affordable housing and middle-income communities who seek a clear voice during recovery efforts. A team of recognized planning, architecture and engineering risk experts as a trusted source of education could be a crucial step for cities around the country. 

Getting resilience on the mind of officials and community members alike will create stronger recovery efforts, as well as formidable long-term planning. 


As a regional sustainability leader for global architecture, design and planning firm Gensler, RIves Taylor directs Gensler's firmwide design performance teams and initiatives. He has been a faculty member of both Rice University and the University of Houston for 25 years.

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