How to Make Every Town Resilient: Lessons from Resilience Guru Joyce Coffee

How to Make Every Town Resilient: Lessons from Resilience Guru Joyce Coffee

Joyce Coffee

Joyce Coffee is a resilience guru. She’s the president of Climate Resilience Consulting, a Chicago-based firm that works with clients nationally and internationally to help communities get more funding into resilience projects. She led the effort to create the Chicago Climate Action Plan.

She’s been doing this work for 25  years. Her early work in the global South gave her an appreciation for humanity’s stunning capacity for change. “It gives you great hope for the pace of change when you start your career in a place like Hanoi, Vietnam, where the number of cars per capita was only a few percent, and now there is a middle class and many people have cars,” she says.

The lesson?  “You might see that kind of development as really catastrophic for the climate. And it is. But it also reminds us of the ability of societies to transform very rapidly and to make better and worse choices as part of that transformation,” she says. Her mission is to help communities make better choices.

Coffee is one of the featured speakers for the 2018 Louisiana Smart Growth Summit, created by the Center for Planning Excellence. We spoke with her to find out what resilience looks like in different kinds of communities, whether resilience planning matters for small towns and how we can fund a resilient future.

You’ve worked with communities around the country on resilience planning. What’s unique about Louisiana’s approach to building resilient communities?

I read an article recently in American Way that quoted the president of LSU, King Alexander, saying that Louisiana wants to be in the lead in figuring out a how people can migrate away from climate risk. You just don’t hear leaders in other coastal states talking about that.

The fact that there is an acknowledgment here that migration needs to happen is profoundly different. And migration is already happening and not just because of the resettlement program for Isle de Jean Charles. It's happening even in the parishes that haven't had funding to move people. It's terrifying, but it is also very important that the leadership is aware of that. Very few other places talk about it.

I was just in Florida for this really well-organized event, the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Leadership Summit. It was sold out. 700 or 800 people came to hear about how awesome Southeast Florida has done in terms of climate resilience. No one mentioned migration. That is really irresponsible. So Louisiana gets huge props from me for addressing this very tough part of the “adapt, prepare, retreat” trifecta to the forefront of the conversation. That's one thing I think is really important.

Talking about something like migration as a way to deal with climate risk must be really challenging for communities. You’re talking about people having to leave their homes. What advice do you have for leaders who want to have those tough conversations?

You need a bottom-up approach. That’s another thing that I give Louisiana huge credit for--the LA SAFE Project. The work that they have done with the HUD National Disaster Resilience Competition funding and their bottom-up approach has just been incredible.

By that, I mean that the approach wasn’t, ‘We're going to create this plan, and then we're going to tell the community all about it with maybe a 10-minute Q&A.’ Instead, they approached it by saying, ‘We don't have a plan yet. We're going to go out to the community and see what they want the plan to be.’ There was a lot of money and time spent on that process, and a lot of relationships brokered. It’s a lot of tough love.

There’s a growing resilience gap between big cities and small towns. How important is resilience planning for small towns?

Resilience planning is incredibly important for small towns. If they don’t find ways to fund resilience planning, they will not be able to transform themselves into the place where the next generation is going to want to live and make a family.

So how can they do that? Let's talk about the resilience assets small towns have first. Number one, generally, there are much fewer staff than in larger cities.  What that means often is that there is one person who has the keys to the castle. That person knows everything there is to know about the roadway and the sewer infrastructure and the emergency response teams. That's really helpful from the perspective of resilience because resilience is never one thing. It's everything.

When you have giant cities like Chicago where that one individual’s knowledge is spread over hundreds of people, it makes it harder to be strategic in your planning.

Smaller towns are also keenly aware that they are not islands. Their kids might go to school in the next jurisdiction over, and the parents travel 30 minutes for work or to go to the grocery store. This sense of interoperability and interconnectivity is very, very vibrant. That's another really important part of resilience because there are no boundaries to these risks.

But the big thing for small cities is there is no money and there is no bandwidth. They can, though, beg, borrow and steal from bigger cities’ resources like from 100 Resilient Cities or the Urban Sustainability Directors Network. We need to figure out how to freely distribute these templates that small and mid-size America can adopt and embrace.

How can small and mid-size towns afford to invest in their own resiliency when they may be struggling with limited resources?

They need to turn to the financial services market. Most smaller towns, like those with a population under 15,000, often don't even have a credit rating. They may have never issued a bond, even a revenue bond.  It's very difficult to build and grow your city if you don't have access to a credit rating and bonds.

And yet, getting ready for a credit rating call with Standard & Poor's or Moody's takes a lot of work.

Councils of government and regional entities that try to help small and medium-sized towns in Louisiana be more resilient should really do some education around credit ratings and debt burden. They can help the towns figure out ways to use the financial services market to maximize the limited resources they have, to allow for investments in infrastructure and especially in resilience infrastructure.

There are lots of options--climate bonds, environmental impact bonds, and even resilience bonds. Those are all good. But the bottom line, a municipal bond, is a great place to start.

Many people think you have to have wealth to have a good bond rating, but that's not entirely true. You can find many examples around the United States where it's not just about having wealth. Having very good management can also earn a good credit rating from the rating agencies.

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