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Ten Ways to Build a More Resilient Community

August 28, 2020

August 28, 2020

By Jay Fisette, former Member and Chairman of the Arlington County Board in Virginia and a former Auditor with the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), current Managing Principal of DMV Strategic Advisors and Academy Fellow

During my time chairing the Arlington County Board in Virginia, our community faced numerous challenges, including the September 11th terrorist attacks and the loss of 17,000 defense jobs from military base realignments and closures. And yet more recently, Arlington won the national competition for Amazon’s second headquarters – which will bring as many as 37,000 new jobs to the area.

Like Arlington, local governments everywhere face ongoing challenges, made worse now by the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic. Some are immediate natural shocks, such as hurricanes, floods and wildfires, and of course there is a growing range of impacts from climate change. Others are longer-term community problems: racism and social inequities, poverty and food insecurity, gun violence, lack of affordable housing, unemployment, infrastructure needs and unexpected economic challenges.

Resilience is a major concern in today’s world – America needs resilient communities with the ability to withstand respond to and recover from disruptive situations. In fact, the National Academy of Public Administration in 2019 named Build Resilient Communities as one of the 12 Grand Challenges in Public Administration.

Despite dramatic growth and challenges over the past decades, Arlington has taken steps to become a more resilient community so that it can better weather the crises that arise. We are not alone in doing so, but given the upheaval and uncertainty caused by the pandemic, it is especially critical that more local jurisdictions across the country shore up their own resilience. Ten lessons I learned about building community resilience include:

Plan for the Long Term…Ambitiously. Arlington plans, plans and plans. In 2005, Arlington lost more jobs than any locality in the U.S., but we leaned forward and initiated a multi-year planning effort. A comprehensive land-use plan for public and private investment in transit, parks, offices and housing was adopted in 2010. Amazon would never have chosen Arlington had we not created an ambitious new vision for the area and begun the infrastructure improvements to realize it.

Assess Assets and Vulnerabilities. Any plan must include an inventory to know where you stand. Arlington’s assets include Metrorail and rich transit options, an extensive park system and broadband internet. A vulnerability is the dated stormwater infrastructure that is incapable of handling the increased development and storm surges.

Engage Communities. Use new tools for constructive engagement. Arlington’s unique Neighborhood College has trained and cultivated 400 emerging community leaders over 20 years. Effective engagement creates understanding, improves decisions and builds trust. Processes must model the civility we desire in our public discourse. Arlington is doing something right, as 88 percent of residents expressed overall satisfaction with the quality of local government services, 38 percentage points higher than the national average.

Partner and Leverage. Local governments can’t do it alone. Turn to the state, the federal government and the private and non-profit sectors for partners, yet be careful not to relinquish your assets. Schools are an often-overlooked partnership. Arlington has increased and formalized collaboration between the County Board and the School Board in facility development and transportation planning over the years—to the benefit of both boards.

Assess the Cost of Inaction. Every Board or Council action includes a fiscal impact assessment. Be sure to include the direct and indirect costs of inaction. Build the business case. For example, on climate change policies, identify the social costs of carbon. The plans can’t sit on the shelf—they must inform policy and budget decisions. Infrastructure investments must be made, and outcomes monitored and tracked, with midcourse corrections and updates as needed.

Embrace Innovation and Technology. Technology is the source of our pain and our salvation. The sharing economy of Airbnb, Bikeshare and Uber have disrupted yet benefited our communities. The WAZE app causes havoc as it directs cars onto unsuspecting neighborhood streets as real-time short cuts…and the texts to local elected officials begin! We drown in information and misinformation, which can improve policy decisions but also polarize society. As COVID-19 has reinforced, we live in a 24/7 digital world. Local governments must keep up with the changes in technology and embrace innovation.

Elect, Appoint and Develop Strong Leaders. Both elected and appointed officials must listen AND lead. The best leaders are self-aware and grounded by a strong set of values. To get things done, senior staff and elected leaders must be aligned, have clarity of roles, and maintain a respectful partnership.

Collaborate Regionally. Arlington is a small jurisdiction that plays a large role in the region. Our prosperity and resilience are tied to others. Some problems are best solved collaboratively with our peer localities and using regional economies of scale by, for example, jointly purchasing electric vehicles. After 9-11, the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments strengthened preparedness for future emergencies.

Ensure Equity. Value diversity and embrace people’s differences as a source of your community’s strength. Recognize that the most vulnerable are the first to be negatively affected by the disruptions and challenges, and develop policies accordingly. We must move from treating those who experience economic inequality and/or systemic racism as clients of our safety net to stakeholders who can help solve these problems. Our “common humanity” is the glue that keeps our community on track.

Boldly Advance Environmental Sustainability. As the Native American proverb states, “We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.” Climate change is the existential threat of our time. Local governments must transition to a clean energy economy, creating markets and changing behaviors. Arlington has an ambitious plan and partnered with Amazon and Dominion to create a solar farm that will offset 83% of the government’s electricity use by 2022. New schools are net zero energy. Every locality in America should have an inventory of their GHG emissions, and a community-wide emission reduction plan.

Resilient communities are grounded by values and focused on the future. They recognize that stability is elusive and uncertainty a reality. Our future prosperity and welfare depend on ensuring that all American communities, in every part of the country, become resilient communities.

Posted On: August 28, 2020