Passing the Baton: Taking Resilience from Strategy to Construction & Operation

The City of New Orleans is moving forward to construct the first portions of a city-wide network of green infrastructure projects to address chronic and extreme flooding. How’d they do it? Implementing these kinds of innovative, green projects is notoriously tough. Read this article to find out.

Infrastructure project development is a team sport. Just like a relay race, there are clear legs — catalyst, predevelopment, construction, and operations & maintenance — multiple team members, and important “exchange zones” where the baton must be passed from one runner to another. When the baton is dropped, projects stall. Clear lines of sight from one development phase to the next is key to ensuring resilience projects are not just planned, but get over the finish line to deliver long-term benefits to the communities they serve.

Catalyst Leg — Kicking off on the Right Foot (6–18 months)

The catalyst stage involves identifying and conceptualizing the design of an infrastructure project that responds to community needs. Like in a relay race, a false start, or a trip coming off the block, can stop a project in its tracks. The catalyst leg is the least thought about stage of project development — by cities, investors, government funders, design and engineering firms alike — but it is vital to long-term success.

In this first stage, cities define project scope and scale, and determine what they want the project to achieve, ideally through a set of initial design specifications. For example, a city may decide that it seeks to protect a specific geographic area from a 200-year storm and to minimize disruptions to critical services and businesses in the case of an extreme event using natural infrastructure (e.g. constructed wetlands) whenever appropriate. A different city may decide during its catalyst phase that it wants to address its traffic congestion by constructing new light rail, rather than rapid bus transit. It’s important to emphasize that activities should be project-specific, not broad-based polices, strategies or plans. Specific activities that are typically completed during the catalyst phase include:

  • Designate and empower city project champion & her team
  • Collect, review and analyze project-specific baseline data
  • Explore different funding/financing options
  • Build coalition and political support

Heading out of the catalyst leg into the first exchange zone, the city should have two things. First, it must have a conceptual design of the project. Conceptual design is roughly equivalent to “10% design” — which includes sketches or drawings (often in illustration software), along with back of envelope cost and performance estimates. Second, the city should have enough data and community enthusiasm to support applications for funding predevelopment.

Led by the champion, most of the activities completed during the catalyst phase are conducted by city staff. However, as infrastructure challenges have become more complicated and solutions more integrated, cities are leaning on non-traditional methods for support. Competitions like RE.invest and the HUD Rebuild by Design Competition have provided cities with access to a relatively small group of firms dedicated to the catalyst phase. In addition, more and more cities are publishing Requests for Ideas (RFIs) to source new ideas during the earliest stages of the catalyst phase.

The amount of funding required for the catalyst stage is modest, but funding is very limited. Some philanthropies have begun to fund the catalyst stage via competitions and technical assistance. But barring that support, cities often struggle to carve out dedicated capacity and resources to get through the first leg of infrastructure project development and set a resilience project up for success.

In 2010, New Orleans kicked off its catalyst phase to address systemic flood and subsidence concerns via the Greater New Orleans Urban Water Plan, which was funded by a federal Community Development Block Grant and informed by significant planning work completed since Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Predevelopment Leg –Sustaining Effort (2–5 years)

While generally not the flashiest phase, according to track and field coaches, the second leg requires the most skill. The same is true for smart, resilient infrastructure predevelopment. That is because this leg includes all the detailed design, engineering, permitting, and public/community engagement activities that are required prior to starting construction:

  • Detailed engineering analysis and modeling, including risk analysis
  • Design alternatives analysis or feasibility study
  • Modeling to support construction finance
  • Community engagement and participatory design
  • Construction planning
  • Permitting
  • Legal review
  • Value engineering

Cities require a set of sequential design and engineering outcomes as they head into the second exchange zone. Engineers call the first design outcome 30% design, while architects call it schematic design. 30% design includes measured drawings and plans, often using computer aided design (CAD) software–as opposed to illustrations–that identify specific site location(s), choice of interventions, and how they fit together to achieve project goals. 30% design also includes more detailed cost and performance estimates based off of unit costs. The second outcome is 60% design. 60% design includes more specificity than 30% and includes project-specific modeling, drawings, and specifications. The final outcome is the final design, which includes working and construction documents — these include final drawings and specifications required to solicit construction contract bids.

Another essential outcome of the predevelopment stage is construction funding/financing. For resilience projects pursuing more innovative financing, this is when all upfront financial and performance modeling is completed. The results of this modeling inform the ongoing design and engineering process to maximize benefits and form the basis of construction financing.

Like the second leg of a relay race, infrastructure project predevelopment requires the ability to navigate through a crowd, anticipate challenges, and creatively work around them. During this phase, city staff often has a team of designers, engineers, finance experts and lawyers — led by an A/E/C firm procured through the Requests for Proposals process — to help. However, as demand for smart-city technologies expands, cities will face the additional challenge of understanding and selecting not just the right engineering team but also the specific technology solutions that are best suited to address local needs.

Estimates about the funding required for robust predevelopment vary, but it’s reasonable to assume approximately 15% — 20% of the total capital cost for an infrastructure project. So, for a project that costs around $10 million to construct, that means a city’s predevelopment costs will be around $1.5 — $2 million. While there are some federal and state grants available, and some state infrastructure trusts will roll later stage work (for example, 60% design, final permitting) into construction financing, for the most part the cost of predevelopment must be covered out of the city capital improvement budget.

The City of New Orleans turned its catalyst stage into successful applications to both phases of the National Disaster Resilience Competition and was awarded over $141 million in 2016 to transition the dozens of projects included in its Urban Water Plan from concept to implementation.

Construction Leg — Hitting Stride & Keeping Pace (6 months — many years)

After the catalyst and predevelopment stages are completed, the project team hits its stride. Financing has been secured, design and engineering have been completed, and it is time to procure construction services and break ground. If the first two project phases have been completed successfully — if the first two runners have set their teams up for success — the construction phase should be fairly straight forward. The construction phase includes project implementation and all “earth-moving” activities, including procurement of all technologies and other materials. It is the most discussed and visible stage of project development. Construction timelines vary widely by project scale and scope and can be anywhere from six months to a decade or more. Services and materials required for construction are obtained through traditional public procurement processes. Like the third runner in a relay race, the construction phase must keep on pace and be prepared to hand-off the baton to get the project over the finish line.

New Orleans is moving forward to construct several of the projects designed during catalyst and predevelopment activities, including the Pontilly Stormwater Network, a series of street and canal improvements, stormwater parks and bioswales designed to reduce flooding.

Operations & Maintenance Stage –Clinching the Finish (ongoing)

Some might assume that an infrastructure project’s finish line is the moment construction is complete, but that isn’t the case. Operations and maintenance (O&M) is often an afterthought or a simple budget add-on to total project cost. But in reality, O&M is the all-important anchor that can make or break the result of a relay race — we all remember Jason Lezak’s sprint at the Beijing Olympics or have seen the Irish collegiate epic comeback. Recent high-profile infrastructure failures resulting from deferred maintenance have made this point even clearer. This is especially true of smart, resilient or sustainable infrastructure projects. For example, if a city constructs a wetland to deal with flood issues, that wetland must be properly maintained or it can clog and stop draining water, making floods worse.

Activities completed during O&M ensure that the project continues to operate the way it was designed to for the entire lifetime of the project, which is often 20+ years. This may include safety checks, performance analysis, repairs and replacements. Depending on how the project was financed, there may be significant monitoring and evaluation completed as well. For example, the environmental impact bond that’s financing DC Water’s city-wide green infrastructure flood mitigation projects requires significant environmental performance monitoring over the entire life of the bond.

Many times, O&M becomes the responsibility of a city’s public works department or utility and the funding and staff required for O&M can come as an unwelcome surprise for city and utility leadership. This can be extremely challenging if no arrangements are made for ongoing funding or staff training ahead of time, so early planning to secure support before construction is important. This can include public-private-partnership arrangements where the firm responsible for constructing the project is also contracted to provide ongoing O&M. In other cases, a technology vendor may provide ongoing O&M support to a city — an arrangement more common in smart cities projects.

In addition, cities should consider changing traditional procurement processes from least cost bidding — which disadvantage approaches like constructed wetlands or water leak detection technologies because they have higher upfront costs but much lower O&M — to total cost of ownership evaluation. Doing so can help mitigate the problems of escalating deferred maintenance costs, while prioritizing projects that provide consistent and cost-efficient value over the entire lifecycle of a project.

Though O&M for city-wide green infrastructure projects remains a challenge, New Orleans is among the forward-thinking cities that is integrating O&M considerations into planning, design and engineering activities.

A resilient infrastructure project, like a relay race, cannot be successful if each leg is not accounted and planned for equally. Inspired by their residents, and with support from federal and philanthropic programs, many cities across the country and around the world are just now posed to start their races: their resilience strategies are written, their risks identified, their climate impact profiles analyzed. They’re looking to translate their strategies into projects, but are not sure how to pass the baton. As we celebrate Infrastructure Week, let us reflect on ways we can better support cities during each leg of the relay race, to help them sustain the effort required over many, many years to take resilience from strategy to construction and operation. It’s only then that we’ll help cities cross the finish line to resilience.