Resilient communities build confidence and economic opportunities

JPG - bio head shotBy JOHN GAFFIGAN

Building resilience in communities is not just an academic exercise in trying to figure out the answers to the “what if” questions about climate change and disaster preparedness. It’s also an area of action in sustainability that requires broad leadership in business, policy, and planning. More strategically, resilience is an opportunity for businesses, organizations, and government to fill gaps in vulnerable areas while creating the conditions for long-term economic growth.

Leaders in Energy and Resilient Virginia examined these points at “Resiliency, Sustainability, and Economic Opportunities,” an event held at Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (MWCOG) on Thursday, October 20, 2016. Presentation slides are available here.

Climate Adaptation, Food Hubs, and Resilient Prosperity

Janine Finnell making opening remarks

Janine Finnell, Founder and Clean Energy Ambassador, Leaders in Energy, set the stage by defining the topic of the event – climate adaptation, food hubs, and resilient prosperity. People are prospering from the resiliency business, showing that it’s absolutely possible to make money while doing good things for the planet, rather than destroying it.

Stephen Walz (standing) with panelists, Storm Cunningham, Harrison Newton, and Dwane Jones (l-r)
Stephen Walz (standing) with panelists, Storm Cunningham, Harrison Newton, and Dwane Jones (l-r)

Janine introduced Stephen Walz,  Director of Environmental Programs for MWCOG. He leads MWCOG’s water, air quality, waste management, energy and climate teams serving localities across metropolitan Washington. The “Council of Governments” is comprised of about 300 elected officials that are brought together to discuss and lobby for a wide variety of measures, including transportation, homeland security, climate initiatives, sea level rise, and other public interest topics. The audience learned that the Army Corp of Engineers will start a coastal study with the MWCOG to determine how sea level will affect the metro DC area. Steve spoke of smart streetlights that are being installed in the city with Internet of Things (IoT) technology to “alert us” when services are needed. He suggested that attendees check out the MWCOG website.

Moderator – Annette Osso, Managing Director, Resilient Virginia

Annette Osso (standing) with panelists Storm Cunninghan, Harrison Newton, and Dwane Jones (l-r)
Annette Osso (standing) with panelists Storm Cunninghan, Harrison Newton, and Dwane Jones (l-r)

Annette Osso, LEED AP, Managing Director, Resilient Virginia is an environmental professional with an extensive background in green building and sustainable development. With Resilient Virginia, Ms. Osso is bringing resiliency resources to communities and businesses around the state. She asked the panelists to each to give a brief intro to themselves and their work.

Storm Cunningham – The 3 RE strategy (repurposing, renewing, reconnecting) as a path to Resilient Prosperity

Storm Cunningham is the publisher of Revitalization News and is a redevelopment policy advisor for government agencies and other organizations. Storm gave an overview about his efforts with major revitalization programs across the globe. During the past millennia, we’ve been sprawling with massive resource extraction of natural resources, which was fine for a period of time. But the result is that, according to his website:

“We have been adapting the world to our needs for some 12,000 years. Now, our continued health and prosperity will be based on adapting to those adaptations, and to their unintended consequences (such as climate change).”

We need to now focus on restorative development, which involves repurposing, renewing, and reconnecting as the new strategy for the Anthropocene Epoch.



Storm spoke of the High Line in Manhattan, a great example of the 3 RE strategy at work. In lieu of tearing down this old rail line, Mayor Michael Bloomberg allowed this elevated area to become a viable park space as a means of repurposing old infrastructure in the city. It’s now the second most visited attraction in NYC. The High Line helped catalyze the $20 billion Hudson Rail Yards redevelopment, the largest real estate project in NYC history.

Storm also spoke of microbreweries as a growing revitalizing force in the U.S., one that spurs local revitalization by reusing old commercial and industrial buildings, and by drawing customers from a much greater distance than most retailers. He also spoke of positive and negative feedback loops, such as the idea that the more a city regenerates, the more it’s able to regenerate. He spoke in glowing terms about the ability of revitalization strategies to increase confidence in the local future.

9Harrison Newton – Viewing resilience through a lens of economic benefits

Harrison Newton is the chief manager responsible for launching the District of Columbia’s 100 Resilient Cities program and establishing a focus on resilience within the Office of the City Administrator (OCA).

The 100 Resilient Cities revitalization program is led by the Rockefeller Foundation. The city’s first foray into the program was not successful because their approach was a singular focus. They reapplied, with multiple stakeholders weighing in on “what is resilience” and what it means for the city. This was exactly what the Rockefeller Foundation was looking for, and their proposal was accepted. Harrison helped lead the development of the District’s successful application.

The city took the position of not only what does it take to survive, but to thrive as a revitalized city. Harrison spoke of terrorist actions, and how they took a shock with 9/11, noting that how a city reacts and adapts defines it. DC has complex issues with affordable housing and preparedness for resilience. He spoke of four shocks that affect the resilience of a city, acute events that happen where a city needs to respond quickly – flooding, heat wave, terrorist events, and infrastructure failure.



Harrison spoke about the economic benefits of resilience. He said that Washington, DC is the third most segregated city in the United States when it comes to racial and economic disparities. He underlined the importance of considering resiliency through a lens of increasing the overall quality of life for all citizens. He says that “kitchen table” issues such as growing income inequality need to be considered in terms of addressing resiliency concerns. One of the frequent concerns that he hears from various residents is whether they would be able to continue to afford the high cost of living in DC.

Harrison spoke of a Chief Resiliency Officer that will soon be hired to address these issues. The person in this role will oversee all the key resiliency issues the city faces, and will do so in conjunction with other federal and local agencies for a cohesive effort. Our ability to adapt and learn directly equates to our ability to be more resilient to critical stresses and shock events. Urban policy in this area should include a lens through which policies can help all city residents, especially those less well off and/or economically vulnerable.

12Dwane Jones – Food Hubs and Food Security

Dwane Jones, Ph.D., is the Director of the Center for Sustainable Development + Resilience at the University of the District of Columbia (UDC). UDC is the only public university in the city and is a land grant university. They are now embracing the city’s agriculture roots and addressing sustainable development and resilience, yes…in the city. The school serves a bifurcated community – in one ward average income is $250K per household, in another it is $50K per household; highlighting that in the local community there is huge diversity of population.

13Dwane spoke about the UDC’s efforts to develop food systems that would allow for food security to be available throughout the city. The approach they are using is to develop urban food hubs. He mentioned other land grant colleges, such as with Cornell and Penn State, are also working in this area. UDC has a patented aquaponics system for food growth, and they operate food trucks and local urban farms. Their goal is to have one version of this food hub approach located in each of the eight wards of the city.

Follow-up questions from the moderator and audience

To Storm, Annette asked for examples of community work projects.

Storm: I like to restore on large, regional scale projects where my efforts have major impact, such as carbon capture, soil stabilization, infrastructure renewal, and historic facade restoration. Environmental restoration usually has a multiplier effect that creates additional local revenue, and helps to revitalize the entire metro area.

To Dwane, Annette asked if UDC has done research on what it would take to feed everyone in the city if outside sources were cut off, given that currently there is only a partial safety net.

14Dwane: That is an excellent question, and one that we have not yet answered, but are researching. Through our food hub programs, we intend to provide a buffer in the event of a catastrophe in the city’s food supply.

Cullen Brown of Solar City asked about sustainability in suburban areas. What challenges and successes have happened in suburban areas?

Storm spoke of the effect of silos that undermine restoration efforts. We need to break down these silos. The most successful efforts coordinate with the downtowns too, so that the entire metro area gets revitalized as a corridor, from the suburbs to the downtown. The connection with the larger community is critical.

Dwane added some thoughts on having urban food work with suburban areas too. He stated that they focus on ethnic and specialty crops in the urban farms, where they can’t readily grow corn, for example. In this way the UDC food hubs complement suburban systems with urban ones.

Mike Leifman of GE Power spoke about GE’s power plant in the Hudson Yards project. He asked Harrison how the DC government encourages clean energy initiatives.

Harrison said that the District is doing energy benchmarking and working a lot with their providers. They will keep progressing on this front, with a comprehensive energy services plan with hard targets and incentives. Their resilience efforts are about a year old. This will be part of phase two of their program. He acknowledged that they need to do a better job addressing resiliency issues. This includes the kitchen table discussions that go on across the city.

Ann Crawley, retired from the Department of Energy (DOE), asked how the DC metro area is thinking of involving the federal government as part of the work plans and programs.

Storm Cunningham, Harrison Newton, and Dwane Jones (l-r)
Storm Cunningham, Harrison Newton, and Dwane Jones (l-r)

Harrison said that DC has a close relationship with the DOE, and will continue to do so. DC has the highest number of green buildings in the nation, so it is doing well in this regard and is ahead in a lot of ways.

Steve noted that some efforts are happening with the GSA. We need to do more to connect the private and public sectors to advance best practices and generate higher efficiencies. For example, looking at where the GSA is developing and where local communities need capacity can bring forward possible collaborative opportunities.

Harrison brought up the PACE program as an excellent way to further energy efficiency via creative financing. Steve added that a common set of PACE policies for the metro area is needed, with the same in DC as in Fairfax and Montgomery counties, etc., to make it easier for this initiative to be successful.

Agustin Cruz of Arlington Green gave a shoutout for his regenerative agriculture event. He asked the panel to address water runoff, carbon capture, and conservation corridors.

Dwane noted that his urban farm model, which is to build a temporary urban farm, one that can readily be shifted to other areas. They are engaging multiple stakeholders and the community when building their systems. I asked Dwane what was being used to design the grow systems. He responded that they are being built in-house.

David Savarese of Jacobs asked how we continue to have a broad group of voices participate without gridlock preventing action on specific projects?

Storm said the best success stories are those that start with a comprehensive revitalization vision, then define the strategy, build policies that support the strategy, and finally create the collaboration partnerships to bring together the right resources. Done well, this approach leads to projects that succeed.

Phil Bogdonoff taking advantage of the networking resource table to let attendees know of his interest in regenerative agriculture.
Phil Bogdonoff taking advantage of the networking resource table to let people know of his interest in regenerative agriculture.

He noted that the whole revitalization process needs an ongoing program. You can’t stop at the visioning session. You have to stay engaged throughout the whole program. These efforts don’t have end dates. Storm gave Chattanooga as a success story. For years the city had suffered from pollution, racial problems, and crime, as recently as the early 70s. In the process of cleaning up the air, the rest of the socioeconomic problems eased, and the city kept itself engaged throughout. The revitalization effort was a big success, and the city is a poster child for how to do this right.

Final question from Lea Shepherd, a recent GW grad, who asked about the process of the Chief Resiliency officer being hired, and what sort of background the DC government is looking at.

Harrison noted that it is up the city manager, but the ideal candidate will have proficiency with a great number of areas of expertise. They will be able to address the great integration challenges facing the city, and be able to bring the community together. They will look for a CRO that can handle all these needs. Harrison feels that “when the student is ready, the master will appear” (meaning that he’s bullish that the city will find a strong CRO).


Janine offered final thanks to all the supporters for making this event happen. She gave a shoutout to help the audience make strategic connections with others on topics of mutual interest related to research, projects, jobs, and moving forward on resiliency initiatives.

Annette Osso, Stephen Walz, Harrison Newton, Storm Cunninghan, Dwane Jones, and Janine Finnell (l-r)
Annette Osso, Stephen Walz, Harrison Newton, Storm Cunninghan, Dwane Jones, and Janine Finnell (l-r)

Photo credits: Elvin Yuzugullu, Agustin Cruz, and Janine Finnell.

John Gaffigan serves as the “Outsourced VP of Sales” for Green Companies for several emerging green technologies that provide high ROI solutions and/or enhance health and wellness. He has created his own green job by working with startup and other companies spanning energy efficiency, water, agricultural and other technologies. He did this by sourcing intriguing firms that appealed to him, becoming an “Outsourced VP of Sales” John spoke at the Leaders in Energy, Green Jobs event on August 18, 2016 and authored an article on creating a green job in the gig economy.

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