How a 17th Century City is Tackling 21st Century Problems
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Cities are innovating, companies are pivoting, and start-ups are growing. Like you, every urban practitioner has a remarkable story of insight and challenge from the past year.
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Imagine, if you will, a Category 3 hurricane roiling up the East Coast and making a direct hit on Southern New England – the biggest storm to hit the area since the hurricanes of 1939 and 1954. The Northeast corridor interstate transportation system, which was built after 1954, would be knocked out. The grid from Boston to New York and up to the borders of New Hampshire and Vermont would be down for days, perhaps weeks. What if this storm was a winter storm? What if someone decided, as the country reels from the impact, to launch a cyber attack? Rhode Island, at the center of this disaster, would be floored.
My job as the Director of Civic Investment, in Newport, RI is to think of these scenarios and imagine how these crises, and the challenges facing us due to ever rising seas and intensifying storms, could actually create economic and job creation opportunities for this 379 year old maritime city. Five years ago, I was hired to run the new department, created to diversify an economy that was largely known for its tourism, and Navy presence.
This community is not just the Edith Wharton vision of beaches, mansions and music festivals that many have of us. Though Newport is known for its grand history and high society, the City has the highest number of people in subsidized housing per capita of any city in the state. Our eight-month economy leaves many in dead-end, low paying jobs, and a good part of our low to moderate income residents are cut off from the rest of the city by a 1960s California road system, which never connected to the modern highway infrastructure envisioned to bring people to and from Boston.
The US Navy has had a base here since 1869, which later included the Naval Undersea Warfare Center (NUWC), the Navy’s premier facility for R&D for everything under the waterline. Unfortunately, Newport’s Naval Station, which also houses the Naval War College and, until the 1970s, was the home of the Navy’s Atlantic fleet, could move dependent on national dictates.
The Navy brings thousands of jobs and strong associated defense and related technology industries, but it also provided a simple tide gauge, installed at the base in 1930, which has been measuring the water level of the Narragansett Bay ever since. In the last 90 years, it has seen a ten inch rise. URI’s Graduate School of Oceanography tracks and predicts the rising of the Atlantic along our coastline, and the picture is not a pretty one. The question is not if the waters will rise, but when and how much.
With economic needs and vulnerabilities, and the oncoming impact of climate change, whether due to a long overdue storm or the ever-present rise of the sea, both the foundations of our economy could be severely impacted, possibly overnight.
Newport’s response? Turn these challenges into opportunities. By taking an integrated, systems–wide approach, we created an economic diversification and job creation initiative to be resilient, and to develop and adapt our civic infrastructure – our built/natural, economic, social/political, health and cultural environments – to respond and even benefit from these ocean-related climate change impacts. We call this integrated resilience an ecosystem that responds and adapts as needs arise. Our goal is to improve the quality of life as well as the quality of opportunity for all residents in the community by embracing these challenges and becoming a national test case for new technologies, delivery systems, and financial models. We also want to see how the public sector, with private and impact investors could cooperate in the development, execution and management of municipal “civic infrastructure.”
Newport has a number of assets, which make it uniquely qualified to be an ideal beta site for an integrated resilience ecosystem:
- Location on the coast, between Boston and New York, and among many of the world’s greatest
- NUWC research partnerships, and Navy interest in sea level rise
- Smaller population size creates manageable space for easier networking, engaging the population, data collection and analysis
- The largest stock of colonial houses in the country, many vulnerable to rising seas , are valuable test cases for how to treat historic assets,
- Small streets, similar to those in other parts of the world, make us a more typical test site for international coastal towns
- World renowned wind for alternative energy sources
- Legacy families provide interest and capital
- An internationally known city, which attracts impact investors who are familiar with it and its strong connections to New York and Boston
We can add Rhode Island’s unique economic strengths into this mix, which boosts the ecosystem with:
- Resilience related technologies (micro grids, alternative energies and energy storage, green/blue infrastructure, ),
- Defense (naval technologies, cyber and meta-data),
- Meta-data acquisition, analytics and dissemination
- Urban agriculture and food security
To foster a resilient system, we developed a conceptual portfolio of 12 resilience projects and initiatives, recognizing from the outset that, given the increasing difficulty for the public sector at the national, state, or local level to fund such projects, Newport may need to attract the private sector to these initiatives.
In 2015, the City issued a national RFP to attract a private sector group or investor to move the projects forward. The RFP resulted in a Primary Project Advisor and Strategic Partner agreement with a private sector consortium. The City put up $500,000 as “skin in the game” to get things started.
The consortium, which became the Newport Project Development Company (NPDC), currently includes:
- Converge (formerly Infralinx Capital) – lead member
- The Louis Berger Group
- Gilbane Construction
- Denton’s Law Firm
- G2 Investments.
This structure lay the groundwork for our national test case of how the public sector, with private and impact investors could form a new eco-system for the development, execution and management of municipal “civic infrastructure”.
Working in close cooperation, my department and the NPDC brought forward several major projects with associated private/impact investment:
- An urban agriculture, state of the art hydroponic project
- Phase One of an urban micro grid of our critical facilities, which are within a mile of each other
- A Smart Cities and IoT initiative
- Ongoing discussions and with multiple meta-data, cyber security and smart city technology firms to utilize Newport as a potential test and operations site
Each of these projects allows the community to be more independent and self-sufficient and create a value added proposition that continually brings creative minds here.
The heart of the project is the realignment of the bridge ramp system, the major entrance into Newport, opening up over 60 acres with waterfront access, for the development of a global resilience innovation campus focused on applied research, and application and thought leadership conferences. The actual realignment cost is anticipated to be in the $40-50 million range, and our private partners have brought their expertise to help find funding, as well as inform the plan to include the economic development and social equity priorities of the City. It will include a transportation center and a bike and pedestrian friendly layout that will knit the adjacent neighborhoods back into the city, and lay the groundwork for the resilience focus with a major transportation infrastructure component.
The City also partnered with the Newport Chamber of Commerce, the Economic Development Foundation of Rhode Island, Commerce RI and the US Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration to transform a former elementary school into a technology accelerator and shared office and research space to service the resilience sectors targeted by the City.
The feedback from corporations that are collaborating with the City confirms that this integrated resilience ecosystem is one of the most advanced experimental concepts they have seen being tested by a US community. Based on that, these groups are interested and actively exploring potential ways to partner with Newport as a resilience smart city national model.
From the policy and innovation research perspective, Newport has attracted local and New England regional research and academic institutions. This included developing a formal relationship between the City, Naval Station Newport’s Naval Undersea Warfare Center (NUWC) and NPDC and its networks for potential technology commercialization and business development. An initiative with the Rhode Island Nursery and Landscape Association (RINLA), brought Harvard University’s Zofnass Center as well as the Law School’s Environmental Policy Center to our green infrastructure job certification initiatives. We also created a strong network of professors and technologists associated with MIT and the Built Environment Coalition, the University of Rhode Island, as well as Newport’s local university, Salve Regina University, to both advise and assist us in innovation, business development and associated investment.
Outside of New England, we expanded our outreach to national and international research and academic institutions and global think tanks. The US-Congress-funded Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, and Stanford University’s Wood Institute for the Environment are conducting a year-long initiative to develop a platform and series of national and international programs and events to focus on climate change, adaptation and resilience for US communities in context of US security, and have invited Newport to be one of the few US communities to participate.
The University of Maryland’s Environmental Finance Center (EFC) at College Park, MD began a city-to-city exchange on how two colonial ocean front cities could address climate change, sea-level rise and their associated challenges and called it The Race to Resilience. The EFC and the University of Maryland are exploring how the Newport model might be examined, enhanced and potentially applied to other locales as a national model for both resilience and the development of an emerging eco-system that includes the public, private, impact and family foundations in the development, execution and management of critical civic infrastructure.
At this point, Newport enjoys partnerships with a portfolio of over 30 local, national and global engineering design, construction and technology corporations, impact and other private sector investment groups, research institutions and policy think tanks engaged in some capacity.
Our ultimate success depends on the active engagement and inclusion of the millennial generation. Keeping our youth in the state is key to the long-term development, promotion, expansion and active stewardship of an emerging resilience ecosystem. The challenges of an evolving physical environment present opportunities that provide a future that, though different from the present, can actually be better and more robust. Opportunities generated by the challenges surrounding global climate change must drive our efforts forward, and inspire our younger generations to actively participate. If they do not, this could spell the beginning of the end of the great American experiment.
Innovation comes from a willingness to move forward, even when the end product is unknown. What adaptations and technologies will be integrated into this city’s civic infrastructure by its 400th birthday, in 2039? What natural or economic storms will it have survived and overcome by then? The key is to remain open to a flexible vision of the future. With consistent leadership, which understands that progress is a journey, this city can adapt and continue to create systems that engage the private sector, and make it a model of resilience.
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