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PSU guides Portland effort on disaster recovery
Author: Christina Williams, Institute for Sustainable Solutions
Posted: February 20, 2018

Living in the Pacific Northwest means living with the risk of disaster. Major fault lines and climate change-fueled weather scenarios mean that local governments need to operate with seismic, flood and other disaster plans in place.

But after the initial emergency response, plans honed over time with disaster drills and multi-agency coordination, how will the recovery and rebuilding from a 500-year flood or major seismic event be coordinated?

Answering that question with the City of Portland is something that the Portland State University Institute for Sustainable Solutions (ISS) has been working on over the last year as part of a broader, international effort to involve universities in helping cities build capacity to take on sustainability-related issues.

Through ISS, Portland State is part of a 10-university Global Consortium for Sustainability Outcomes, a nonprofit spearheaded by Arizona State University. As part of the consortium, PSU received $34,000 early in 2017 to work with city agencies to begin cross-departmental infrastructure planning for recovery efforts.

Led by ISS staff, faculty, and students, the project is wrapping up its first phase and looking ahead to the next steps and further planning exercises for 2018. At the same time, ISS is sharing its experience with other universities in Germany, Mexico, and the U.S. as part of a broader effort to identify best practices for the ways in which universities can help city partners add capacity to take on complicated planning and implementation work.

“By having the university involved, there’s a heightened awareness of the project, we can convene not only the city agencies who need to be at the table, but the added assets of researchers and students who can support the effort,” said Fletcher Beaudoin, ISS Assistant Director and the project lead at ISS.

Early in the year, ISS brought together an initial group of city partners—the Portland Bureau of Emergency Management, the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, and the Bureau of Environmental Services. Together they identified cross-bureau infrastructure planning for disaster resilience as the priority project for the year. The goals were to get city bureaus thinking and talking about key assets that could be tapped for recovery efforts, and to prioritize the planning for that recovery.

The process started as many planning efforts do, with a meeting of key stakeholders—representatives from across city agencies tasked with starting the infrastructure planning exercise. After that initial planning step, completed in May, ISS and key city staff spent the summer coordinating dozens of interviews to further identify and prioritize opportunities for cross-departmental coordination. The year’s effort culminated in two 8-hour workshops, held at the ISS Data Visualization Lab, in November.

Leading up to the workshops, teams from the City’s infrastructure bureaus identified and mapped their most critical infrastructure assets—pipes, roads, facilities, etc.—which were uploaded as layers into an interactive GIS mapping program to be displayed across seven touchscreen units at PSU’s Digital Visualization Studio during the two workshops. One workshop focused on seismic recovery while the other focused on how best to recover from a 500-year flood event. During each scenario, bureau teams rotated from map to map, considering asset interdependencies, and engaging in cross-bureau conversations about the potential for collaborative efforts toward improving resilience.

The workshops resulted in improved general knowledge, opportunities for collaboration between departments, and a list of short-term and long-term projects. As an example, the Portland Water Bureau learned about wells at key city parks that could serve as alternative non-potable water supplies if a disaster compromised the city’s main water supply.

“The Resilient Infrastructure Planning Exercise created the time and space for inter-department collaboration and added depth and knowledge to our ongoing resiliency planning efforts,” said Michele Crim, Portland’s climate change policy manager. “Our goal is to be able to recover quickly from natural disasters and this process moves us closer to that goal.”

Now ISS is looking ahead to the coming year focusing both on coordinating with partner universities to distill a methodology for this kind of city capacity building as well as working further with the City to move the recovery planning effort along even further.

In partnership with Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico in Mexico City, Arizona State University in Tempe, Ariz., and Karlsruhe Institute of Technology and Leuphana University, both of Germany, ISS will develop a tool that takes into account five diverse project case studies for designing projects that support both city capacity needs and university goals.