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How coastal cities can prioritize and invest in climate resilience

Posted on November 2, 2023

The city of Virginia Beach, Va., has faced numerous climate challenges from hurricanes to sunny day flooding, and most recently the April 30, 2023 tornado impacting residents in the Great Neck neighborhood located in the northern part of the city. Anticipating a sea level rise between one and three feet in the not-so-distant future, Virginia Beach is determined to prioritize climate resilience in preparation for even more daunting challenges further down the road.

Like many cities, chief among those challenges is securing funding. Resilience projects require significant investment, and local governments are forced to be proactive in delivering financing and grant funding solutions. While traditional funding sources such as government grants and bonds are useful, municipalities must also explore alternative financing models in alignment with other organizations.

This type of collaboration can be a powerful way to attract private investment in resilience projects while satisfying the needs and priorities of the community. They also allow city leadership to stay nimble in changing regulatory environments.

Virginia Beach enjoys membership with other cities and organizations that, in effect, work to increase its collective bargaining power and secure funding for resilience projects. One of its most significant member affiliations is with the Hampton Roads Planning District Commission (HRPDC). HRPDC brings together 17 localities in Hampton Roads. It offers a range of resources and expertise, including data analysis, technical assistance and funding opportunities.

In 2018, Virginia Beach and the HRPDC secured a $120,000 grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to conduct a vulnerability assessment and develop a resilience strategy for the city. Since then, the city of Virginia Beach was awarded considerably larger amounts like the $25 million Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities (BRIC) grant it received in 2022 from FEMA and a $9.9 million award from National Fish and Wildlife Foundation for Marsh Restoration. Virginia Beach is also a participating member in other national and international networks like Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities program.

On par with funding—perhaps even more important—is the additional challenge of securing buy-in for resilience projects. Many communities may not see the immediate benefits of resilience investments, making it challenging to generate support. Thus, public outreach and community engagement become crucial. It is imperative to “strategically” educate and inform communities about the potential risks of inaction vs. the benefits of investing in resilience measures.

Strategic outreach entails taking a serious, research-based approach to uncovering everything from personal misgivings to misinformation about the reality of environmental, climate and weather-related issues impacting the municipality. It means having a firm grasp of the information residents and a broad range of critical stakeholders require to make an informed decision. It’s about meeting constituents where they are and filling the knowledge gaps.

That is precisely the approach the city took in 2021 when it put a $567.5 million Flood Protection Program bond referendum on the general election ballot. With only a few months before early voting, a survey showed considerable gaps in understanding the severity of flooding in Virginia Beach, the costs of damage and recovery, and the impacts on the city’s economic vitality and quality of life. The survey also showed that only 40 percent were willing to support the projected rate increase required for the bond.

Using these insights and additional research developed in partnership with Old Dominion University’s Dragas Center for Economic Analysis and Policy allowed the city to build a strategic message framework that shared the facts about the Flood Protection Program, its costs, its benefits if approved, and future costs of inaction if the referendum failed.

The strategy also included a branded content marketing campaign dubbed “The Ripple Effect.” It was an aggressive multimodal public outreach and education campaign that included: a microsite and video produced to tell the story of flooding impacts on the city, along with supporting literature. Content focused on informing residents about how flooding impacts homeowners, businesses, tourism, local industries, retention of local military bases and jobs. It launched via print, digital and social media, and more than 30 virtual and in-person meetings.

In the end, voters chose overwhelmingly to fund the Flood Protection Program, not because of a blitz of information, but because of content that addressed their concerns and informed them on the issue. Regardless of the funding vehicles cities may pursue, this is the work required to bring resilience projects online successfully.

Both coastal and inland cities can expect even more challenges to arise as the impacts of climate change intensify. One of these challenges is balancing short- and long-term resilience goals. While responding quickly to natural disasters and other immediate threats is essential, we must invest in long-term resilience measures such as infrastructure upgrades and land use planning.

Adapting to changing regulatory environments will likewise present challenges. Federal and state governments are enacting new regulations related to climate change and resilience all the time, and local governments must stay informed and adjust their strategies and programs accordingly.

Consider also that historically marginalized communities are often disproportionately impacted by climate change and natural disasters. It’s incumbent upon every city to ensure inclusive access to the resources and the support needed to remain resilient. Such access includes engaging with all communities and prioritizing diverse needs and perspectives early on in resilience planning.

Funding and financing are critical issues city managers face when it comes to implementing resilience projects. Many cities have budget constraints and limited resources, making it challenging to fund large-scale resilience projects. Funding for resilience projects often competes with other priorities such as education, public safety and infrastructure maintenance.

Securing buy-in on resilience projects can be complex and challenging, requiring engagement and collaboration with various stakeholders. City managers will need to deploy multiple strategies, like public outreach and education programs, robust approaches to funding and financing, and ongoing community engagement, to bring these critical projects online.

Patrick A. Duhaney joined the city of Virginia Beach as city manager in July 2020. Prior to taking on his new role, he served as city manager of Cincinnati, where he had been employed since 2009. Before his work in local government, Duhaney served in the U.S. Army on active duty and in reserve capacity from 1999 to 2015 under combat engineer and ordnance commands.


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