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A Discussion with APWA’s Sustainability Liaisons

Editors Note: This is the transcript of an interview with Albert Carbon (Public Works Director - Oakland Park, FL) and Ellory Monks (Co Founder – The Atlas Marketplace) that took place on June 26, 2017. The interview was hosted by C4S for chapter sustainability liaisons. The interview has been edited for clarity and conciseness.

Ellory: Hi there, everyone. My name is Ellory and I’m so glad to be talking with you all today. Before we get to the meatier part of our conversation, I want to quickly introduce myself and give you a little context about why I’m talking to you today. So my partners and I have been working 1-1 with dozens of cities over the last 5 or so years—primarily with the support of the Rockefeller Foundation—to design, finance and implement resilient infrastructure projects. Several years ago, we had a conversation with the Public Works Director in one of our coastal partner cities about a plan to install flexible flood barriers. And that conversation really changed how we approached our work with cities. He asked us:

  • what cities have installed flexible flood barriers like this?
  • how much did it cost?
  • how’d they finance it?
  • what have the outcomes been?
  • how’d the city write the RFP?
  • what companies were involved?
  • can you put me in touch with the city officials that have done this already?

This public works director told us that he couldn’t even begin to think about bringing the project to his mayor and city council before knowing the answers to these questions. His questions crystalized something that we already knew instinctively: that city officials prefer to learn from their peers. Because at the end of the day, only other public works directors can understand the hopes, dreams and frustrations of other public works directors. That’s one reason why organizations like APWA are so incredibly important, and why we’re so happy to be included in the C4S Sustainability Toolkit.

Over the years, we had many, many other similar conversations with different city officials. So we decided to launch The Atlas, an online social network and marketplace for city officials looking to upgrade their infrastructure to be stronger, smarter and more sustainable. Our goal is to create a safe, hassle-free space for city, county, and utility staff to learn from one another about successfully built and installed infrastructure projects from around the world.  Our end game is to help local government leaders replicate innovative infrastructure projects – and the benefits they generate – in their own communities.

We launched The Atlas just about 9 months ago. We’re now partnered with over 40 local governments, including several public works directors and their staff. Albert & Oakland Park was one of our first partner cities.

At The Atlas, I’m in charge of facilitating city-to-city learning, and that’s why Albert and I are talking to you today. I want to highlight some of the great progress Albert and his staff have made in Oakland Park recently to tackle their flood issues. Specifically, I want to talk with him about how he’s engaged with the planning folks at the city, county, water management district, etc., because it’s an issue that a ton of public works departments face when pursuing sustainability or resilience projects. So with that, I’d like to introduce you to Albert! He’s really one of the most forward-thinking public works directors I know. Albert, can you please share a little bit about yourself, Oakland Park and some of the infrastructure challenges you’re facing?

Albert: Sure. I’ve been with Oakland Park for a little over a year and before that I was the Public Works Director of Fort Lauderdale, FL for nearly a decade. I met Ellory about nine months ago at the Smart Cities Conference in Washington, D.C. They had just launched The Atlas two weeks before we met!

Oakland Park is a small city (population ~40,000) in Broward County in southeast Florida. Oakland Park is a coastal city, but we don’t have any beachfront property, so we’re unique that way. Oakland Park basically sits in a bowl and is surrounded by higher elevations. This means that we are constantly struggling with drainage issues and chronic flooding. We really are feeling the effects of climate change and sea level rise now.

Separate of flooding, we’re also looking into smart cities technologies to improve other city services. When it comes to smart cities, we’re really focused on improving data collection and analysis.

Ellory: What initially drew me to Albert and to Oakland Park is that they’ve made real progress towards addressing their flood issues, even though they’re a small/medium-sized city without a huge tax base. And they’ve made that progress in a way that’s incorporated a lot of nature-based solutions and green infrastructure, most recently with the new pump station at Lloyd Estates. Albert, can you talk about the process and time it took for you to get from “We have a flooding problem” to “these are some of the investments we can make to start to address the problem.”

Albert: The story actually starts well before my time with Oakland Park, back in 2002. There was a hurricane that year that resulted in some major flooding throughout the City. After that, the City took a step back to take a look at Oakland Park’s risk and infrastructure profile. Eventually 13 projects came out of that analysis. They weren’t projects, more like 13 different drainage areas that we needed to address our chronic drainage and flood problems. By concentrating on repetitive flood losses, we received a large grant from FEMA for one of larger projects and were able to move forward with additional flood mitigation efforts.

This most recent project – the one I’m most excited about – is the new pump station at Lloyd Estates.  We’re maximizing the natural permeable soil through several nature-based approaches: first, by installing grass swales within the non-paved Right-of-Way, second, by constructing exfiltration trenches to further accelerate moving the rain water underground, third, by discharging any additional water into the natural receiving waters, and finally, by increasing the discharge rate of the natural streams through the new pump station.

Ellory: I know you believe that working with planners – whether planning/water management/sustainability/climate change folks – is really important in tackling overwhelming infrastructure problems like the ones Oakland Park is facing. How do you approach that collaboration in Oakland Park?

Albert: Well, we have a very extreme need in Oakland Park, and so we’ve had a lot of success focusing on repetitive losses, both with FEMA and with our planners. When it comes to the planners you’re talking about—in Southeast Florida we have a lot of them, within a lot of different organizations, because we’re already feeling the impacts of climate change. We have a large water management district, for example, that does a ton of water resource planning. So does Broward County.

We’ve had a ton of success engaging in the planning process through the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Compact. They’ve been an invaluable resource for us, and I know for a lot of other Florida cities, counties and utilities too, when it comes to climate adaptation planning.

What I’ll say more generally is that planners are really important in the early design stages of project development – with site selection, etc. – but after that, the project really needs to be handed over to the design and engineering teams.

Ellory: Yes, absolutely. This is something that we work with planners – especially those focused on sustainability, resilience, climate change – on a lot, this reality that in order for any of their strategic plans to actually be implemented through specific projects or technologies, that they will need to work very closely with their public works and engineering departments, and that there’s a handoff that needs to take place. Can you share any advice you have for other public works directors about engaging with the folks responsible for planning, whether that's from the city, county, water management district, etc.?

Albert:  My biggest advice is to engage with them early in the planning process, to collaborate together on projects. Get their list of priorities and projects, and see where there’s overlap with your priorities and projects. Any projects or priorities that appear on both lists are generally good areas to focus on.

Ellory: Yes! We tell all the planners we work with to schedule a “Take your Public Works Director to Lunch Day” to do exactly what you’re talking about. I’ll also add that these projects – the projects that planning and public works agree on – tend to be the projects that have the most political support from Mayors and their staffs. Here’s my last question for you: Why’d you join The Atlas? What do you see as the value to Oakland Park?

Albert: The immediate reason I joined was that I was looking for more visibility on smart cities technologies and projects. I wanted to know what other cities were doing to see if it’s something relevant to Oakland Park. That’s an area we haven’t focused on as much as flooding, but it's a strategic priority for the city. I also appreciate the opportunity to demonstrate our leadership/progress on coastal flooding issues through The Atlas project posts. Making sure other cities learn from our experience with Lloyd Estates is important to me.

Ellory:  Awesome. I’ll also add that moving forward, we’ll be building out the data and information that’s focused on project implementation. For example: how projects were financed, how scopes of work were written, what the project outcomes were.

To close out our conversation, I want to encourage you all to go to The Atlas website and explore a little bit. Just keep in mind that almost all of the functions we’ve mentioned today are protected behind a sign-in page – that’s part of how we’re keeping The Atlas a safe place for city staff – so you’ll have to create a profile to get access. It only takes a couple minutes, though, and is completely free. Thank you!