Finding links in post-disaster resilience planning
Author: Christina Williams
Posted: November 2, 2018

For just a few minutes, imagine the big one has hit Portland.

It might be the big flood spurred by unheard-of torrential rains pushing the region’s rivers feet above flood stage. It might be the Cascadian Subduction Zone earthquake rendering roads unpassable and buildings uninhabitable. It might be some other combination of wildfire, landslide, or drought that takes a toll on the population and sideswipes business-as-usual.

Now imagine where you would go to get information, maybe find food or fresh water, and connect with your neighbors. There’s a pretty good chance you might go to your neighborhood park or community center, either by official direction or because they could be seen as a natural gathering place.

As part of an ongoing effort boosted by resources from Portland State University, bureaus across the City of Portland — including Portland Parks & Recreation — are planning for disaster recovery and resilience following catastrophic events.

“At this point we’re planning for the role that Portland Parks & Recreation will play in recovery,” said Chris Silkie, program manager for Parks. “One of the things we’ve learned is that our bureau and our parks will play a key role whether we plan for it or not.”

Reports by student researchers working with Parks uncovered that parks in places like post-Katrina New Orleans, post-Loma Prieta California, and other cities around the world were central to the recovery effort. People went to parks for a variety reasons: they served as meeting points for neighbors, ad hoc locations for churches and schools, and places to distribute supplies.

Interns working at Portland Parks & Recreation and five other bureaus across the City of Portland — plus one at Multnomah County — have been funded by the PSU Institute for Sustainable Solutions (ISS), which builds community-university partnerships to drive progress toward a more sustainable region.

The Institute is entering its third year of resilience planning work with Portland city bureaus, convening the work group — officially called the Disaster Resilience and Recovery Action Group — with an aim of supporting City efforts and facilitating ongoing interdepartmental cooperation.

The work was started by ISS in early 2017 with funding from the Global Consortium for Sustainability Outcomes. ISS staff continues to manage interns and convene meetings to ensure that collaboration around resiliency planning — which is more about recovery from disasters, not the emergency response — is able to continue.

“Resilience and recovery planning requires cross-departmental work and creates the opportunity to come up with solutions that might not otherwise be identified,” said Beth Gilden, project manager at the Institute for Sustainable Solutions. “The Disaster Resilience and Recovery Action Group is developing the tools and knowledge to reform policies and identify the smartest investments the city can make to support recovery from disaster.”

The group is made up of staff from the Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, the Bureau of Environmental Services, the Bureau of Emergency Management, the Water Bureau, Parks and Recreation, Bureau of Transportation, and the budget office.  

In addition to providing staff time to convene the group, ISS has hired interns to add capacity to bureau staff, spending time researching potential investments and cross-bureau initiatives to boost citywide resiliency.  

“We wouldn’t have been able to do any of this without PSU,” said Silkie of the Parks department. “They have provided both process support and project support.”

In addition to funding internship positions, ISS helped connect Silkie with graduate students working with Sahan Dissanayake, a PSU environmental and resource economist and ISS Faculty Fellow. The students worked on quantifying the economic benefits of park infrastructure improvements such as culvert repairs in Forest Park, helping the department plan for ways to use scarce funding resources.

“Instead of saying, ‘Hey, it’s important to maintain and update culverts,’ we can say exactly how important it is from an economic perspective,” Silkie said.

In the coming year, ISS will continue to provide Parks and other city bureaus with interns working resiliency projects. For example, intern research could weigh the cost of installing solar panels and battery storage at al community center against the potential post-disaster benefit of having an off-grid power source.

“I see our interns as adding the capacity needed to create a culture of resiliency across city departments,” said Liliana Caughman, a graduate assistant at ISS who is coordinating the Disaster Resilience project. “Through them we can share resources across departments and identify the steps we need to take to make sure our city can continue to thrive after a disaster like those we’ve seen in other places.”

More infromation about the Disaster Resilience and Recovery Action Group is available on the ISS website.