The Messy Complexity of Life

I’ve found  that buildings and communities are deceptively complex.  In their simplest form, buildings provide us with shelter and enable us to work productively. Communities link us together and provide the necessities of a civilized society - roads and schools, safety and security, systems of communication and infrastructure - energy, water and waste disposal,. But, beyond that they are also an eco-system that reflects the culture and values of the people that live, work and play within them. A unique matrix of individual parts that when put together in a thoughtful and intentional way create harmony and enable each of us to bring our best selves to the mix. Buildings play an important role in how easily and effectively we can do that. And the recognition of how people interact with each other is key to creating a resilient and vibrant community.

The best projects are ones in which we make the conscious choice to be mindful and think holistically and systemically about the solutions. The trans-disciplinary nature of the team and partnering with the community brings forth solutions that may not be obvious or expected, but in the end are more meaningful and durable. By sharing roles and crossing disciplines we learn from and challenge each other, ultimately pooling and integrating a wealth of expertise. Today’s world requires a vastly different analysis - one that looks at the total value of resiliency, sustainability and high performance. It includes the full range of economic, social and environmental impacts. Decisions around sustainability need to quickly move beyond neat rows of check boxes (and simple payback) to the messy complexity of real life.

There exists a quantifiable and integrated suite of payoffs at the property level that accrue to the owner and occupants, as well as at enterprise and community levels. Successful adaptation and change happens when we are able to articulate the benefits in the context of this complexity and make this the primary source of inspiration and the lever for action versus falling into the trap of easy black and white answers."

The best offense is a good defense. 


re·sil·ience (rəˈzilyəns)

  1. the ability to become strong, healthy, or successful again after something bad happens.
  2. the ability of something to return to its original shape after it has been pulled, stretched, pressed, bent: elasticity


    I'm about to head off to huddle with a group of colleagues to frame "10 Principles of Resilience" based on our work in more than a dozen communities.  This gave me the chance to look at some of the projects I've worked on, and think about lessons learned.  

    Resiliency can be divided into four basic dimensions of urban resilience[1]:

    • health and well being,
    • economy and society,
    • infrastructure and environment, and
    • leadership, strategy and community engagement. 

    The cost of preparing for a hard to see, long-range event can play second fiddle to immediate, day-to-day operational challenges particularly when there are competing capital needs.  However, resiliency is not merely a protective Band Aid, it is also an economic driver.  Economics is a combination of avoided risk and the capitalization of opportunities.

    The objective is to proactively make cities and communities increasingly capable of overcoming both the day to day and catastrophic stresses placed upon them.    This is measured in terms of economic value- increased revenue, avoided cost, community cohesion, environmental health and resident physical and social well-being.  Each of which contributes to a desirable, future ready city.

    Developing a plan for a resilient community involves a large and diverse number of stakeholders spanning the domains of economic development, industry, social equity, urban planning, design, and engineering.  Some of the focal points include establishing leadership structures, finding launching points to gain traction, and engaging business and residential community to help drive appropriate investments.   

    Costs associated with resiliency measures must be viewed in conjunction with the avoided impacts – loss of property, business and economic exposure and critical life/safety mitigations.  At the same time, value associated with a stronger, more resilient neighborhood and quality of life must also be incorporated.  Communities rely heavily on linked networks.  The loss of one critical component of infrastructure can have cascading effects throughout a myriad of systems.    

    For example, our work showed that in the event of a climate related event in the Duwamish River area in Seattle (such as a sea level with a King tide or prolonged precipitation) significant economic losses would be incurred.   Lost wages, property damage and business interruption would reverberate throughout the local, regional and national economy.  

    While the actual amount is difficult to assess, a comprehensive commercial level assessment in the Green River Valley (GRV) shows total property value exposure between $30-50 billion.  Given, the Duwamish area accounts for about 30% of total sales/property tax and 10-20% of total employment in the overall GRV region, we estimated about a $10 billion exposure in property value in this area.  Business interruption, for days or weeks, would add exponentially to this cost.  Food insurance is generally an exclusion in most policies.  Even though many companies carry property damage and business interruption insurance, the downtime and inability to deliver a product or service in a timely manner has long term ramifications – for the firm, their employees and their clients.  

    Research shows resilient people, possess three characteristics: a staunch acceptance of reality; a deep belief, often buttressed by strongly held values, that life is meaningful; and an uncanny ability to improvise.  Communities, made up of people, are the same.  

    Resiliency strategies play a huge role in long term viability and economic value both for public entities as well as individual businesses and residents.   The objective is to future-proof against potential downside while priming to take advantage of opportunities. What region or business would, in their right mind, leave their long term fate to the vagaries of the environment, when reasonable, prudent and proactive measures can be taken to avoid property and profit losses? 


    [1] Rockefeller Foundation 100 Resilient Cities Program



    "Wait, what?" Responsible Property Investing

    (This is a re-post of something I shared on Linked-In in June 2016.)

    As chair of the 'Responsible Property Investment Council' for the Urban Land Institute I often get eye rolls or quips such as  -  "wait, what did you say? 'responsible' property investing'?   - if you invest 'responsibly', does that mean I'm investing 'irresponsibly'?!".   (ummm....)  These comments make me smile - because I know we are simply being thoughtful and strategic in the way we invest.  We invest with an eye toward creating competitive and durable market rate returns.  Call it what you will - my experience is that incorporating a holistic lens drives alpha returns.

    I believe that the Responsible Property Investing is the leading edge. Call it "triple bottom line" or "people, planet, profit"  - it is about being really smart and intentional about our investments. The first hurdle to overcome is the notion that investing with an environmental or social sense will naturally result in lower returns or performance. I think it is just the opposite. We are investors first. Like anyone else, when we deploy capital, we want to get it back with a return - either in yield or appreciation. The TBL/PPP principles are about creating a strong and healthy foundation, be it in the context of a building, neighborhood or city. By consciously using our natural resources, reinvesting in our people and our communities and recognizing that diversity results in better decision making and stronger ties, we are creating a higher quality asset. If we raise the standard of living for all, we will create jobs and healthy and safe places to work and live.  In turn, raising the tax base,  supporting investment in infrastructure and community programs, driving art, music, better education and individual agency and commitment.  As you create vibrant, healthy, desirable neighborhoods you also raise asset values.

    I’m currently tracking the overlay between climate change and populations which are disproportionately impacted. Frankly, if we don’t get our act together on this one, we will continue to see rising unrest as our resources are strained to capacity - water fights, food shortages, migration and dislocation; the typical sustainability issues - water, energy, waste, carbon; increasing income disparity. Let’s look at water (or lack thereof). If you invest in infrastructure that delivers clean and accessible water to communities in need you start to tackle gender inequality and economic returns. In many countries, women are the ones who collect water from far away places, often at great risk. By investing in water delivery, you reduce the amount of time and effort they must go to to provide for a basic need - thereby freeing up time for them to go to school, increasing the educated population, reducing health care costs and allowing them the opportunity to engage in commerce, providing a positive benefit into the local economy. 

    With every investment we make (money, time or capacity) we are making a clear statement of what we choose to impact. We can be far more intentional in how we develop and redevelop. Doing mixed-income, cross-generational development. Use responsible contracting to ensure living wages. Reduced resource use. 

    How can we motivate more investors, developers and lenders to take into account these topics?  Ultimately, I think it is a shift in focus. Change the questions that are being asked to make them more meaningful and so they are tracking a higher level of significance. Instead of focusing on whether or not returns have increased over the quarter (or some other short period of time), we need to be asking whether or not we are building adaptable and resilient buildings, cities and systems. Are we creating assets that can withstand and flourish given the future.

    We are facing unprecedented change - we have narrowed our perspectives needlessly and frankly, to our own detriment. When we only look at investing as what shows up on the most recent P&L, we shrink our field of vision, limiting our opportunities, opening ourselves up to risk and excluding some of the most important factors and consequences. It provides an inadequate and incomplete view of investment returns. And it keeps us in a mode of extraction - which as we all know is unsustainable. (The healthiest plants and food grow in soil that has been tended and replenished.) By expanding our focus, it is easier to see the true cost and profit, which allows us to optimize our investment decisions. Ultimately the capital markets and our investments can be a positive force for change.