By Rebecca Sanborn Stone, Resilient Vermont Network Coordinator and Principal at Community Workshop LLC
As Hurricane Joaquin bears down on the East Coast, a group of Vermont resilience leaders are sitting in a second-floor conference room in Montpelier. We’ve brought this group together to discuss buyouts of flood-prone properties – specifically how Vermont can protect important stretches of stream banks and improve floodplain function, or buy out properties with the most vulnerable structures and greatest potential for damage. We’re watching rain pelt the windows and fuel the Winooski River, which rises steadily up toward the buildings along its shore. (No, the irony is not lost on us.)
The group is one of four that the Resilient Vermont Network is convening this fall to discuss critical opportunities or gaps in Vermont’s resilience work, and to explore the potential for collaborative projects. We brought together a core group this spring to imagine what the Network should be and how it could help, and action projects rose to the top of the list. Specifically, they identified areas that could benefit from collaboration: ideas that are not likely to progress without a collective effort, and existing efforts that could move faster or reach further if more organizations get behind them.
The group honed in on four specific areas. In addition to buyouts, we are exploring river corridor protections across the state, the resilience of vulnerable populations, and economic resilience (specifically, how to maximize the impact of the Vermont Economic Resilience Initiative / VERI).
We’re also adopting an unusual approach to action. Often, complex challenges spawn complicated solutions – multi-year strategic plans, formal working groups, long timeframes, and lots of meetings. That can feel overwhelming and slow. These days, many networks and collaborations are using more agile approaches, based in concepts of collective impact and design thinking. Rather than setting specific targets and writing long-term plans to get there, we’re looking to align around a general direction and find quick actions that get us moving on the right path.
Specifically, we’re looking for projects and steps that a group can complete in 90 days. Then we’ll come back together, evaluate progress, and start again. Group membership is fluid, with people participating as it makes sense. And groups are themselves fluid – they can form when collaboration is needed and dissolve when it isn’t. (Check out the Vermont Farm to School Network, which inspired our approach.)
Three groups held first meetings in September, with very different results. (The fourth group, on economic resilience and the VERI project, will likely meet in October.) Here’s a snapshot.
- Buyouts: Leaders identified four critical aspects to improving buyouts, and three 90-day projects to move forward. First, we need to create an administrative and policy structure that facilitates buyouts. The group focused on incentives to keep agricultural land undeveloped, and will work on identifying current barriers. Second, we need a system to prioritize potential buyouts statewide. The group identified existing sources of data and a need to coordinate them. They will work on incorporating that project into the state’s current hazard mitigation planning process. Third, we need to ensure that there is sufficient funding to complete high-priority buyouts. There is a lack of clarity around existing and potential funding sources, so the group will start a research project to understand and map the funding landscape. And last, we need to ensure that changes resulting from buyouts (such as relocations or land use) reinforce desired outcomes like compact development and habitat conservation.
- River Corridor Protections: This group quickly identified public education and outreach as essential strategies in encouraging towns to limit development and protect floodplain functions in river corridors. Dozens of agencies and groups have a role in education, but they are often using different vocabulary and different messages. The group is exploring 90-day project to convene organizations with a role in outreach to clarify language and messaging, and create consistent, shared outreach materials.
- Vulnerable Populations: Leaders working with vulnerable populations focused on diversity – both a central challenge and opportunity. There is a striking diversity in vulnerabilities themselves (from language to health, poverty to age) to people’s needs (from immediate assistance during a disaster, to long-term recovery, to longer-term assistance that reduces overall vulnerability). There are also hundreds of diverse and often disconnected efforts to meet these needs. The group focused on researching and mapping existing resilience services, which can then help us identify gaps.
Where will we be in 90 days? In five years? Time will tell, but we promise to keep you posted. If you’re interested in joining us for the ride and getting involved with a group, please get in touch.