The civic agency project: building broader and deeper coalitions

San Francisco, July 2020

Solving complex environmental and social problems for an uncertain future will require new civic frameworks that can foster broader and deeper coalitions. Essential public infrastructure, with its reach and transformative power, is ideally positioned to pioneer such frameworks.

Lisa Beyer is a San Francisco-based landscape architect, urban designer and planner tasked with designing and piloting a new framework for public infrastructure. She works on the Cities4Forests and Natural Infrastructure Initiatives for the World Resources Institute (WRI), a research organization advancing environmental, economic and human well-being. In her role as Urban Water Infrastructure Manager, Lisa is developing a tool that could transform how San Francisco defines, funds, delivers, and maintains public infrastructure. Eight weeks into San Francisco's shelter-in-place order, I had the opportunity to talk to Lisa about her work and reflect on its cultural significance. I thank Lisa for her generosity, and for bringing a multidisciplinary outlook and sense of possibility to our conversation.

Unlocking the power of interagency collaboration

Known as the Joint Benefits Authority (JBA), this initiative is backed by an impressive group of partners that include the WRI, Encourage Capital, the Liquid Assets Project and the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, and has attracted funding from the Kresge Foundation, SpringPoint Partners and the Moore Foundation. Envisioned as "a governance and finance tool that will empower public agencies and communities to co-design, finance, and sustain public infrastructure", the JBA is currently at its inception.

I start the conversation by asking Lisa to outline the challenges that the JBA is responding to. She describes how today, cities across the country are struggling to provide essential services to all. Public agencies compete for funding and operate within frameworks that result in inefficient — and costly — service overlaps and blind spots. These shortcomings are exacerbated by a legacy of environmental and social inequalities that in many cases can be traced back to policies and investments implemented by previous generations. Climate change and the global environmental crisis add a whole new set of challenges and pressures.

The JBA pilot is being designed to help San Francisco's public agencies jointly deliver services in an increasingly complex context. To maximize the benefits of public investment, the JBA aims to streamline services and costs, and align funding for projects that deliver multi-dimensional benefits and long-term public value. On this last point, Lisa emphasizes that the JBA's finance model will consider costs and benefits from inception to maturity, ensuring adequate maintenance and stewardship. This comprehensive approach requires thinking beyond current bond funding for capital infrastructure implementation. The JBA aims to build broader coalitions, attracting private and philanthropic investments, as well as State and Federal grants.

Regional infrastructure projects, like San Francisquito Creek, attest to the public sector's ability to design and implement sophisticated joint benefit financing models, and the JBA will build on past accomplishments. Yet, delivering essential public services and infrastructure to all will involve something more laborious. It will require the creation of a "one-city culture" driven by city employees across departments, and encompassing a dynamic approach to workflows, property, and jurisdiction. The success of the JBA will be in the hands of ordinary city employees determined to unlock the power of interagency collaboration.

A natural coalition

The ongoing COVID pandemic continues to expose both deep inequalities and the interconnectedness of people, nature, and the social and physical systems we have built. I wonder how this experience is changing Lisa's approach to her work, is she looking at the JBA in a different light? Indeed, to her, the pandemic has "highlighted the importance of equitable public services for all" and demonstrated that "bold, collective action is possible".

And bold, collective action is exactly what climate change demands of our generation. Lisa mentions the importance of integrating natural infrastructure a few times during our conversation and I am curious to know more. She envisions new networks of "malleable, resilient, living, and breathing infrastructure that can support other engineered systems". This could include "rain garden corridors, wetlands, green ways and creek daylighting". This is exciting; a framework with the mission to connect people and nature.

An upstream planning framework like the JBA could reconnect communities and natural systems through the implementation of extensive nature-based interventions that today are relegated to tiny urban pockets. When collaborating with engineers, I often — jokingly — complain when their solutions are too efficient. I argue that an efficient rain garden is a small rain garden; an efficient wastewater system is an invisible system. And scale and visibility have long-term impacts in our ability to culturally connect to, and care for public infrastructure. I can see how a nature-based coalition could expand the range of benefits and foster stewardship of our collective investments.

This innovative concept will require new metrics to support a broader range of public value to be delivered (perhaps) in perpetuity. For instance, the impact of a greenway connecting multiple neighborhoods could be measured in new jobs, educational achievement, mental and physical health, micro-climatic comfort, biodiversity, groundwater recharge, and flood management, among other community priorities.

Intergenerational coalitions

The JBA is a timely and important initiative, and I'm eager to understand if there are any additional catalysts for its success. Lisa explains that while studying a wide range of transformational projects, she has come to the conclusion that the political context is critical. To succeed, the JBA will require leadership and vision, political and public will, and a strong set of shared values. Ultimately, its success will hinge on inspiring ideas that can bring (and keep) people together.

But perhaps what strikes me as most visionary in this initiative is the ambition to concurrently address past, present and future challenges, creating the opportunity for intergenerational coalitions to emerge. The JBA could embody the institutional space to fully recognize that some communities bear the burden of systemic bias in past public decisions and provide an armature to rectify and turn things around for those communities.

And it is here, at the intersection of equity and civic agency, where I think the JBA could reach its full potential. Fundamentally, the JBA should be imagined as a participatory framework that helps communities and public agencies collaborate for a just built environment. Increasing representation will be critical to this process, requiring great social insight to build capacity from within communities and interweave existing networks. A better appreciation of the complexity of this task makes me realize that existing participative processes following a project by project approach, are mostly trying to solve issues downstream. Effective overview of past, present and future forces shaping communities, and a commitment to just outcomes for all (including future generations), calls for new civic frameworks that involve entire communities in the upstream–downstream journey of envisioning a shared future.

Opportunity in uncertainty

A few weeks after my conversation with Lisa, we witnessed a global wave of protests in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. This historic moment must renew our commitment to a just built environment. Now more than ever, communities are counting on agencies that have pioneered environmental justice to fulfill and expand their mission. San Francisco, as many other cities, operates under public frameworks that have delivered unequal benefits in the past; today, the City struggles to provide essential services to all. The underlying pressures of climate change, environmental degradation and persistent social inequalities demand that we imagine and put into action new civic frameworks that give present and future generations a fighting chance.

Beyond reinvigorating existing public agencies and institutions, the JBA creates a window to the broader and deeper coalitions that can propel and steward long-term efforts. The need to collaborate at a greater scale might lead communities and public agencies to articulate new values and imagine new ways of organizing for increased transparency and accountability. As well as a new set of metrics, this will require a tangible commitment to sharing resources, power, and responsibility among communities and government, and across generations.

Cities need to cultivate a political and cultural context where experimentation is possible, and where new frameworks like the JBA can guide us towards a future with nature as our ally. Perhaps one of the most important lessons of 2020 is that, in a world where all is connected, the risk of doing nothing is much greater than the risk of taking bold, collective action.

More information on the JBA can be found on WRI’s blog: Collaboration on Nature-Based Solutions is Key to Resilient City Infrastructure, which includes a summary of the JBA project.