The Restoration Economy with the "Re-Guy" Storm Cunningham
Restoration, resiliency, recovery: how to make it work.
On this show, hosts Peter Ravella and Tyler Buckingham explore the highest levels of decision making, visioning, and strategizing for a new more resilient world. Serving as guide is Storm Cunningham, Executive Director of the RECONOMICS Institute in Washington, DC. For two decades, Storm has helped public and private clients around the globe understand how to lead or support resilient prosperity. He methods focus on the community and regional revitalization process; and communities or other entities position themselves within that process. A former Green Beret SCUBA medic with the U.S. Army’s 7th Special Forces Group, he is an avid SCUBA diver.
Peter Ravella 0:00
Hello, everybody and welcome to the American shoreline podcast. This is Peter Ravella, co host of the show.
Tyler Buckingham 0:06
And this is Tyler Buckingham, the other co host.
Peter Ravella 0:09
Tyler, one of the big old topics on the American shoreline all the time is resiliency a big buzzword today.
Tyler Buckingham 0:17
l hear it all the time
Peter Ravella 0:18
we do. And it's supposed to represent the capacity of communities to respond to climactic and other events that can cause damage to communities how they recover. But the term resiliency is really a bigger notion than that, and certainly isn't limited to the coast.
Tyler Buckingham 0:37
Yeah, today, we're gonna get up into the atmosphere. And look at the big picture of how we think about problems, how we think about how we solve those problems, how we prioritize how we solve those problems. And, Peter, I'm really looking forward to we've got a great guest lined up.
Peter Ravella 0:55
We do indeed. So joining us on this podcast today is Storm Cunningham and Storm is the executive director of the Reconomics Institute in Washington, DC. He's also the editor of the revitalization journal, and an author of three books, the first in 2002, called the restoration economy. In 2008, he came out with real wealth, and in 2020, his latest book reconomics, the path to resilient prosperity, and this is the subtitle the guide to healing economies, societies and nature for policymakers, real estate investors and entrepreneurs. That's an interesting title that's rather grand.
Tyler Buckingham 1:48
It is a subject it is, but that's the purpose of today's show. We are going up up up into the atmosphere and looking at these problems from maybe a different point of view. Yeah, and I'm really looking forward to it Peter, let's have a quick word from our sponsors and then get into the interview.
Advertisement Read 2:03
The American Shoreline Podcast Network and coastalnewstoday.com are brought to you by LJA engineering with 28 offices along the Gulf Coast. The folks at LJA engineering are at the top of the craft in the areas of coastal restoration, coastal infrastructure, rivers and channels, numerical modeling, disaster recovery, and design and construction oversight. Be sure to check out their brand new coastal resilience department headed up by ASPN's own Peter Ravella, find email@example.com. Be sure to subscribe to the coastal news today daily blast newsletter at coastalnewstoday.com for daily updates on the events and news that shape the coastal discussion. Want to support the discussion and promote your company? We have sponsorship packages available now. Email me to learn more at Chloe at coastalnewstoday.com. That's c-h-l-o-e, at coastalnewstoday.com. Hope to hear from you and enjoy the show.
Peter Ravella 2:55
We welcome Storm Cunningham from the Reconomics economics Institute in DC to join us on the American shoreline podcast.
Storm Cunningham 3:07
Hey, Peter and Tyler, thanks for having me on your show.
Peter Ravella 3:10
Well, you know, we do cover coastal resiliency planning, it's a hot topic on the American shoreline billions of dollars are being spent on community revitalization in addition to environmental restoration all around the American shoreline. And one of the things storm that struck me and looking at the materials that you have produced, and particularly your latest book, reconomics the pathway to resilient prosperity was this statement. And I wanted to start with this in the description of the book you that the assertion is made that over 95% of community revitalization and resiliency projects fail to meet their goals. That's an astonishing rate of effectiveness. Can you talk about why why is that true? Is that true? That's a stunning statistic.
Storm Cunningham 4:11
Yeah, it's a it is rather shocking. And I've probably been exposed to more revitalization and resilience, failure and success stories than maybe anybody on the planet because as a professional speaker for the last 20 years, I've spent my life in revitalization, restoration regeneration, redevelopment conferences, summits planning meetings all over the world. And for every talk I give, I normally hear at least a dozen. So I've just heard these constant stories of here's why we succeeded. Here's why we failed. And I've been looking for commonalities. And when I say they've failed, as you said, I said that they fail to meet their goals, doesn't necessarily mean they failed outright, although a huge numbers shocking number have actually failed outright, but very few pathetically few come close to meeting their real goals. Normally what they do is lower their goals over time as the project obviously is not going to pay off. So you don't really hear about, people don't. cities don't announce their failures. they announce their successes. But when a plan, when they fail to implement or implement a plan when they fail to reach their goals and a revitalization resilience, so project, you don't hear about it, because that's, that's not good ink for the mayor, or the governor or whoever's behind it. So what I found were the two primary reasons for this horrendous rate of failure is number one, lack of a strategy. And I'm not just talking about a bad strategy, I'm talking about a total lack of strategy. Most places, they'll do a visioning session, they come up with a nice vision, and they go straight into writing a plan. And so the strategy whose sole function is to help ensure success is missing. And the other reason is like a process. Virtually anybody who's involved in the production of anything on a regular basis, whether it's a farmer producing corn, or manufacturer producing peanut butter, or cars, or clothing, or somebody in government producing tax revenues, if they reliably produce anything they know, you have to have a process. And when you look at community revitalization and resilience programs, not the projects, but the programs, the overall initiatives, there's no process to it. You get down to the project level, then you've got engineers, and architects and landscape architects and ecological restoration people, each of whom has an actual process for what they're doing. So the projects can succeed, but the overall initiative fails.
Peter Ravella 7:03
That's an interesting observation. So what you're saying is, and this is important for coastal communities, but obviously not limited to the coastal areas, but for our listenership who are engaged in revitalization and resiliency, project planning and execution, you make a distinction here between revitalization, a specific project versus a program, and that the lack of strategy and the lack of a clear process really hinders the effectiveness of the program. Can you expand on that a little bit? What do you mean by the lack of a strategy? What's the missing piece that your observation in history shows?
Storm Cunningham 7:47
Well, the whole purpose of a strategy, as I mentioned, is to help ensure success. And the strategy is basically the flip side of the vision. Having a vision without a strategy is a short path to failure. But having a strategy without a vision, means you might have a really excellent way of getting somewhere mysterious, you know, right? You know how to get there, but you don't know where you're going. So, the key is to have a clear vision, which is basically a cohesive set of goals. And then the strategy is purpose is to overcome the primary obstacles to achieving the vision doesn't have to address everything, it's not a plan. But if your primary obstacle to achieving your vision is financial, then the strategy would focus on that if this primary obstacle is political or stakeholder engagement oriented, then it focuses on that, you know, whatever the primary obstacle is going going to be. The strategy is the concise embodiment of a technique that will help you overcome those obstacles. And I say concise, because the primary function of a strategy is to guide decision making towards success. So if you can't hold that strategy in your head, it's not going to guide your decision making from day to day strategy shouldn't be multiple pages sitting on a shelf, it has to be short enough to remember.
Tyler Buckingham 9:22
You know, there's there's a lot to unpack their storm and I really am looking forward to getting into this conversation. Ladies and gentlemen, you can already see we're talking about kind of this stratification of the way that we think about tackling the big problems of our society and the planet and how we exist on it. And storm before we go any deeper in that I'd like to just quickly do learn a little bit more about you and your your background here. And you know, you're you're obviously a person who pays a great deal. attention to strategies and visions and how how those things are articulated could you take us back to your kind of roots in thinking about these things i know that you have a background in the special forces in the military tell us a little bit about your kind of initiation into thinking along these lines
Storm Cunningham 10:23
well that's truly ancient history yeah we're talking about way back into the very earliest of the 70s while vietnam was still going on and yeah i was on i was in the seventh special forces group and as you might know green berets operate in 12 man teams usually behind enemy lines and it's traditionally been considered the most efficient and effective military organization ever created and it was actually based if you want to go way back on francis marion's you know the swamp fox down in south carolina who who used native american tactics which is why the native americans before the disease wiped them out by the native americans were winning all the battles and so the special forces model is primarily based on what they call unconventional warfare which is a force multiplier multiplier where a 12 man team is able to train and equip a 4000 man guerrilla battalion so the primary primarily teachers not fighters you know if you want somebody who's purely about fighting that would be army rangers navy seals somebody like that they're involved in what's called direct action but unconventional warfare this training of local gorillas involves living with the people and that's a strategy that was invented by the cia some people say it's the best idea best best idea of the cia ever had other people say it's the only good idea the cia ever but it really worked it worked really well in vietnam where the teams lived and worked with the mountain yard gorillas and the key thing there is when you've got such limited resources you got 12 guys behind enemy lines you can really make many mistakes and so strategy is really really important that people talk about tactics all the time but they always forget about the overall strategy which encompasses all the tactics to bring it a little further forward a good example of a lack of strategy was when mark zuckerberg
Tyler Buckingham 12:50
very much 100 what's that very much forward we're bringing it
Storm Cunningham 12:54
yeah right and this goes back just a few years but mark put $110 million i think it was into revitalizing the school system of newark new jersey and right the amount of money was appropriate it could actually do some really good things and he had good engagement from local leaders and you know everything seemed to be set for success they only forgot one thing a strategy and because they never identified what the primary obstacle to success would be and the primary obstacle success to success turned out to be how do you alter the existing teachers contracts which are very specific about the level of pay because one of the primary things that we're going to do to improve the level of the quality of education was to pay the good teachers better and because they didn't identify the primary obstacle they had no strategy for overcoming that obstacle and the entire thing was a waste and a total failure
Peter Ravella 14:00
wow so let's talk about this is really interesting and i get coming out of the special forces being embedded in a community and doing the training as you said a force multiplier that really identification of the barriers as you say the obstacles to success the skill involved in both developing and executing the strategy is key how do you go from that universe of thinking and training in the military to what you've become over the last 25 years which is a specialist in community revitalization and resiliency what was that transition what brought you to that subject area as opposed to any other number of subs it
Tyler Buckingham 14:46
is it's an interesting path to go from point a to point b storm how did that happen how
Peter Ravella 14:51
did that happen
Storm Cunningham 14:52
well i've always been given to drastic changes not an incremental kind of guy Because if you step back one step from my greenbrae days, I spent the previous three years hitchhiking around the world as a hippie seeking, seeking the truth.
Peter Ravella 15:11
Wow, a greenbrae hippie, I love that. That's a good combination.
Storm Cunningham 15:17
So I literally when I hitchhiked back from Nepal, and India, back to New Jersey, where my parents were living at the time. This we're talking 1971. Now, just before I enlisted, I literally went from hippie arriving back in my parents house in December of 1972, greenbrae, or at least in the army, well by February of 72. So it was about an eight week transition from hippie to greenbrae. Yeah, so the transition from special forces to becoming what I've sometimes been called the re guy. All things re redevelopment, revitalization, regeneration, restoration, really started in the mid 90s. Well, no, it really goes back before that, because I was on a scuba team in Special Forces, and, you know, fell in love with scuba diving, and have stayed with it all my life. And I noticed along the way that every time I returned to a favorite reef, it was dead or dying. And back in the late 80s, I was invited to come down and help out this German scientist in Jamaica, who had invented a reef restoration technology, really fascinating stuff. And it's literally the first reef restoration technology ever. And he needed divers to volunteer divers to help them install these things on the ocean floor. So I went down there and spend a week with him doing that, and also dove around some of his previous installations and saw these what had been dead zones, just flourishing with life in just incredibly short period of time. And you think of reefs as being something that's almost impossible to restore, since they take 1000s of years to aggregate. And here were these totally devastated reefs coming back to life in a matter of months. So that was the first that planted the seed, that we don't have to be satisfied with merely halting the damage or slowing down the rate at which we destroy the world, that we can actually restore the world. That was a real eye opener for me. And later on, I became the director of strategic initiatives at the construction specifications Institute in Alexandria, Virginia, which at the time was a technical Society of about 18,000, architects, engineers, product manufacturers. And the I had been self employed prior to that, and the idea of a nine to five job. I got into rather hesitantly thinking, I'm probably going to go crazy in that kind of environment. So I decided I needed an exit strategy. And from day one, in 1996, I started writing a book, figuring that would be a nice platform to launch myself on. And whatever my next step would be. I say, I ended up spending six years at CSI and spent that whole six years writing the book I'd come in at six o'clock every morning. And that
Peter Ravella 18:42
was the the restoration economy, which came out in 2002.
Storm Cunningham 18:47
Exactly, yeah. So I started writing the book at six o'clock every morning, then switch over to my CSI duties at nine o'clock. And what happened was about a year into writing the book, I discovered that it was boring me to death. And the problem was that it was about sustainability, which at the time was one of my chief passions. And I realized I don't really have that much new to say about sustainability. There are hundreds of books out there on this subject. Okay. So I took a look at all the research I had done, and I separated it into two piles on my desk, one pile of boring stuff, and one pile of exciting stuff. And I noticed in the smaller exciting stuff, that's a good everything had re in it. It was all about restoration, revitalization, regeneration, you know, redevelopment, remediation, replenishment, reuse, repurposing, okay. And that is the lights went on. And I said, Forget about sustainability who wants to sustain this mess, you know, the world's in horrible condition. You know, let's talk about restoration. And that's when the restoration economy was born.
Peter Ravella 19:57
I say and that answers my question that making that transition into this notion of the restoration economy if I, if I can summarize and please add to this, but the restoration economy book in 2002 postulated the notion that the there is tremendous economic opportunity in the restoration of the physical, natural and artificial assets that we have in societies all around the world. And that that opportunity should, economically that should drive this industry forward. Is that a fair summary of the thesis of that book, the rest
Storm Cunningham 20:39
of its, you know, so some of the this, what I called restorative development is ancient, you know, I mean, people have been renewing their infrastructure and restoring our historic buildings for millennia. So, the, when it was dealing with some of these older forms of restorative development, what it was documenting was a sudden growth, the fact that things like historic restoration of buildings and adaptive reuse, who were just exploding now started writing it, like I said, in 1996. So it, there's early days for some of these newer industries like brownfields remediation, redevelopment that had just been invented at the EPA the year before 1995. So some of these were brand new, and other ones were old industries that are growing really, really fast. But the key was that they were not just improving the old model. If you look at economic development, you can divided into three sections. First, you've got the new development, which is how all civilizations get started, as where you, you chop down the forest to make farms, and you pave over the farms to make cities, you know, the Sprawl based economic development, which is fine, there's nothing evil about that. But it's, like I said, how you build your civilization in the first place. And then as you're doing that, the second mode of the economic development evolves, which is maintenance and conservation, the maintenance of the built environment, the conservation of what's left to your natural environment. And if you look at most of our reporting systems and accounting systems, those are the only two modes that are really measured and reported on. But the third mode, the critical mode for us in this 21st century, is the third mode, the mode of restorative development, you know, where you're repurposing and renewing and reconnecting all of those assets that are now decrepid, or obsolete, or isolated or dying, that, you know, that's where the economic growth of the next several centuries is going to be based. And the great thing about restorative development is you can't do too much of it. And you can do it badly. But assuming you do it, well, you can't do too much of it. I mean, I've like I said, I've been doing these talks and workshops all around the world for 20 years now. And I have yet to go to our community, where people said, Oh, my God, we got to slow down this river restoration project, the waters getting way too clean, and we've got far too many fish now. Or, oh, my God, we got to slow down this brownfields project program here. I mean, we're running out of contaminated sites. Oh, my God, we got to slow down this revitalization program, our quality of life, and our economy are getting way too good. You know, you just don't hear complaints like that. You cannot restore and revitalize too much. But you can certainly sprawl and, you know, extract your resources to much
Tyler Buckingham 23:38
what are the storm? What are the changes in the way that we think about our built environment from the 90s? When you kind of started this Odyssey of thinking about the being the ri guy and and and reframing, you might say, Your, your career and your your kind of purpose. What are the how are we thinking about this differently socially? I'm curious. I mean, a lot has changed. I mean, it seems like socially we have come to into a new chapter here, at least with climate change. But I'm curious if you could take us back to the 90s where we were then and where we are now.
Storm Cunningham 24:25
Well, one good example of how things have changed is, I had a chapter on what I call them restorative agriculture, which these days is called regenerative agriculture. But it might have been the first hardcover books ever actually document the rise of regenerative agriculture in any substantial way. It you know it people like the Rodale Institute had been experimenting with it for decades, but really was just starting to push its nose out and gain a little bit of attention when I started writing the rest of it. economy. And you know, at that point I defined restorative agriculture, or regenerative agriculture as agriculture that rebuilds the quality and quantity of your topsoil, and also restores the surrounding environment, you know, such as native pollinators, the watershed, all the things that can actually make the agriculture more effective and efficient. And it was growing based on that definition quite nicely for a decade or so. And then, about six years ago, maybe five years ago, I attended an announcement at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, where it was announced that new research has shown that regenerative agriculture sequester is more carbon than reforestation, in fact, four times more carbon than reforestation. And all of a sudden, this extra bullet was added to the arguments for why we should be farming in a regenerative way, because now it was no longer just a matter of healing the extractive mode of industrial agriculture that we'd had before where, for instance, out in the Midwest, where they used to have 15 feet of topsoil, and it's now down to one or two inches, as a result of this extractive farming we've been doing, right? You know, now, we can not only rebuild our topsoil and restore native pollinators, and watersheds and all that we can actually restore the climate in the process of creating our food. That's a major change from the 90s. So
Tyler Buckingham 26:35
there's a lot to talk about there. But it is interesting, because, you know, I think about the 90s. And I mean, I'm just gonna breeze through this, I know that there was a crazy period of time here. But you know, there's the Al Gore, of course, I'm I was a kid, but I remember An Inconvenient Truth coming out. And I remember kind of the beginnings of carbon, the carbon crisis, kind of entering the public lexicon around that period of time. And what's interesting is, it seems to me as an American, I like to drive around the country, Peter, we like to cruise around Texas, and we we do I have not seen a proliferation of restorative agricultural, big farms. You know, I when I drive around big farms, what I'm seeing a lot of is GMO and fancy tractors. And I have to say, I don't believe that we're necessarily doing it the restorative way, at this moment seems like we had a fork in the road, and we went the other direction. But I hear what you're saying, storm. Having that carbon bullet on the list introduces a new existential thing, like we have to address this problem. And it reminds me of your greenbrae days, is there a benefit to having from a planning strategy perspective? You're 12 men behind enemy lines, you have wheat, now we have a carbon crisis here. I realized there might feel
Peter Ravella 28:01
differently behind the
Tyler Buckingham 28:03
way maybe we are socially. I'm wondering, what is there a benefit to having that carbon? You know, is it is it the existential element of the carbon crisis that makes that bullet force us to have to look at regenerative agriculture more seriously? And is there is there an opportunity there?
Storm Cunningham 28:22
Yeah, actually, the carbon sequestration aspect of it is the one that has got the fortune 500 companies on board. You know, General Mills, has already dedicated over a million acres in the coming few years to regenerative agriculture. I mean, this is almost all the major food brands now have regenerative agriculture, aspects to them. You look at labels now and labels that used to say organic on them now say regenerative organic, and it's so yeah, that that was the magic bullet that that really did bring it into the big time, because everybody's looking for ways to restore the climate, you know, they're starting to realize that, you know, low carbon is nice, but not enough. zero carbon is nicer, but still not enough, right? We got to go carbon negative, yeah, we don't suck the carbon out of the atmosphere, we're never going to restore the climate.
Peter Ravella 29:23
Yeah, I believe that's true in some of the interviews that we've done, have emphasized that necessity of going on into negative carbon, an idea that I don't think is penetrated particularly into the political world at this moment, but I do believe it's accurate. I want to ask you about the world in 2008, when your second book came out, called real wealth and, and really emphasize the economic opportunities of this idea of restorative resilient economic models as opposed to the extractive approach. historically true now up to the current book on wreck phenomics reaganomics i'm sorry i keep saying it wrong economics the path to resilient prosperity where are you satisfied i guess what i'm asking is between the book in 2008 real wealth and the 2020 buck on freakonomics did we make meaningful progress in the direction that you expected or have you been disappointed in the process of restorative economics and restorative programs and projects
Storm Cunningham 30:37
no now i've been very happy with the growth of each of the eight sectors that i described and documented in the restoration economy i have four sectors on the natural side which are fisheries agriculture watersheds and ecosystems and those are not scientific separate separators they were basically economic separators those tight secularists that were getting funded and then on the build side you had brownfields infrastructure heritage and catastrophe and all of them have been growing like gangbusters maybe faster than i expected on how is fairly optimistic when i put out the numbers in the in the first book but unfortunately maybe the fastest growing one is catastrophe reconstruct right so yeah the maybe the biggest changes have just been coming about really since i started writing economics over the past five years or so is that the some of the lessons really started to sink in at the institutional level you know for instance and the folks that i've been doing lectures for and workshop training things like that they've been hearing the economics content now for you know half a dozen years because they they've heard it while i was researching and writing it rather than having to wait for the book to come out and one organization for instance that's transformed itself as a result of some of the things i put out for instance one of the things i document in the book is what i call the three reese strategy which is the most universal and successful strategy i've seen for bringing places back to life okay basically it's just three words repurposing renewing and reconnecting virtually every city on the face of the earth now is covered in obsolete or decrepid or inappropriate assets that need a new purpose and you have to find that you have to repurpose that asset before you can raise money to convert it to whatever you want to start using it for like converting that old elevated railway line in manhattan to the highline park dress most successful single project they've ever done fantastic and so that's repurposing renewing reconnecting your energy you repurpose it to raise the money to renew it and after you renew it you reconnect it which is exactly the story of the highline and which brought the whole lower east side of westside manhattan back to life and the that three re strategy was adopted by one of my clients so the kalamazoo county land bank out in michigan you know if you're familiar with land banks you probably know that they were birthed in michigan michigan is the home of the land bank their land banks all around the united states land banks basically are a bank of decrepit or vacant properties and so they're supposed to turn them into revitalization but what happened is most land banks just turned out to be kind of transaction oriented you know they get a bunch of derelict properties in and they just trying to find a buyer for them and get them off the books which is not the purpose of the land banks at all originally as they were originally envisioned they were supposed to be a community revitalization organization so when the kalamazoo county land bank brought me in i introduced them to this three re strategy that was working so well around the world and they said okay well that's what we're going to do in fact they adopted as as a slogan if you look at their annual reports right under their name it says repurpose renew reconnect and it has absolutely transformed the organization now they're they're doing things that land banks never did before they're doing brownfields you know they turned an old brownfield to an insane asylum that was torn down and covered in asbestos they turned this brownfield into an affordable senior living center a beautiful one that's actually got a risk stored ecologically restored prairie in the center of it. So they're combining integrating all these different forms of restorative development. And as a result of that kind of leadership, the executive director of the Kalamazoo County Land Bank, Kelly Clark, became the executive director of the Michigan association of land banks. So just an example of one organization that was transformed by the three re strategy and is now transforming all the land banks in Michigan
Tyler Buckingham 35:30
seems to have bared fruit and but I want to focus a little bit just on the the first re, the repurpose re. And because I find that Well, I think that all three rays actually mean more than maybe meets the eye. But repurposing is an interesting concept, the storm because it kind of involves like, recategorize, here's another re re categorizing in the mind in the social mind, what a an asset even is, how to define it, how to, to ask yourself, even what what are we trying to be? What is the purpose of this? I mean, that is a deep damn question. How do you when you stepped in here? Maybe on this specific project? Or generally? I mean, how do you? How do you approach that? I mean, where do you start?
Storm Cunningham 36:27
Well, when I first got into it, when, when I first formulated the three re strategy, not that I really had to invent it, it was really became obvious when I looked at the most successful projects I'd seen around the world. And notice that that's what they were all doing. Now. If you asked any of those project managers, if they were following a strategy of repurposing, renew and reconnecting, they would have said No, they didn't really they were doing it intuitively. Nobody had given him
Tyler Buckingham 36:57
Storm Cunningham 36:59
Yeah. So it's just basically common sense. If you've got a, if you've got a derelict property, obviously, if you've got to put it to use, it's probably not going to be the same use as before. If it was a former manufacturing site that's now contaminated with mercury and lead, you're probably not going to put another factory on there, that's going to contaminate it with more mercury and lead. So
Tyler Buckingham 37:26
that that part makes sense storm but but where it gets interesting, and particularly challenging, I suppose you could say, but also, I would also, I would add most most compelling and interesting is when you take the old plant, and then you like, turn it into a wild river or something like when you take it and you completely change. I mean, on the American shoreline, we often hear this, Peter, with regard to manage retreat, I think you could say where we we hear advocates for retreat, arguing that, hey, the highest and best use of this coastal space is to allow it to return to it's kind of natural ebb and flow of the coastal area. And but what you'll hear often from opponents of that is like, Well, hold on a second. I mean, there's real estate taxes here, there are benefits to society by having that area developed. So those are two opposite ends of the spectrum storm. And somewhere, I guess, in the middle is where the answer would be. But um, you know, yeah, it's a good question. When it when it's when it's something more dramatic than, you know, turning a factory into housing or something like that. How do you? How would you advise kind of thinking big?
Storm Cunningham 38:44
Yeah, it's it's always difficult when you use the word retreat in America, because Americans might image of themselves as people who never retreat
Peter Ravella 38:53
that well. That's very true.
Storm Cunningham 38:55
So it's, I find it best to stick with maybe
Tyler Buckingham 39:00
we should call it an ocean attack.
Peter Ravella 39:03
Yeah, Americans don't retreat. That's that's not a good switch teams. And we need to switch language on that.
Storm Cunningham 39:09
Yeah, I mean, we've done it plenty of times. We just don't acknowledge it now. So the it really started not so much on the coasts, but along the rivers, especially the Mississippi River. several decades ago, when people realize that one of the reasons these cities were getting flooded, was because they had lost their wetlands. And the federal government created a program to start converting some of those wet some of the farms back into wetlands. And it made a lot of sense to the farmers and ranchers because they were tired to getting flooded out. And the, the program actually worked quite well. So the the precedent was there so that once people started acknowledging sea level rise, and once the sea level rise force them to acknowledge it then it became a matter of survival in some cases where you take away the federal flood insurance and all of a sudden the decision to move from an area that's flooded on a regular basis becomes pretty obvious the only reason a lot of these places are staying where they are is because of this stupid flood insurance so if we stop stop subsidizing stupid locations then you know those decisions become a lot easier and it's not just a matter of turning communities back into wetlands but they are doing that you go up to new jersey there are several communities now that are basically being moved further from the coast and they're threatened their previous footprints being turned into not just wild areas sometimes it's turned into parks you know places are actually designing parks now on coastal areas that are designed to be flooded right so you're not fighting the flood you're not building a wall around the park you're just doing the landscape architecture in a way that acknowledges that it will be flooded
Peter Ravella 41:11
yeah the danish model invite the water in and create a space for it and make and be compatible with that natural forces very much an emerging approach on coastal land management jitsu
Tyler Buckingham 41:26
you might say it's
Peter Ravella 41:27
not easy to do that i'm interested in in the politics of of these this transformative thinking that you're suggesting should occur and the book that your your latest book includes a guide for policy makers real estate investors and entrepreneurs i think that's just an interesting three categories i would like to go to a bar with these three individuals and you know it may be that we don't recognize the economic opportunity that's involved in restorative thinking but it seems the political process as tyler mentioned is pretty vested in this notion that when you've got built environments and communities that doing anything to make that less dense or less valuable is somehow an economic negative and i get the feeling storm that part of the point you're making is that there is money to be made there is an economic opportunity here that is not being understood and is being missed could you expound on that a little bit is that is that part of what you believe that the history shows here
Storm Cunningham 42:46
yeah actually poland provides a really good historical example of the power of focusing exclusively on restoration you might know that the end of world war two warsaw was the most thoroughly devastated city on the planet and the view was devastated you know first by the germans then by the russians and finally by us
Unknown Speaker 43:13
Storm Cunningham 43:15
it became a battleground for everybody and there was quite literally nothing left at the city the infrastructure the buildings i mean it was all gone the schools hospitals just wiped clean and that they as a result had no economy and what happened was they decided okay we're going to rebuild this city everybody got involved in in rebuilding they took out all these old photographs of how the city looked before they quite literally rebuilt their city center when you go into downtown downtown the historic center of warsaw everything you're looking at there that looks so charming and old because is only you know several decades old and the interesting thing that happened here was that cities all over europe were devastated after world war two obviously and the restoration rebuilding reconstruction expertise that all of these citizens in poland who most of whom had no previous experience in construction whatsoever they are now experts at rebuilding a war torn city so once they got done with warsaw they hired themselves out all over europe and the money that they sent back to their families is what kick started the polish economy so it became quite literally a restoration economy and there were a lot of opportunities around the world right now with places that have been severely damaged or that obviously are going to be severely damaged if they're on the coast places with you know insurmountable problems if things don't change drastically who could use the repurposing of their entire city the renewing of Their City The Reconnection of their city as a way to make their city or their region, an actual Silicon Valley of global restoration. There is none right now. There's no place where people can go to say, Well, this is where I go to learn how to restore this, that or the other. This is where I go to learn how to revitalize places. Yeah, if you just had one of these critical mass situations where they used the renewal of their city to concentrate expertise, and all the component disciplines, architecture, engineering, economics, you know, the whole works. It could be, it could turn a potential disaster into a whole new birth.
Peter Ravella 45:44
Hmm. Let me ask it. And you use the example of Warsaw in the reconstruction of the great cities of Europe post World War Two. And you mentioned that they they for the town center, they rebuilt the communities to look like they were prior to the war. When you look at those restoration actions in in European cities post World War Two. Do you see repurposing? Do you see reconnecting? Did they hit the target? Did they actually change the way the city developed, was built and operated, or I'm assuming that they that those are examples are useful, because they simply didn't reconstruct it exactly the way it was, was their transformation, there is
Storm Cunningham 46:39
the worst, or was actually unique. Most of the cities of Europe that rebuilt rebuilt horribly, in this just ended up all looking like Soviet penitentiaries. It's just concrete, this that and the other is brutalist style that most of them are still trying to recover from. So no, rebuilding the historic character of the city was something that very few cities did. And Warsaw was benefiting from it tremendously. And the other cities are spending billions of dollars to undo the mistakes of how they rebuilt. But you mentioned my second book, real wealth and McGraw Hill book in 2008. Earlier, and I glossed over it then. But let me return to it for a second because it gives, there's a case study in there on what was probably the earliest example of coastal resilience planning and redesign a city that quite literally had to repurpose all of its lands and in order to renew itself and then reconnect itself. And that was Lisbon, Portugal. About 400 years ago, they had a horrendous earthquake and a tsunami that wiped out something like 60,000 people. And it was one of the reasons it was so devastating was because Lisbon had grown in a totally unplanned manner, laterally, just along the coast. So virtually the entire city was exposed to that tsunami. And when the Marcos a ball was given the job of reconstructing the city, he very wisely decided that a much more resilient design would be to grow the city inland, which was sloping upwards. So as they went further inland, they were getting higher. Right. And he reoriented, basically the city in order to rebuild it in a resilient manner. And it worked beautifully. And one of the great things about the way he did it was that he valued the historic buildings. Most of his contemporaries, were saying, look, let's just do a tabula rasa approach here, wipe everything clean and starts from scratch. And he was saying, No, we've got tons of gorgeous old buildings here. Yeah, there's no need to destroy them. So he was actually one of the original historic preservationist, on top of one of the first catastrophe reconstructionist and resilience designers.
Peter Ravella 49:11
You know, I wanted to let's take this into modern times. And it is interesting that the concepts of doing this properly, you can look back through history and see examples of where we've gotten it right. And plenty more examples of where the restoration revitalization of communities has not been done effectively or done well. But in in coastal news today and and in the news these days. The challenges facing coastal communities are significant and I'm going to just pull out the example of Charleston, South Carolina right now. It's a good one. That's a good one, a historic city amazing, you know, threatened by sea level rise there. Currently a, a planning process underway with the US Army Corps of Engineers for a multi billion dollar flood wall basically to surround the historic center of the city. It's not unique, the challenges that Charleston faces. It's true in other places on the Atlantic seaboard, particularly Norfolk, Virginia, comes to mind or Miami or even the city of New York and multi billion dollar projects planned also for the city of Houston. But when when I'm thinking about let's just talk a little bit about about Charleston if you were advising them, recommending them coming in as a thinker to help them figure out the proper strategy, as you put it,
Tyler Buckingham 50:45
to take like the guy in Portugal
Peter Ravella 50:47
Yeah, like the Marquis de What was his name ball. I like the guy written Lisbon.
Storm Cunningham 50:53
pronounce it Mark has Mark, Mark Marquez.
Peter Ravella 50:57
But you know what, what's important storm when, when a city like Charleston is beginning the process of both protecting its historical assets and restoring its capacity as a as a community? What are the tricks of the trade? And I think you have some keys to success suggestions in the economics book, your latest?
Storm Cunningham 51:22
Yeah, now, I should preface anything I say here but pointing out you know, I am not a designer. I'm not a restoration ecologist, not an architect and engineer.
Tyler Buckingham 51:34
You're just a hippie greenbrae? No, yeah, I'm kidding.
Storm Cunningham 51:40
Yeah, I'm just I don't do anything useful. I just basically run around telling people what other people have done. So the, the in Charleston's case, and most of the other cities that are in very similar situations, if they can't, or won't relocate, you know, obviously, some kind of protective structure is going to be the only possible way they can stay where they are, it's probably not going to be economically feasible to raise every building in the city. So assuming they can't raise everything, then the key there is to find a protective structure design a protective structure that's regenerative. And you know, too many times, you know, civil engineers go for the simplest solution, because they want they don't want any surprises. I mean, that's the essence of the engineering. Yeah, discipline is to avoid surprises, which is wonderful. You know, if you're traveling over a bridge, hundreds of feet in the air, the last thing you want is the surprise. Yeah, we're going through a tunnel. The problem comes when you start dealing with complex adaptive systems, your living systems, like cities or ecosystems, that kind of approach is the kiss of death. Yeah. And so there is a way that a seawall, I hate to call it that. But a protective structure
Peter Ravella 53:14
barrier, there's a variety of different
Storm Cunningham 53:17
approaches can be regenerative. And it's not just a matter of doing a living shoreline sort of thing, which obviously, would be the preference on the ocean side of the wall. But the wall itself could become a regenerative feature, an actual attraction that helps attract people to the city and build the economy. Right. Yeah, it could be recreational. It could be, you know, public space. You know, they're just any number of ways that if you think about it holistically, that you can build a wall around the city and revitalize the city at the same time.
Peter Ravella 53:55
You know, it does seem to be a one of the principles that you're advocating here is this sense of hitting Multi Purpose targets? You know, I could not agree with you more if I look at engineering solutions on the coast. concrete barriers that are unsightly and separate people from the water in any connection to the natural environment are not uncommon. The Galveston seawall being an example from the early 19 hundred's the city still struggles with how to work with that structure even today. But one of the reasons I think, that drives us to those poor outcomes is the simple notion of cost or the understanding of how to conceptualize the project. You know, the Corps of Engineers is you know, God, darn it. Our job is to offer protection against 100 year storm, here's this height of the wall, it needs to be this dirt This bet is thick this high data data. There you go. That's what you've asked us to do. This notion of integrating community connectivity and and other attributes. Ecological Restoration, habitat enhancement sometimes gets left off the table. Why is that? And how do you get people back on the table? How do you how do we get people to think about that more seriously in the fundamentals of these projects?
Storm Cunningham 55:31
Well, it's actually pretty simple. Okay, not remembering, of course, it's simple. It's not synonymous with easy. But the key is to actually have a process for regenerating the city. And the essence that what I call the minimum viable process is six steps. It's not necessarily a steps in that particular order, but six elements. And the first two elements are vision and strategy. So everything that follows is going to hinge on the vision. So that's where you really got to come up with the right vision for what is this seawall meant to accomplish and like I said, a vision is a cohesive set of goals. So, you know, the word set is is key there, you know, it's not a goal. So if you just look at this Charleston seawall as a protective device, then it becomes an expense. That's all it is. If you add other goals to that, until you have a cohesive vision for what you want, the Charleston of the future to be, then all of a sudden those other possible functions for the wall, if properly designed, come in, and it becomes a revitalizing force for the city that on by the way, also happens to protect it from sea level rise. So that's all going to be captured in the vision, you know, then you come up with a strategy for achieving that. But by doing that, you've switched it from a pure expense to an investment in the future of the city. And that makes all the difference in the world.
Peter Ravella 57:13
Yeah, you have to ask the right question. And and I listened to a lecture years ago in Portland, Oregon, about engineering failure, it was one of the city's sponsored lecture series was packed house at the auditorium, really interesting speaker and he was talking about engineering failure. And he described it as the failure to ask the right question. He said, If you don't ask the engineers to, to serve multiple purposes, they will build you a structure that gives you the one answer you want. And the example he is which I remember to this day, he said, in the original railroad engineering designed to cross rivers and to cross canyons, the idea was to have a strong enough structure to support the locomotive in the train. And and as we all know, if you have a tube, and enclosed tube like that is stronger than a and then a platform. And so you ended up with very early designs that were steel encased boxes, essentially. And the problem was when the train went through, it would fill up with smoke and you couldn't breathe, because they were belching smoke out of the chimney of the of the day. And they were running on coal, which ended up resulting in different breaches. He said, The problem was that the the original request of the engineers was was not sufficiently broad and what the expectation was. And it sounds like that, what that's what you're saying here, look, we have to have a certain level of storm protection for these cities. And I do agree with you that the relocation of Charleston, the relocation of New York City, Miami and New Orleans is not going to happen. I don't think that's, that's realistic. Although, as a caveat, I'll say the one coastal city in the world that is being planned for relocation is the city of Jakarta, a city of 10 point 5 million people. And they've, they're building a new city further inland, and the relocation processes are beginning to go forward in 2024. So other people are thinking about it. But to get back to my point, it seems the suggestion you're saying is look in the vision of the project and in the strategy to get you what you want. You have to include the proper elements, the full spectrum of interest, the community resilience and revitalization connectivity, ecological health, and storm protection. That's the project and a project design that doesn't hit those four or five goals is a failure. Fundamentally, from the beginning is that kind of the point you're trying to make is we've got to think bigger and differently about what we're trying to do here
Storm Cunningham 1:00:05
yeah it's bigger and differently but it's also shifting it like i said from an expense to an investment you know in other words from something we have to do to something we want to do and the you know one of the big primary challenges of any engineer any of the engineering disciplines structural electrical whatever is overcoming conflicting constraints and when you come up with the right vision for a project like this you should be transforming potential conflicting constraints into synergistic opportunities so that now all these various agendas that you're trying to achieve community revitalization community protection quality of life you know economic growth all these sorts of things now become or beautification you know they now become synergistic goals and that makes the designers job a heck of a lot easier i actually misspoke earlier because of vision really isn't the first step of that six step process the very first step ideally is to create an ongoing program you know that you got to get these projects many places you got to get out of the project mentality you're not going to revitalize the city just by having a bunch of disconnected projects you got to have a revitalization program and it's got to be ongoing that's one of the big differences between a program and a project is a program doesn't have an endpoint a completion date necessarily i mean it can but it's usually very distant and the by having a program an ongoing program and an organization oftentimes a nonprofit organization to host it then the you provide the venue for all the different stakeholders to come in and come up with this cohesive vision for the future and then when a project comes along like a seawall you it's you don't have to start from scratch to do this the provisioning the stakeholder engagement all that sort of stuff you just take the project plunk it into this ongoing program which has a pre existing vision and say okay now how does this fit the vision and you know what's the strategy for achieving the vision and this project at the same time
Peter Ravella 1:02:29
got it you know i think storm it's it's really interesting and compelling thinking that you're doing and it's absolutely timely given the billions of dollars in restoration funding that is going to the american shoreline right now all around america a lot of it out of the catastrophe and disaster thinking of congress but this notion of a more integrated programmatic multi purpose restoration and revitalization strategy is very timely i hope the book is well read by advocates and coastal citizens and leaders around the country ladies and gentlemen it is a storm cunningham the executive director of the economics institute in washington dc editor of the revitalization journal and author of reaganomics the path to resilient prosperity came out in 2020 storm thank you for taking the time and if people are interested in learning more about your work and how to get in touch with you how can they do that
Storm Cunningham 1:03:43
well probably the easiest thing would just be to go to storm cutting comm and the all the information about the books and links to the various organizations i'm involved with publications everything is right there at storm cutting calm including my email address
Peter Ravella 1:03:59
sounds perfect ladies and gentlemen storm cunningham thank you very much for sharing your insights to our audience on the american shoreline podcast and around the world really appreciate what you're doing and i think you're onto something folks i think it's worth a look thanks a lot for taking the time storm
Storm Cunningham 1:04:15
thanks peter and tyler enjoyed it