When There is No Silver Bullet...

by Stevie Zvereva

It’s been a year since Peoria was selected as one of 14 cities to participate in the $45-million expansion of Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Innovation Teams program. Since then, an innovation team has been appointed, offices renovated, committees organized, experts tapped, a global conference hosted, community outreach initiated, and priorities set around one mission: solving Peoria’s combined sewer overflow (CSO) problem. Though it could be decades before the seeds of the three-year grant—up to $1.5 million at $500,000 per year—come to full fruition, the magnitude of its selection is already being felt as Peoria attempts to become the first city in the nation to employ an all-green infrastructure solution in combating the problem.

Driven by Data
The idea behind the Bloomberg program is to unleash innovation within the nation’s cities by addressing barriers to innovation and delivering change more effectively. While cities are uniquely able to transform the lives of their citizens, their governments aren’t always organized to support such innovation, the organization explains, especially for “horizontal” issues like poverty reduction and sustainability—which are “the shared responsibility of multiple departments and chains of command.”

Cities tend to lack the strategies needed to overcome departmental silos in such multifaceted challenges, as well as the human capital, organizational capacity and financial resources needed to take on bold ideas. Enter Bloomberg Philanthropies’ “Innovation Delivery” approach, which attempts to minimize the risks associated with innovation, and so far, it seems to be working.

The program’s initial, multi-year investment in five cities has already shown results in tackling a slew of tough problems. Its first grants in 2011 have helped reduce retail vacancies in Memphis, minimized ambulance trips to the ER in Louisville, cut licensing time for new restaurants in Chicago, moved the homeless into permanent housing in Atlanta and reduced New Orleans’ murder rate by about 20 percent in less than two years. Through the program’s expansion, 14 additional cities receive grant dollars, technical assistance, connections to peers and resources in other cities, unique training opportunities, and other tools to address their designated challenge.

On Bureaucratic Innovation
It sounds like an oxymoron. How do you breed innovation—an inherently flexible, creative process, within the confines of bureaucracy, the notoriously stiff, governmental status quo? That challenge—reshaping local government’s reputation and residents’ perception of its capacity to innovate—was enough to entice Anthony Corso, local architect and green building expert, to accept the appointment to become Peoria’s first chief innovation officer last March. Corso brings over 15 years of experience in urban design, sustainability and smart growth to his team of three, rounded out by project managers Kate Green and Kathryn Shackelford.

Here in this small, nondescript office on the fourth floor of the Twin Towers Plaza, Corso says his team is close enough to City Hall to be part of daily discussions, but far enough away for room to breathe—a delicate balance that’s key to their approach. “One of the primary goals of the program is to give you the time, space and resources to take the challenge and instead of just putting out fires, actually look at what the best practices are,” he explains, “what… might work for your context, meet people, talk about it, learn from other committees, and then bring it back.” This markedly thoughtful, deliberate approach is nothing new, “but it wasn’t a mechanism in city government [before] Bloomberg came in.”

Peoria’s i-team functions much like city staff, but as an internal consultant, applying Bloomberg’s data-driven process to assess problems, generate interventions, develop partnerships and deliver measurable results. “Bloomberg’s famous quote is, ‘In God we trust; everybody else bring data,’” Corso notes. After developing a solution, the i-teams are expected to move onto a new issue after three years, having transferred responsibility for its implementation into the hands of others.

A CSO Solution
The Peoria i-team’s initial focus is a complicated affair. The city’s combined sewers—designed to collect rainwater runoff, domestic sewage and industrial wastewater in the same pipe—flow into the Illinois River some 20 to 30 times a year during periods of heavy rainfall or snowmelt. These overflows contain not only stormwater, but untreated human and industrial waste, toxic materials and debris—a major source of water pollution.

At the time of their construction in the late 1800s, combining stormwater and sewage in one pipe was common practice. In fact, 772 U.S. cities face CSO problems today, according to the EPA, which has mandated that Peoria remedy the issue—to the potential tune of hundreds of millions of dollars. Corso’s team is tasked with “identifying ways for Peoria to leverage the tremendous expense of solving the CSO problem while simultaneously improving the lives of residents in these areas through such means as job creation, sustainability and reinvestment.”

“We’re trying to not dig up the combined sewage system,” he explains. “The goal already—before [we] came on board—was to try to leverage something like green infrastructure for the solution.”

A green solution (think pervious pavement, planted trees and rain gardens) is also the most economical, costing roughly two thirds that of a “gray” solution (like pipes, tanks and tunnels), according to one analysis. Current estimates for installing green infrastructure to control Peoria’s CSOs are around $200 million, with annual maintenance estimates between one and three percent of capital costs, according to OneWater, a city advisory committee that’s working with the i-team to tackle the needed improvements. In addition to lower costs, there’s another huge advantage to the green solution, Corso says: “the added bonus of impacting neighborhoods positively.”

The Benefits Beyond
Of the hundreds of U.S. cities with combined sewer systems, only a few have employed partial green solutions to remedy their infrastructure woes. Philadelphia’s Green Cities Clean Waters effort includes a range of soil/water/plant solutions that help intercept stormwater before it overwhelms the sewer system; Greencorps Chicago promotes environmental and economic stewardship by establishing and maintaining natural and public spaces through hands-on green industry job training. Peoria’s i-team has been tapping the knowledge of both, among others, but thus far, no city has solved its problem entirely with green solutions. In short, a lot of eyes are on Peoria.

“All those communities would love to see the benefits we’re proposing out of green infrastructure—to put a solution in that’s never been tried and see how many ripple effects it has,” says Green. But why hasn’t a 100-percent green solution ever been tried, and what makes the team think it will play in Peoria?

“We’re on the sand bar of the Illinois River,” Corso explains, surrounded by sloping bluffs. This unique topography and soil composition offer some natural advantages in diverting stormwater from entering sewers in the first place via infrastructure improvements, all within the publicly-owned right of way. According to the City of Peoria, rather than constructing capital-intensive, gray infrastructure, green techniques can help capture the 60 or so Olympic-sized swimming pools of water (37 million gallons) it’s been mandated to collect.

Knowing the CSO problem can be solved by green infrastructure alone provides a huge opportunity to take a holistic approach, Corso explains, as the co-benefits of a green solution extend beyond beautification to improved walkability, neighborhood stabilization, job and workforce potential, crime mitigation, ecological and public health improvements, and more.

Learn and Fail Fast
If innovation was a font, it would be the sprawling, handwritten type overwhelming the dry-erase walls of the Peoria i-team’s “Storm Room” (pun intentional). In this space designated for “brainstorming about stormwater” are an interactive timeline of dates, deliverables and deadlines. In November, the team wrapped up the idea generation phase of Bloomberg’s innovation model (though, Corso likes to stress, ideas never end)—which involved actively engaging people on the street, talking to experts and soliciting recommendations.

According to their research, a successful solution must first be community-driven. “It’s not a top-down approach,” Shackelford explains. “We’re bringing in experts and looking at things from a global perspective, but the citizens and people in the neighborhoods know best what’s going on on the ground.”

They’re now preparing to share some preliminary thoughts on initiatives the city can move forward. “There are a number of different strategies we can use,” says Green, “and if we fail, we fail fast and move on to the next initiative.” That’s a huge part of what makes the Bloomberg grant unique.

“Failure isn’t frowned upon—it’s actually kind of encouraged,” Green adds. “It means you’re out there… trying something different and new and bold. The issue there is to make sure to review your performance and make sure you’re hitting your metrics. If not, how do you change to make it successful? And if you can’t change to make it successful, move on to your next potential portfolio initiative.”

Looking Out to Look In
“I hear a lot about innovative solutions,” says Corso, “and many times, they’re great for optimizing [one] thing… but tend to create other problems.” Call it the Australian cane toad conundrum. (Released into Australia in 1935 to rid Queensland of the beetles decimating its sugarcane crop, the venomous toads failed to control the invasive species and in turn overpopulated, becoming an invasive species itself.) The wrong fix could lead to a series of troubles, especially given the solution’s projected timeline: 18 to 20 years. Mindful that an easy fix is rarely the best solution, the i-team stresses the importance of ensuring public understanding and a solid foundation of support.

“It’s a partnership,” says Green. “The strongest communities are the ones that have really strong, engaged citizens…. [We] are really just supposed to be representing the voice and the message of the people.”

“We’re facilitators,” adds Shackelford. “We’re here to build a dialogue between the citizens and the experts.” As a Bloomberg city, Peoria has access to experts in cities tackling similar concerns: aging infrastructure, coordination of water utilities and sewers, water management issues, and other overarching challenges. Tapping these resources and adapting lessons from other communities will be invaluable, as the team learned last October when it hosted a Global City Network conference. The gathering of 17 national experts, city staff, policymakers and other stakeholders honed in on community-wide opportunities that can co-exist with green infrastructure and allowed experts to weigh in on Peoria’s approach.

“The true challenge of building green infrastructure is not about deciding where to site planter boxes or which roads will have permeable pavement,” wrote one attendee, Owen Stone of Living Cities, “but in getting the community to understand and buy into a plan that will ultimately change the landscape for their neighborhood.”

To this end, the i-team’s recently formed IDEAS [Innovation, Delivery, Engagement and Action] Committee brings together neighborhood leaders from Peoria’s north and south sides, and its east and west bluffs. “We’re using those leaders as touchpoints… to start building a network within the neighborhoods,” says Shackelford. This outreach involves education: explaining what green infrastructure is, what its benefits can be, how installation would work, and “making sure that neighborhoods are actively engaged in deciding what that installation looks like,” Green adds.

A huge piece of the puzzle will be the development of a workforce training program within the combined sewer area, training residents to take on the operation and maintenance of the new infrastructure. “They would be the public face of this program,” Corso stresses. “They are the best people to be the advocates and owners, so that peer-to-peer and neighbor-to-neighbor, [we’re] engaging people… to be part of the solution, to take ownership and to get workforce training—and to actually be paid to be part of the process.”

Time for Consideration
“Some of these [initiatives] obviously will take much longer than a year,” Corso says. “That was one of the first questions we got: ‘You have a 20-year project. How do you deliver and adapt in one year?’” And Bloomberg’s model does allow for some flexibility based on a city’s unique challenges. Take budgets, for example.

“We don’t have a budget yet,” says Corso. “We don’t have a consent decree yet—two of the big drivers in actually driving these larger initiatives. But we can move forward with grant applications and working to develop partnerships.” Peoria’s green solution will encompass a suite of smaller initiatives, what Shackelford describes as “low-risk, high-return” opportunities.

Like a revamped street tree program, Corso offers. “It doesn’t sound super-sexy, but it actually has a pretty big impact on both stormwater management issues and the walkability of the streets in the combined sewer area.” And that’s not all.

“If it’s a street tree program and a municipal nursery and a training area and a workforce corps focused on green infrastructure and landscape maintenance… you start to really add some resiliency to the whole thing. Then if one piece falls out, you still have some synergies between some of the efforts.”

Such initiatives will be the i-team’s focus in early 2016 as it looks to external partners to co-develop implementation plans with the right metrics to launch, hand over and measure progress. As it moves ahead, the team will also continue to carve out the time necessary to innovate.

“You need time to step back and reevaluate things,” says Shackelford. “It’s in that time… when you’re taking a bigger look that you realize, ‘Now I can see shortcuts!’ or ‘I see things that could function better if two people just got along.’ You may recognize these things working in the bureaucratic system, but there are not many opportunities where you can step back and… change something about it.

“The biggest enemy of progress is ‘We’ve always done it this way,’” she concludes. The Bloomberg grant gives Peoria a chance “to look critically at ourselves—with the help of some of the greatest minds and leaders in the country—to solve problems.”

As the leader of an innovation team, Corso is often asked to define the term, and for him, the generic definition just doesn’t cut it. “Ultimately… It is a new idea, or an old idea that’s been adapted to a context that creates some value for a community,” he says. “Sometimes it’s a process; sometimes it’s a deliverable; sometimes it’s a cool-looking thing that you build.”

But more importantly, he suggests, true innovation lies in the approach. “The challenge of the i-team is to carve out that space to shut the door… brainstorm for a day, sleep on it, come back, investigate some other things, talk about it again. It’s just like design—well, good design,” he adds, smiling, “where you develop something… and come back and say, ‘How can this be improved, and who else needs to be at the table? How can this be more effective?’… You’re never completely reinventing the wheel. You’re recombining best practices to try to get a better benefit.” iBi

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