Laurie Ann Mazur

Laurie Mazur is an independent writer and consultant to nonprofit organizations. She is the editor of Beyond the Numbers: A Reader on Population, Consumption, and the Environment (Island Press, 1994) and co-author of Marketing Madness: A Survival Guide for a Consumer Society (Westview, 1995).

Luncheon event at First UU Church of Essex County

Fix It and They Will Come

How the renewal of a crumbling New Jersey church became a model for reinvestment in community life.

A Changing Climate Means A Changing Society. The Island Press Urban Resilience Project, Supported By The Kresge Foundation And The JPB Foundation, Is Committed To A Greener, Fairer Future.​ This Article Was Originally Published in the December 2019/January 2020 issue of The Progressive.

Five years ago, the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Essex County, New Jersey, had serious problems. Chunks of plaster fell from the walls of its 126-year-old sanctuary. A raccoon had taken up residence in the box gutters that drained the roof, causing a bad leak. The rickety wooden ramp leading up to the front door was an accident (and a lawsuit) waiting to happen.

Worse, the congregation had dwindled to just thirty members, less than half of what it had been a decade earlier. Its part-time minister found himself preaching each Sunday morning to a small handful of congregants.

“We were discussing, should we go out of business?” says congregation member Mindy Fullilove, a professor of urban policy and health at the New School, about twenty miles away in New York City.

The church, she explains, entered “a complicated year of discernment” during which it partnered with others to embrace a new strategy for expanding the church’s role as a center of community life. With help from a nonprofit crowdfunding platform called ioby (the acronym stands for “in our backyards”), First UU repaired its buildings and opened its doors to the people of its struggling neighborhood. 

Today, the church, minus its minister, is a hive of activity—sewing classes, labor organizing, potlucks, a local music festival. As neighbors gather again under the church’s (non-leaking) roof, they are spinning new webs of connection, strengthening the filaments of trust and fellowship that hold this community together. 

First UU sits just off Main Street in Orange, New Jersey, a city of about 30,000 people near Newark. In many ways, Orange exemplifies the policies that have shaped America’s post-industrial cities, with a devastating impact on working-class communities.

Orange emerged as an industrial powerhouse after the Civil War; by the turn of the twentieth century, its thirty-four hat-making factories earned it the nickname “Hat City.” The city’s residents built Victorian mansions, parks, and libraries, while enclaves of Italian, Irish, and African American factory workers thrived and grew.

The fruits of prosperity in Orange were always distributed unevenly. Even in its glory days, the city was rigidly segregated by race, ethnicity, and class, with inferior schools and services in the poorer parts of town. Then, starting in the 1930s, redlining steered investment away from African American and immigrant neighborhoods, spreading blight and deepening the wealth gap. And in the 1960s, construction of an interstate highway through the center of town sped the exodus of white residents—and capital—to the suburbs. 

Today, nearly 90 percent of Orange residents are black or Latinx, including a large population of Caribbean immigrants. More than two-thirds of the city’s households get by on less than $50,000 a year; one in four of its people live in poverty.

Mindy Fullilove

Mindy Fullilove grew up in Orange, the daughter of an African American labor and community organizer and a white legal secretary. Fullilove left at the age of sixteen and pursued a career as a psychiatrist and urbanist (The New York Times credited her with “put[ting] entire cities on the couch”). In books that include Root Shock and Urban Alchemy, Fullilove has explored the policies that disfigured cities like Orange, offering strategies to repair our frayed urban fabric. 

Fullilove visited Orange in 2007 to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of a successful campaign to desegregate the city’s schools, and for the first time fell in love with her hometown. While the challenges were evident, she was struck by the vitality of the city’s people and its built environment. So she moved back to the area and rejoined First UU, which she had attended as a child. 

Much had changed in the thirty years that Fullilove had been away. Orange had lost some of its luster. Despite its segregation and pockets of poverty, the Orange of Fullilove’s youth had been full of thriving institutions—houses of worship, unions, settlement houses, community centers, a hospital—which nurtured a dense web of social connections, anchoring civic life. At the city’s sesquicentennial in 1956, President Dwight Eisenhower was moved to remark, “Your public services and neighborly spirit are an example to the nation.” 

But one by one, the venerable institutions of Orange began closing their doors. Orange Memorial Hospital shut down in 2004; the YWCA of Essex and West Hudson declared bankruptcy in 2013. The First Presbyterian Church of Orange, founded 300 years agogave it up in 2010.

What does it mean for a community to lose its anchor institutions? You could say the loss signals a growing void at the heart of our society—and democracy. When Alexis de Tocqueville visited the United States in the 1830s, he marveled at how “Americans of all ages, all stations in life . . . are forever forming associations.” Those associations—“religious, moral, serious, futile, very general and very limited, immensely large and very minute”—form the connective tissue of a healthy democracy.

Two decades ago in his book Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam warned that the connections that held communities together are weakening. Americans are increasingly less likely to gather in churches, union halls, and, yes, bowling alleys. The reasons for the decline (including union-busting and longer work hours) are complex, but the cost is clear: Our stock of social capital—the networks of reciprocity and trust that turn “me” into “we”—is dangerously depleted.

Sadly, the trends Putnam identified have only worsened since then, though now, when the average American spends twenty-four hours a week online, we are more likely to be scrolling—or trolling—alone.

By all indicators, First UU—with its dwindling membership and crumbling buildings—was set to be the next anchor institution in Orange to go under. Congregants and board members struggled with the agonizing decision to close. 

Then a visiting Unitarian minister named John Gilmore (also known as Om Prakash) got them thinking. He noted that those crumbling buildings—a sanctuary, parish hall, and parish house—were assets, not liabilities. He urged First UU to make its space available to the neighborhood for various uses, and take its place at the center of a revitalized community.

This approach is in keeping with “asset-based community development,” the idea of building on what works, rather than focusing on what’s broken. Even (or especially) in historically under-resourced neighborhoods, residents possess deep reserves of skill, talent, and human connection. The best solutions emerge where residents can readily put those assets to work.

“So what we did,” Fullilove relates, “was take the money we had for a minister and use it to hire a managing director of our buildings, and to create what we call The HUUB.” The name is not an acronym, but represents the hub of community activity HUUB aims to be, with the two “U”s of “Unitarian Universalism” at its core. According to the church’s website, the mission of The HUUB is “to turn the buildings and land we own, the Church’s most valuable assets, outward to be a welcoming resource for the people of Orange.”

Charlie Wirene was hired to manage the buildings and The HUUB. As a former contractor and graduate of the Parsons Design and Urban Ecologies program at the New School, “Charlie has a really good sense of city making and a really good sense of how you care for buildings,” says Fullilove. “That was a remarkable match because we had buildings and we wanted to build community.”

Left: The church’s welcoming and safe new entrance. Center: Teaching and learning new skills with the Sewing Angels. Right: Decorating for a Syria Supper Club feast on Eid al-Fitr, June 14, 2018.

Wirene began by recruiting a group of “listening fellows”—twentysomethings from the neighborhood—to design projects and events that reflect community interests and concerns.  

For example, Holly Barszcz started a monthly potluck dinner that draws a cross-section of neighbors to the parish hall. Khemani Gibson hosted an “immigrant dreams roundtable” to get recent arrivals more engaged in civic life. Ray Sykes put on a quarterly hip-hop concert series. Stephen Batiz launched an after-school art studio for kids. 

The fellows also collaborate on group projects. After a recent spike in gang violence that left community members hurting and scared, the fellows co-led a workshop on collective recovery from trauma.

Some of the fellows’ projects are ephemeral; others, including the potlucks and art studio, are ongoing. All provide a hotline from the community to the church. “It’s a way of getting to know our neighbors, not coming in with answers from the outside,” Wirene says.

But there was still the problem of the raccoon, and the falling plaster, which would take money to fix. So the church turned to ioby, the nonprofit crowdfunding platform. In addition to providing an online platform for receiving tax-free donations, ioby coached the team at First UU on how to frame their message and craft a fundraising plan.

“Not having a lot of development or fundraising experience, it was great to have a framework and guide to build from,” says Wirene, adding that the platform’s intensive support helps demystify what can be an intimidating process. “Ioby gave us strategies and tools, which is super helpful when you’re talking about money—kind of a taboo topic.” 

The crowdfunding campaign met its target: over a month in 2018, First UU raised $35,115 on ioby for The HUUB, mostly from church neighbors, congregants, and friends. Another ioby campaign in 2019 netted nearly $21,000. The online campaigns leveraged other donations, including matching grants from the Fund for Unitarian Universalist Social Responsibility and a gift from a major donor. 

Altogether, Wirene says The HUUB’s various fundraising efforts brought in more than $117,000 in two years, enough to fix the leaky roof, replaster and paint the walls, and banish the raccoon.

But the benefits of the fundraising campaign are not just financial. “Over time, you’re building your story, you’re building your supporter base, you’re building enthusiasm,” says Fullilove. “People don’t just give money. They come to events, they take part.”

Organizations from the neighborhood routinely use the HUUB space. There are diaper drives and concerts, sewing classes, theater rehearsals, and “Know Your Rights” trainings for immigrants. There are Bible-study groups and religious services led by local congregations that sublet from The HUUB. There are parties and weddings and post-funeral repasts.

The church rents out some of its refurbished space to groups that serve the community. The anchor tenant is the University of Orange, a “free people’s university that builds collective capacity for people to create more equitable cities.” The school, founded by Fullilove and Orange residents, organizes an annual Music City Festival that showcases local talent. Other tenants include the National Domestic Workers Alliance, the Laundry Workers Center, and the Lanbi Center for Humanities and Civics, which provides support and citizenship classes to Haitian immigrants. 

And, in the midst of it all, First UU lives on—as a church. “We had to figure out what were we going to do without a minister,” Fullilove says. “Some said, ‘We’re just a community outreach hub,’ and I was like, ‘No, we need to have some form of worship.’ Our guiding principle, from St. James, is: Faith without works is dead, but also works without faith is dead.”

In that spirit, the church developed a monthly lay-led service where invited speakers talk about their faith and works. Today, for the first time in years, First UU’s membership is growing. Still, as a student of American cities, Fullilove understands the limits of this work.

“So much of our research has been watching how cities have trashed poor minority communities and how states have trashed poor minority cities, and the power of that trashing is so great that it’s a larger system. For the people embedded within it, it’s like a tsunami of disinvestment,” she says. “So, you’ve got to look at assets, you’ve got to look at protective factors, but you’ve also got to stop the trashing.”

But one virtue of asset-based community development is that it builds skills and capacities that can’t be taken away. Fullilove likens it to the black community’s work to promote literacy during Reconstruction. “People got educated as fast as they could,” she says. “Then, even with the defeat of Reconstruction, you couldn’t take away that knowledge.” 

The threats keep coming. The latest, Fullilove says, is a plan to demolish some of Orange’s historic Main Street (a key community asset) and put market-rate housing in its place. 

Still, First UU and The HUUB continue their patient, necessary work: nurturing the capacities of their neighbors, and providing space—literal and otherwise—to define and solve problems. Whatever the future holds for this city and its people, those capacities will endure.

Sidebar - Ioby: A Different Kind of Crowdfunding

Erin Barnes says the idea for ioby came from seeing the success of crowdfunding for overseas development projects.

“We thought it was really interesting that people were so excited about investing in an entrepreneur in a foreign country that they’ve never been to,” says Barnes, the co-founder and chief executive officer of ioby, a crowdfunding platform. “So we asked, ‘Why wouldn’t people make that same kind of investment in their own backyard?’ That’s where the name ioby came from—in our backyards. It was about positioning ourselves as the opposite of nimby—not in my backyard.”

“Crowdfunding” is twenty-first-century jargon for any effort to raise money with donations from a large number of people, typically online. Ioby seeks to apply this to fundraising projects that benefit individual communities.

Ioby, launched in 2008 by Barnes, Brandon Whitney, and Cassie Flynn, reports on its website that it has helped raise almost $6.7 million for more than 2,100 projects, 71 percent of which “have a social justice objective.” Along the way it has trained more than 20,000 people in crowdfunding skills. The goal of ioby is to build the capacity of neighborhood residents to define and solve local problems. 

Erin Barnes, CEO and
co-founder of ioby

“One of our founding principles is that people who live in a community know what’s best for that community,” Barnes says, adding that the focus is on the positive. “Rather than a community’s default position being about stopping bad things from happening, we’re interested in creating an inclusive, welcoming space, where people are working toward positive change together.”

Of course, that is easier said than done. Barnes and her team found that a common set of structural barriers keeps people from participating in civic life. “So we figured out ways to try to knock down as many of them as possible, or at least reduce a lot of the friction.”

Ioby shares some basics with other crowdfunding platforms, like GoFundMe or Kickstarter. Donors go online and click a few buttons to contribute to the cause. The platforms generally collect a small fee for their services; ioby’s fees are at the low end of the spectrum, thanks to foundation support. 

But ioby differs from other platforms in ways large and small.

As a nonprofit (unlike, say, GoFundMe), all donations routed through ioby are tax-deductible, even if the receiving organization has not attained 501(c)(3) status, according to ioby spokesperson Noah Lumbantobing. And while some platforms allow fundraisers to collect donations only if they reach their target amount, ioby lets fundraisers keep whatever they raise.

Unlike most platforms, ioby provides donor contact information directly to the fundraiser (though donors can choose to remain anonymous). This enables campaign leaders to build and cultivate relationships with donors in their community. And ioby, Lumbantobing attests, is values-driven: It explicitly bans projects that are focused on hate, extremism, and xenophobia. 

But perhaps the biggest difference between ioby and its crowdfunding peers is in the intensive support it provides to fundraisers. Each campaign is assigned a leader success strategist who helps craft a homepage, set the campaign target, build a fundraising team, and plan communications. And ioby maintains a network of experts who can help project leaders with anything from grant writing to welding and civil engineering. 

“I think ioby sees itself as a partner in community development,” says Mindy Fullilove, a professor of urban policy and health. “And so the question they ask is, ‘How can we be helpful?’ None of the other platforms show up in that way.”

It’s an approach that gets results: While only half of crowdfunding campaigns overall hit their target, ioby’s success rate is nearly 90 percent, according to Barnes. Ioby’s hands-on approach may limit its scale; it raises just a drop in the bucket of the global crowdfunding market, which topped $10 billion in 2018. 

But despite its size, ioby is working to fill big gaps in the philanthropic field. Today, just 7 percent of philanthropic dollars go to groups that specifically serve people of color. According to Barnes, nearly half of ioby fundraisers are people of color, and many of the projects ioby supports are explicitly focused on racial justice.

For example, Samaria Rice, whose twelve-year-old son Tamir was shot and killed by Cleveland Police, raised funds on ioby to create the Tamir Rice Afrocentric Center in his honor. The center offers after-school arts classes, LGBTQ programming, homework help, and more. Importantly, the center lifts up blackness and Afrocentricity, as Rice has put it, “to let our children, our black and brown children, know where we came from and what we can do.”

Philanthropic funding also has a bias toward the familiar, with foundations supporting projects that fit into neat, predetermined categories. “When people come up with a really new, innovative idea, there tends not to be a bucket for it,” Barnes says. And with an average funding target of $4,181, most ioby projects are too small for private—or public—funders to underwrite.

With the explosive growth of crowdfunding, concerns have been raised that this financing tool will privatize functions that rightly belong in the public sector. Will we someday crowdfund schools and streetlights, while less compelling expenditures go begging for money?

Indeed, crowdfunding campaigns are already struggling to fill gaps in our shrinking public sphere. On GoFundMe, one in three fundraising campaigns are now for medical expenses, surely an indictment of a profoundly sick health care system.

Barnes does not think crowdfunding will ever be a substitute for government spending. But she notes that ioby campaigns have flagged needs that were neglected by government, prompting greater public investment. 

For example, in Memphis, Tennessee, a woman named Sarah Newstok was concerned about a busy intersection near a popular park. So she raised $200 on ioby to attach buckets to telephone poles on either side of the street and fill them with orange flags. Kids crossing the street waved the flags so cars could see them. The project drew attention to the dangerous intersection, and the mayor’s office responded by putting in a crosswalk with a flashing light and other traffic-calming measures.

“That’s a beautiful case of residents leading change,” Barnes says. “It wasn’t disrupting a government-led process, or public funding. It was a mom seeing a real, urgent threat in her community, and wanting to address it as quickly as possible. Then the government did its job by listening to the community.”

In other cases, ioby campaigns have leveraged significant public spending. In Athens, Georgia, for example, residents raised $62,000 for a quarter-mile stretch of the Firefly Trail, a thirty-five-mile rails-to-trails project. The campaign built so much support that a $16 million ballot initiative to finish construction of the trail was approved soon after the ioby campaign was completed.

That mobilization of political will, Barnes says, underscores one of ioby’s most important functions: “It gives people a chance to participate in civic life outside of an election. They can witness visible change within a year or two, change that came from their own ideas, that they put their own sweat and financial capital into, and call it their own. Just enabling people to realize that change is possible, and that one person’s role can make a big difference is an important role that we play.”

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A flower in asphalt

The Least Sexy, Most Important Resilience Strategy

You probably don’t think of procurement —the steps governments take to obtain goods and services— as a way to create the resilient cities of the future. Think again.

A Changing Climate Means A Changing Society. The Island Press Urban Resilience Project, Supported By The Kresge Foundation And The JPB Foundation, Is Committed To A Greener, Fairer Future.​ This Article Was Originally Published October 21, 2019 in American City & County.

When you think of procurement, what comes to mind? Ordering office chairs? Hiring a waste-hauling firm? You probably don’t think of procurement —the steps governments take to obtain goods and services— as a way to create the resilient cities of the future. Think again. According to Shalini Vajjhala of the design firm re:focus partners, procurement might be the “least sexy, most important resilience strategy there is.”

The need for resilience is clear. Across the U.S., cities and towns are struggling to repair or replace what’s politely called “legacy” infrastructure —water, transportation, and communications systems that date to the Eisenhower administration— or even to the Civil War.

And those systems must be retooled for a future that will look very different from the past. As climate change gets real, many regions have already warmed by 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit. So local governments are confronting problems they’ve never seen before, such as extreme heat in Montana “500-year” rain events that come nearly every year or “sunny-day flooding” in cities including Norfolk and Miami Beach.

New challenges demand new approaches. But innovation often runs into the buzzsaw of bureaucracy—including cumbersome procurement processes. Designed to prevent waste, fraud and abuse, “public procurement processes are much more challenging than those in the private sector,” says Marc Pfeiffer, a procurement expert at Rutgers University’s Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy. For example, in Boston —a city that is pioneering ways to reform its procurement processes— purchasing a service worth more than $35,000 has historically been a 65-step process that takes about five months.

Such processes can discourage innovation, by making it easiest for governments to buy the stuff they’ve always bought, from the companies they’ve always bought it from.  “To buy different things,” says Vajjhala, “cities need to be able to buy things differently.”

New tools spur innovation

Some local governments are working on that, by using new procurement tools such as requests for ideas, competitions, and performance contracts. While conventional procurement tools —requests for proposals and the like— require a product or service to be clearly defined at the outset, the new tools are more open-ended and outcome-oriented. As a result, these new tools can produce a range of creative solutions, while bringing in new ideas, partners, and resources.

For example, Prince Georges County, MD used a performance contract to launch its Clean Water Partnership in 2015. The 30-year public-private partnership with the engineering firm Corvias began with two overarching goals: to use green infrastructure to improve stormwater management, and to boost the County’s economy by hiring local small and minority-owned businesses to carry out the work.  The Partnership has so far met or exceeded all of its economic, social, and environmental objectives —on time and under budget.

Procurement can also be used “to find the answers you can’t find within City Hall,” says Susanne Torriente, Chief Resilience Officer for Miami Beach. Torriente is currently using procurement to encourage an interdisciplinary approach to sea-level rise in the City’s historic districts. “A coastal engineer can solve the flooding problem, but it might look kind of gray and industrial and not fit, aesthetically,” says Torriente. “Or an architect and urban planner might have something that fits but doesn’t have the same water-retention qualities. When you bring these disciplines together, you just get a better product at the end of the day.”

So Torriente crafted a solicitation for a team that understands Miami Beach architecture and history, as well as climate science and coastal engineering. The City is now working with that interdisciplinary team to develop construction guidelines for historic districts.  “We are tapping the expertise out there, the innovation of the marketplace, and really forcing the breakdown of silos to create more innovation and better products that we need,” says Torriente.

Procuring resilience in smaller cities

While larger cities and counties are experimenting with new procurement tools, it’s a heavy lift for smaller jurisdictions that lack sufficient resources and staff. To help smaller cities use the power of procurement to boost resilience, re:focus partners and The Atlas, with the support of The Kresge Foundation, worked together to pilot a procurement toolkit for small and medium-sized cities in 2018.

The toolkit, now available for free online, can help cities of any size improve their procurement game. City officials and staff from more than 100 different cities have used the toolkit since it launched. The toolkit first walks participants through the process of framing the problem, discouraging narrow thinking that can limit innovation. It then offers a menu of tools, suggesting ways to determine the best fit for the problem at hand and the resources available. Finally, the toolkit offers templates for setting specifications.

Throughout, the toolkit is accessible and engaging —even using a “Mad Libs”-type exercise to help think through problems and solutions. “To maximize scale and impact, online resources for local governments must be easy to use and really engaging,” says Ellory Monks, co-founder of The Atlas. “This was especially true as we were designing the toolkit, because procurement is one of the most complicated issues out there.” Pfeiffer, the Rutgers procurement expert, agrees. “This toolkit is an excellent framework that people can build on, and adapt to their local circumstances,” he says.

Redefining resilience in Norfolk

To road test the toolkit, re:focus partners and The Atlas brought together leaders from seven small- and mid-size cities that need to upgrade legacy water infrastructure systems. Staff from the City of Norfolk, VA attended the workshop, where they identified options for addressing high-priority climate, resilience and equity challenges. Now Norfolk is putting those ideas into practice.

Rising seas and sinking land pose an existential challenge to some of Norfolk’s neighborhoods. The City knew it needed to redevelop three public housing projects, which were experiencing chronic flooding. “We had a big-picture idea of what we wanted,” says Susan Perry, Special Assistant to the City Manager, “But we wanted to know how people with more experience would tackle the problem.” So the City embarked on an information-gathering process that included a request for ideas and two requests for proposals.

The information-gathering project included extensive interviews with residents of the housing projects. While flooding was a top priority for most, residents’ pressing needs also included job training and after-school programs. Many wanted to escape the concentrated poverty of the projects, preferring housing vouchers that would enable them to live elsewhere. Listening to residents affirmed the City’s broad approach to resilience —that it’s not just about preventing floods, but about building the economic resilience of residents and the shared strength of neighborhoods.

Norfolk is now implementing the first phase of the redevelopment, constructing new mixed-income housing on higher ground near the old projects. The new housing will be surrounded by 30 acres of greenways, parks and bioswales, providing a neighborhood amenity along with effective stormwater management. Residents will be given a choice of living in the new development or using vouchers to rent in other parts of the City. And the nonprofit contractor hired to manage the redevelopment works closely with residents to boost their economic mobility and housing stability.

By using the request for ideas to find out what residents wanted, Norfolk developed a clearer, more comprehensive vision for the City’s future. “Engaging the community leads to overall resilience,” says Perry. “It’s never just about flooding.”

Norfolk and other cities are showing that procurement can be about more than bureaucratic processes and paperwork. Done right, it can expand our understanding of problems and solutions, and supercharge government’s capacity to take on the biggest challenges of our time.

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A car drives through a flooded street

Fill, Build and Flood: Dangerous Development in Flood-Prone Areas

In the era of unprecedented storms and flooding, unchecked development in the flood plain is a recipe for disaster. But cities can break the cycle of fill, build, and flood.

A Changing Climate Means A Changing Society. The Island Press Urban Resilience Project, Supported By The Kresge Foundation And The JPB Foundation, Is Committed To A Greener, Fairer Future.​ This Article Was Originally Published October 8, 2019 in U.S. News & World Report.

When Terri Straka bought her home on the outskirts of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, in 1991, flooding was never a problem. Back then, her development was surrounded by coastal wetlands – the lowland forests and blackwater creeks that soak up rainfall and storm surges.

Fast forward to 2016, when Hurricane Matthew roared ashore. By that time, Straka’s home was hemmed in by newer developments, constructed on fill dirt to raise their elevation. The newer developments left Straka and her neighbors in a low-lying bowl. Matthew flooded her home, “destroying everything I own,” Straka says. She had just rebuilt in 2018 when Hurricane Florence slammed the coast, filling her home with 4 feet of floodwater.

Some call it “fill and build” – the practice of piling fill dirt on flood-prone land, then constructing housing or other developments on top. As Straka and her neighbors have discovered, “fill, build and flood” might be more apt.

You might ask: Why build on flood-prone land at all? The answer is money. Developers can charge a premium for homes near the water. And unbuilt land in the flood plain is cheaper – and more abundant – than land on higher ground. These economic realities are driving a vast expansion of development in flood-prone areas. In fact, between 2000 and 2016, the U.S. saw more population growth in flood plains than outside of them.

State and federal laws typically allow construction in flood plains, as long as buildings are lifted above the expected high-water level. The least expensive way to do that is by trucking in fill dirt and spreading it on the land. Voila! Higher ground.

But there are several problems with this picture. First, there’s the loss of the flood plain itself. When water-absorbing lowlands are paved and developed, there’s simply nowhere for excess water to go – so flooding is the inevitable result. It’s a problem that is getting worse as the planet warms, bringing supercharged storms, rising seas and increasingly devastating floods.

Fill-and-build also creates islands of higher elevation, creating runoff that may inundate older, lower developments. “You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to know how water behaves; it flows to the lowest point,” says Ed Browne, a Houston electrical engineer who opposes fill-and-build. Often, those lower elevations are home to low-income people and people of color, communities that fare worse after disasters of all kinds.

Yet the building continues, in part thanks to incentives for local officials. Larry Larson, director emeritus of the Association of State Floodplain Managers, says development of flood-prone areas means that “local officials get a bigger tax base.”

“And if it floods, well, federal taxpayers will bail them out,” he says. “So they get all of the benefits and none of the harms.”

Such incentives have spawned a cavalier attitude toward flooding by local officials and developers. In Southeast Texas – which is now recovering from what was at least its fourth “500-year” rain event in five years – the Harris County Flood Control District routinely uses legal strategies to remove properties from the flood plain, converting them to developable properties, Browne says.

“They are doing this even in the same watersheds where (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) previously bought out flooded properties,” he says.

Nonetheless, as floods increase and development accelerates, residents are fighting back. Browne helped start a group called Residents Against Flooding a decade ago; the group has challenged fill-and-build development in the flood plain with lawsuits, and is now pursuing a fraud complaint.

Groups like Residents Against Flooding are taking action elsewhere as well. Harriet Festing leads Higher Ground, the largest flood survivor network in the country. The network represents 50 flood survivor groups from 22 U.S. states. Festing says that fill-and-build is a particular concern of the network, along with reforming flood insurance laws and reducing human-caused global warming.

“The stakes are incredibly high,” Festing says. “You have unchecked development in the flood plain, combined with unprecedented storms and flooding. Too many people are one storm away from catastrophe.”

But cities can break the cycle of fill, build and flood. For example, Charlotte, North Carolina, enforces strict regulations on fill-and-build development – protecting natural areas around creeks and limiting construction to the fringes of flood plains. Homeowners pay a fee, based on the amount of impermeable surface on their property, that provides a dedicated source of funding for stormwater management.

Importantly, Charlotte does not rely on outdated FEMA maps that calculate future risk by looking at the past. “We look ahead,” says Tim Trautman, program manager for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Storm Water Services, “and base flood plain maps on future conditions” that account for increased development and wilder weather.

In addition to limiting future construction, “We ‘un-develop’ areas by buying out properties that are likely to flood,” Trautman says. Those undeveloped areas become greenways and parks that benefit the community and boost adjacent home values. In fact, rising home values offset losses to the tax base from the removed properties, Trautman says.

As Straka and too many others have learned, Charlotte’s forward-thinking approach remains the exception, not the rule. And the federal government is heading in the wrong direction on this issue: Last month, President Donald Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency repealed the Clean Water Rule, making it easier to build in wetlands.

But that can change. “It all boils down to enlightened local leadership,” says Larson of the Association of State Floodplain Managers. “All you need are leaders who look at the problem and decide to do the right thing.”

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