In 2015, on the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans became the first city in the world to complete a comprehensive resilience strategy. Doing so marked the beginning of a new era for New Orleans—one in which the city is as actively engaged in its future as it is in responding to present challenges and celebrating its storied past.

As part of its strategy, New Orleans Mayor Mitchell Landrieu opened the Office of Resilience and Sustainability, and a year later, he brought in FUSE Corps Executive Fellow Siobhan Foley to develop the city’s first Climate Action Strategy, working in conjunction with Deputy Mayor and Chief Resilience Officer Jeffrey Hebert and a wide range of stakeholders.

It was a critical moment for the city. By partnering in 2016 with FUSE, a fellowship program that places executive-level, entrepreneurial leaders with cities to increase capacity to work across sectors and develop actionable strategies to take on systemic challenges, New Orleans could start to make major strides toward its ambitious plan. And in July 2017, the Climate Action Strategy was officially launched.

Foley had many years of experience working on programs and educational initiatives to combat climate change in California, Oregon, and New York, and was drawn to the New Orleans fellowship because of the team’s expertise in resilience, and because of Mayor Landrieu’s leadership and commitment to the issue.

The strategy team’s biggest challenge, at the outset, was to lay the groundwork for a holistic approach that connected systems, contextualized climate action, and focused on developing and supporting sustained community leadership. With that challenge front and center, Foley’s first task was to reach out to stakeholders within local government agencies and throughout the community to glean a clear sense of the big picture. What did “climate action” mean to them? What did they know? What did they need? Their answers would help the team identify an action plan and prioritize their activities.

"Cities like New Orleans are critical in leading action against climate change, as we are a city on the frontlines of its effects," says Foley.

Foley found that one primary message about climate adaptation in the city’s overall resilience strategy had resonated: New Orleanians generally understood the importance of “living with water”—embracing the city’s changing environment and adapting to effects of climate change, such as sea level rise and increased flooding. She learned, however, that they lacked a clear understanding about the critical connections between climate change and energy, transportation, and waste, and their ability to take action to help slow climate change.

A Human-Centered Approach

To communicate those connections, Foley, Hebert, and other team members drafted a strategy that was clear and direct, and focused first on framing the city’s challenge and current systems and resources, and then on shifting the values in the system and the behaviors they encourage, and finally on identifying specific ways that people could engage with these issues to effect change. They were intent on making sure that the strategy would use a voice and tone accessible to anyone, no matter their existing understanding of the issues. To that end, they designed easy-to-grasp, visual representations that clearly depicted risks to the city and city systems—energy, water, transportation, and waste. Their goal was for the strategy itself to be a learning tool as well as a road map for action.

(Photograph courtesy of Siobhan Foley) 

“Cities like New Orleans are critical in leading action against climate change, as we are a city on the frontlines of its effects,” Foley says. “And with such a rich culture and history, connecting our action on climate change to our culture is critical to our success.”

To encourage behavior change, the team is partnering with local arts and culture organizations, nonprofits, and neighborhood groups to engage residents and visitors. They want to be sure that climate action and community preparedness become part of the city’s cultural identity and cultural expression. To ensure that equity remains as much a focus in implementation of the strategy as it was in developing it, they have also partnered with the Greater New Orleans Foundation to engage subjectmatter experts, residents, and local businesses to delve into the strategy and develop detailed approaches to achieve its goals through humancentered design workshops.

Foley, Hebert, and the team were strategic in what they prioritized. Waste represented only a small part of the city’s greenhouse gas pollution, but the team’s early research revealed that it was an important issue in the community. In a city known for its cocktail culture and festivals, residents and visitors alike regularly point out that glass is not recycled, food waste is not composted, and mounds of Mardi Gras beads go to landfill. The city reinstated some curbside recycling after Hurricane Katrina, and the team felt that reducing waste in the coming years would help demonstrate that every person’s actions can make a difference. What’s more, the mayor’s office has greater control over the city’s waste-disposal activities than it does, say, in effecting change in energy and transportation systems, where it relies heavily on leadership from other elected officials and agencies. This meant that decisions could be made relatively quickly, and action could soon follow.

To that end, Foley partnered with Cynthia Sylvain-Lear, the city’s director of sanitation, to engage a broad array of businesses, nonprofits, residents, and community groups to assess the barriers to and benefits of increased recycling and composting. The group is working to formulate a plan to build a better recycling ecosystem—seeking to increase participation rates along with business and job opportunities.

Diverse Skills, Collaborative Approach

Foley’s background helped shape how she approached developing and implementing the city’s first climate action strategy. A key piece of the puzzle was to connect the right people to each other, to find and tell the right stories, and to build capacity in the community for the work, which is both an urgent need and a long-term endeavor. To do this, Foley first connected with her colleagues in the city’s Office of Resilience and Sustainability to shape an approach for climate action that would build upon that work.

Foley used her skills and background in strategic communications, social marketing, and community education to interview a wide range of stakeholders, to convene the key stakeholders, and to make connections among their areas of focus to weave the connections and find the stories. By taking this approach, Foley was able to quickly learn about the city’s energy, waste, and transit systems, and identify aspects that were less understood by stakeholders and most connected to climate-change effects. These skills also helped her develop relationships with private sector partners and work with colleagues in the city and throughout the community to build a narrative for the work and secure resources to help spark action.

Importantly, her experience and skills complemented those of her FUSE host champion Jeffrey Hebert. Hebert’s knowledge of the city shaped the scope of the work, and his background in urban planning and resilience brought in the necessary expertise to connect the team to best practices in other cities and to give feedback on New Orleans’ strategy, with emphasis on equity, social connection, and community activation in implementing the strategy over time.

“We are working with dozens of local companies and organizations to collect and use critical information about our energy, transportation, and waste systems, and engaging hundreds of community leaders on the issues,” says Foley. “As a result, we’re much better prepared to help all New Orleanians take action on our climate action goals in the coming years. I’m excited to work with FUSE and the city for a second year to get under way with implementation.”