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Community Conversations: Bridging Best Practices and Community Needs with César Castro

September 25, 2020
Susanna Pho, CFM

In Community Conversations, we chat with floodplain management professionals about their work. This month we had the pleasure of hearing from César Castro, a Senior Planner with New Orleans-based Civix. Check out the full audio recording of our conversation above or read the excerpt below to learn about how César views his role as a consultant walking the line between traditional planning and climate adaptation.

Hi César! Can you tell us a bit about your job?

I'm a Senior Planner at Civix currently working for the State of North Carolina's Office of Recovery and Resiliency as their planning and policy advisor and consultant. I’m part of an effort to augment their staffing and support their ongoing work to set up mitigation and resiliency programs across the state.

You have a pretty interdisciplinary background as well, right?

Yes, I grew up in El Salvador during the civil war there. I went to high school in North Carolina and went to undergrad at UNC Greensboro, where I studied English and Spanish Literature. I worked for a Spanish newspaper and for a few nonprofits, then I decided to go back to school for an MFA in creative writing and poetry.

For a few years I worked in North Carolina for a Community Development Financial Institution. I worked there during the financial crisis, writing about policy related to responsible lending practices, foreclosures and the impact to Latino communities across the US. Then I decided to do the Peace Corps with my wife. We were in Colombia for three years in a small town of 2000 people. We did a lot of community development work, taught some English students, and worked on some public health campaigns. Doing the work was revealing for me. It helped me understand the intersection between community development and spatial dynamics: How do you develop a place if you don't have the right infrastructure or the right planning to get that infrastructure? After that, I went to Harvard’s Graduate School of Design and got dual graduate degrees in Urban Planning and Design Studies in Risk and Resilience. That education helped me understand the dynamics between urban planning and mitigation and resiliency.

It sounds like that experience resonates with the housing work that you’re engaged in now.

A lot of the work I was doing in North Carolina relates to what I'm doing now—the underwriting of loans, for example, or discussing the fiscal implications of housing from the construction phase. How do you finance housing? How do you help homeowners attain housing? Those were all elements that I was dealing with before.

I work on how to make those products more responsible, in terms of how to better serve vulnerable communities and low-income communities. I got to understand the mechanics of how to respond to government grants and what they entailed for communities.

This time around, your work with housing intersects with your interest in resilience and resilience planning as well. Can you tell us more about that?

Since last year, I've been working with Civix and a lot of the work is at the nexus between housing, resiliency, and compliance. A lot of the infrastructure behind resiliency planning these days is related to HUD or FEMA. The work is walking the line of traditional urban planning questions: How do you specialize long range planning efforts? How did these efforts comply with the funding allocations? And then, ultimately, how do they change the space for communities?

We've heard from some communities that they have a desire to understand the breadth of projects that certain types of federal funding can be applied to, particularly now with funding around the pandemic. When we talk about community health and environmental health, you can very quickly transition from a public health conversation to one about environmental health. Do you have a lot of those conversations in the work that you do?

It's an interesting phenomenon where the same people dealing with or planning for a disaster are the same type of folks that have to plan for COVID. A lot of the same conversations are happening in various levels and scales of jurisdictions. For example, I work closely with the City of Birmingham as they plan for their typical HUD funding, CDBG funding for housing reconstruction, and building new homes through home financing. Now they're also tackling questions of what to do with COVID funding released by the federal government.

Does a lot of your work entail doing that community development work yourself, or is it relatively reliant on the perspectives that your partners bring to the table?

It's a combination of drafting policy and touching base with practitioners on the ground. My current task is to set up best practices and best policy. Then I put it out there so folks can break it apart and say, "Well, this will work. This may not work. Let's adjust this part." Then you go back to the drawing board to adjust those policies and make it a local exercise with the input of stakeholders.

Given the fact that you've worked with quite a few communities of all scales, do you see commonalities in how they approach some of the work that you're doing?

I would say there are similar questions, challenges, and opportunities that come up across the board. The questions are always in terms of, “Do we have the current skill set to carry out what's being asked of us?” In some cases they may not have the proper tools or proper knowledge to truly get outside of the box, to think through the current conditions and then the solution.

From the traditional planning sense, a lot of jurisdictions in the South were experiencing a rise in homelessness, a decrease in economic development opportunities, and a shrinking population in general. A lot of times they don't have the proper tools to fully intervene—to provide, for example, mental health or other services to the homeless population. They're stuck in an older model of providing immediate assistance to the homeless population when it's a little too late to intervene. Then you have jurisdictions like New Orleans, for example, which has a more comprehensive mechanism to respond and provide input to change your planning along the way.

In terms of the challenges in general, what I've been seeing lately is the lack of regional resources or folks being able to talk to each other across the board. There are a lot of silos when it comes to planning, not talking to the different departments, like economic development or community development. That creates inefficiencies along the way. But then at the same time, that creates opportunities for folks to be able to find the synergies, to be able to say, "Okay, you're doing this, and we're doing this." There's a lot of opportunity there to actually make a big difference.

I can imagine that's a primary role that you play – making those connections between departments that historically haven't worked together in the past.

That's the beauty of being a consultant in some ways. I'm not tied to a particular place, so I can bring in examples from other places that have experienced the same issues and provide them a path. In some cases you're better off coming in as an outsider and pointing out the inefficiencies. Folks already know the issues they're having, but it's hard for them to communicate it to leadership. They need someone else like me to come in and do that for them.

On the topic of homelessness and the challenge of resourcing projects that service unhoused folks, I was thinking about how often our conversations with stakeholders tend to focus on the risk to real property. Regarding connections – it seems like lots of communities could benefit from having more integration between community development and public health departments that work closely with unhoused populations and emergency managers/floodplain managers whose work deals with environmental hazards. Have you seen anyone do this exceptionally well?

New Orleans would be the best example balancing those people in places kind of dangers, but also in a equitable lens. Like how do you create an equitable way to look at property? The other, how do you evaluate the damage to people? There's a high value placed on social connections and the cultural element, but the unfortunate part is that sometimes you need measurable ways to assess damage or predict future damage. Unfortunately, properties are an easier metric.

It's hard to measure non-monetary impact to folks. But there are ways. New Orleans has good examples of someone trying to do that. You see that more and more, but the issue of course is where funding comes from and what the end goal is. A lot of times my work is making sure that gap is closed, by talking to community members, our stakeholders, to make sure that whatever happens on the ground is also captured there. Not just property, but the other cultural and social losses.

How do you know what works and where to find examples of precedents?

Sometimes I reach out to my network, and other times it's just understanding what other places have done. But the reality is that a lot of mitigation work is new, so there's no precedent really. It just takes a lot of tweaking and piloting ideas or pitching different ideas to see what works. That's the beauty and danger right now of being in that space.

You work at the intersection of quite a few fields. How do you see that intersection evolving in the future?

The immediate change is that resilience and mitigation have been included more in planning processes, not just as a standalone sections of a planning effort. Now, communities start thinking about resiliency in more of a comprehensive look: what it means to become resilient or how to bounce back from another potential climate event. There's a sense of inclusion and more of that dynamic look into resiliency.

In the long term issues related to mitigation are still going to come up. How do communities plan to adjust their current space to mitigate for future events? And what level of effort are they willing to take to mitigate something that may not happen for 50, 100 years, or even longer? That uncertainty will be valued differently by different communities. Thinking about resilience and how to bounce back from something seems more tangible for us now. Mitigating something that may not happen is tougher.

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