Meet Josh Sawislak, AICP

Interview with CUES Professional Affiliate Josh Sawislak, AICP

Mr. Sawislak is an internationally recognized expert on climate and disaster resilience and sustainable development.

Josh SawislakWhere are you from?

I grew up in Washington DC, where many of the people you meet are from somewhere else. My mom worked on Capitol Hill and my dad was a political reporter, hence my interest in politics. But in my professional career, I have lived in over a dozen cities in the U.S. and abroad and worked in nearly a hundred different places across the globe.

How did you get your start in climate and disaster resilience? 

I actually started my career in television news, and both climate issues and disasters were something we dealt with all the time. Of course, we all called it “global warming,” which was a shame since this led to questions about its validity.

I didn’t last long in television, and my career as an environmental and transportation planner has led me to work on both policy issues and large infrastructure development. It was through that work that I got involved in disaster recovery, figuring out how to reconstruct better and stronger, and how to avoid problems in the future. Mitigating disasters before they cause big problems is really the goal–what my friend Stewart Sarkozy-Banoczy likes to call “pre-covery” or what FEMA calls pre-disaster mitigation. As Jeff Goodell so aptly titled his recent book, The Water Will Come, we have to be prepared to deal with it, not bury our heads in the sand.

What is resilient infrastructure? What are good examples of projects around the globe that we can learn from and apply to South Florida?

Resilient infrastructure is the stuff that lasts. The word resilient actually means to bounce back. Francis Bacon coined the term in the 17th Century to describe an echo bouncing off a wall.  While we have refined the term since Bacon’s day, it still means to absorb or recover quickly from a shock or stress. In South Florida our biggest challenge is water–too much or too little. We face sea level rise, tropical storms, and King tides bringing water when we don’t want it. Yet we have limited fresh water resources and those we do have are at risk from salt water intrusion and aquifer contamination.

We can find good examples and best practices in multiple locations around the world. People often think of the Netherlands when water management is being discussed and without doubt, they, by necessity, have redefined how to live with water. But others have also done great work. Singapore and Israel exhibit incredible management of their fresh water resources, Chile demonstrates excellent work on coastal land use, and one can find important renewable energy successes in Denmark, Morocco, Costa Rica, and New Zealand. But no two places are the same, and while we can learn from others, we have to adapt to our own regional threats and vulnerabilities.

What do you see as the biggest challenge in creating sustainable and resilient infrastructure?

The biggest challenge we face is how we value resilient infrastructure so we can allocate the resources we need to build and maintain it. Resilience is simply an enterprise risk management problem. Once we understand the threats and vulnerabilities, we can assess the associated risks and costs and make smart decisions. Addressing climate change is an economic problem. Unfortunately, it has become a political issue. And it shouldn’t be, because, like all risk issues, you really only have three choices–you can mitigate risk, transfer it, or accept it. But if you don’t choose, you have accepted it without understanding it. In my experience, that rarely works out well for anyone.

What are some hopeful signs you see for the future?

I am very hopeful because we are starting to price climate and disaster risk better in the financial markets. I am a strong believer that market forces are the most effective way to drive change. The market can not only price risk in such a way as to drive resilience, it can also provide economic opportunities and that lead to growth. The idea that mitigating and adapting to climate change hurts growth is short-sighted. The types of economic activity needed to address both the causes of climate change and adaption to its impacts are excellent growth drivers. Building and maintaining infrastructure creates domestic jobs, drives innovation, and preserves or creates new assets and land. We have to build for future conditions, but we are getting better and better at understanding what is going to happen and even gaining more insight to the timeframes. Humans have been adapting their environment since living in caves, so this is not a new activity. We haven’t always weighed the unintended consequences or co-benefits, but we are improving. We are on the leading edge of this work in South Florida, and many people across the country are watching what we do.

Three big issues facing south Florida are traffic, affordable housing and sea level rise. How do you see the role of the university in helping solve these issues? 

Traffic and housing are critical issues in nearly every American city–at least those that are growing and prospering. While they are difficult issues, the alternatives–decreasing population and declining travel demand because of unemployment–are harder to solve. The challenges in South Florida are exacerbated by our land constraints, the effects of sea level rise, and more frequent and severe weather and flooding. Universities, and especially centers like CUES, are critical because we need to develop new and innovative approaches to address these challenges. But the first step is to understand the problem and how we can bring together broad coalitions from both the public and private sectors to develop the way forward. Solutions-­­­based academic centers like CUES have a unique role in that they are independent and well situated to build those coalitions. That’s why I am excited to have affiliated with FAU and CUES and look forward to working with cross-disciplinary teams on these issues.