Creating sustainable communities by future-proofing infrastructure

Tracey Ryan and John Mauro | 19 April 2022 | 22:38

Podcast Transcript: Creating sustainable communities by future-proofing infrastructure

Maria Rampa: Hi, I’m Maria Rampa and welcome to this episode of Engineering Reimagined.

How do you plan for the future of a city?

In this episode of Engineering Reimagined Tracey Ryan, Managing Director for Aurecon New Zealand, speaks with John Mauro, formerly the Chief Sustainability Officer for Auckland Council and now the City Manager at the City of Port Townsend in Washington State, about mapping the future of cities and the lessons he’s learned throughout his career working across the USA, Asia, and New Zealand and collaborating with towns, cities and partners across the globe.


Tracey Ryan: It's probably been many years since we last caught up face to face here in Tāmaki Makaurau.

John Mauro: Tracey, it's great to be here. I'm looking forward to our conversation.

Tracey Ryan: Since you left and went back to The States, you are currently the city manager of Port Townsend in Washington. And, just thinking about, when you left, where New Zealand was, but Port Townsend, there's been a lot of population growth there as well. So interesting, from your perspective, what population growth and demographic trends, are you expecting at Port Townsend, and then how are you responding to these through your work?

John Mauro: One thing I feel like, a little bit like it's a roller coaster, in some ways, not just because of pandemic, but I always felt like Auckland was such a big international city, but it's actually in a small, isolated country, but neighbourhoods mattered so much, I was trying to understand Aotearoa when I was there. I look forward to coming back, actually. But then coming back to the states, you think, wow, it's kind of a big and populous country. It's geographically diverse and big. Washington State is, actually where I am, is larger than New Zealand. But this town or really, I mean, it's a city only of 10,000 people nested in a larger region, which includes, Seattle, and you can see the lights of Vancouver, and the buildings in Victoria, from the beach here, across into Canada. So, it's hard to understand, is that big, is that small, is that isolated, is it not, it's kind of a little bit of everything. So yes, our population, like a lot of desirable locations is growing. It's not growing huge leaps and bounds, it's between probably 1 and 2% annually. But for a small town that was really founded as one of the first cities in the northwest. We were the port of call, the place where ships would come into the Western United States, before the cities of San Francisco and others really got built up. And because of that, we were expected to be an asset. And we were expected to be the West Coast location. Turned out for lots of reasons that wasn't the case. The demographics here really are steady growth upward. We're a very old community age wise, we're one of the top 10 oldest counties in the United States with a median age of about 53 years old. There's another thing to draw out. And that's a contrast between the haves and the have nots. You could see this across the world, across Aotearoa, as well. But we've got 14% of our population living below the poverty line, as well as tremendous wealth that's on display with beautiful coastal houses right on the ocean. It's such a idyllic little place, but not without its inequality. So, your question about how is it reflected in the work? Well, three main things. One is that if we want age diversity, we really need to plan for that. So parks and open space is a huge thing for us to focus on right at the moment. The second is that accessibility and even affordability of homes is really challenging, and I put it right up there almost like Auckland, we have exactly 0% rental availability and almost 0% house availability, if you want to buy something, no matter how many wads of cash you have with you. And I'd say public spaces as well, it's another thing where it shows up in our work, where how we get around and mobility is tremendously important.

Tracey Ryan: You touched on really important things around that inequity, that comparison to Auckland, in terms of that accessibility and affordability which ultimately probably hasn't changed much. And just thinking, that comparison to Port Townsend, and looking ahead around that 30 year ahead vision and a strategic plan, how is Port Townsend, how is the city looking to future proof its infrastructure to respond not only to the effects of climate change, but things like inequity, social elements that kind of come into social outcomes. What are you seeing that's happening there, John?

John Mauro: That's a germane question for almost anywhere in the world. I'm happy to be married to an academic geographer. And so I think about it a lot. But Port Townsend is sort of like a thumb at the end of a hand, and we're kind of an arm that goes out into the ocean. And we're at the end of two peninsulas surrounded on three sides by water. Thinking about climate change is very real every time you go down to the water, and think about storm surge, and sea level rise, and the combination of that. And so this community is really thinking about what does this mean over the long haul? Even right now, even this year, we're rebuilding historic buildings that were very damaged by a big storm in 2018, undoubtedly exacerbated by climate change, and stronger storm surge, and higher sea levels. So we're, like most places, kind of in the frontlines of the impacts of climate change. We're also hindered by the fact we are a small taxing district, we've got aging infrastructure that was built sometimes over 100 years ago, sometimes not repaired or maintained since then, thinking about our water line that went in almost 100 years ago. And so every time a large decision’s made, whether it be wastewater or stormwater or transportation or parks, it really has to be right sized, and the right investment and to think about the long term financial viability of it. So, we just for the first time since 1956, renegotiated our water agreement with a large paper company in the region. And we looked at it with an eye on viability of water resources into the next 100 years. Same thing with sewer investments along the coastline, we're thinking about sea level rise in 50 years, not just next year. And I think the upshot of all this is that, right now, we're in the middle of a grant funded mapping exercise where we're trying to work through asset mapping our municipal resources and assets, so that we know what's in the line of fire, and we could work collectively, both as a city but also with partners, the community, private businesses on how to prepare for the future, and not just brace for the impact, but possibly to plan ahead for, like they do in other parts of the world, working with water, and not just trying to defend against things like sea level rise, but to think about creative approaches to green infrastructure.

Tracey Ryan: And as you know, in New Zealand, we have a massive deficit that exists around our infrastructure and critical infrastructure, we're going through major water reforms. So, certainly lessons that we can look to around the world, and be able to kind of learn from that, rather than thinking that we have to solve this all ourselves. But, how are you measuring the sustainable outcomes?

John Mauro: There was a Climate Action Plan developed in 2011. It set an 80% target of 1990 levels by 2050, an interim goal of 15% of 1990 levels by 2020. And a recent inventory confirms that actually, we were able to reduce emissions quite substantially, largely from stationary energy, because there was a reworking of our electricity supply. But numbers wise, it looks like a huge lift in terms of our community and our region's reduction in emissions. So on the face of it, that's great. When you dig a little deeper, you realise that maybe 60 to 70% of emissions are from the transportation sector. And that's not getting any better. So I immediately go to what I know best, which is, what's the data around emissions and assets and thinking about climate, mitigation and adaptation. And, it's a mixed story. So, we need to integrate those decisions into everything we do. And we've started thinking about it in a structural way. We've reset up our council committees to really think about sustainability, we're rebooting engagement with stakeholders and the general public. And I'll go back to something I learned from the environment director in Stockholm, when I was there many years ago. And I just love how he positioned this around, you've got sustainable economy sustainable environment, sustainable social structures and social capital, and then you have sustainable democracy. And I really love that fourth pillar, and it's something we're thinking about quite a bit here locally.

Tracey Ryan: If you look back on your time in New Zealand and in Tāmaki Makaurau. You were, I believe, the first Chief Sustainability Officer for Auckland Council. When you look back, what are you most proud of?

John Mauro: I'm most proud about bringing a new team into Auckland Council that was never before imagined. And I was so lucky and honoured to be able to lead that team, and really drive cross Council collaboration and collaboration with the private sector, and collaboration with government agencies. It's a team that's really gotten some huge wins, including many since I've left and probably in spite of me, like the Auckland Climate Action Plan, there's the urban forests, that Urbanati strategy, there's New Zealand's first green bond that was issued to Auckland Council. It was just really a lot of dynamism and energy that was really built on the goodwill and the connection with people.

Tracey Ryan: If you were to come back to New Zealand, all of a sudden, we said, right, we're off to do it again, what would you want to change?

John Mauro: I would definitely do more surfing. I look back to New Zealand, I feel like they're in such a great position to lead the world and not necessarily just follow. One of the things that just, it seemed true when I moved there, and it's even more so now. And that's really this density is destiny thing, where I was always surprised that I can live in a suburb right next to the CBD and be able to walk into work in 25 minutes and still have my backyard. I have nothing against backyards. I have one now and I love it. But living in a large 1.5 million person community of Tāmaki Makaurau and having the kind of sprawl that Auckland is really still fighting. That's why transportation is difficult. That's why health is difficult. That's why food deserts exist. That's why infrastructure is harder and hard to afford. It's really hard to walk that back but if I was going to dial in anywhere it would be the form of the city itself and then right down at the individual block level, the housing stock. Andrew Eagles at New Zealand Green Building Council - what a lovely human. Healthy and clean and dry homes. They're on a quest to make sure that the housing stock in New Zealand improves. You can't feed transit in a sprawling community like you can in a dense community, you can't walk to the amenities, you can walk to or bike or whatever it might be - take the bus in a community that's more spread out. So I think I'd really double down on that almost more than anything.

Tracey Ryan: The healthy homes is just a basic right and access to clean drinking water, access to public transport, there's a lot that we need to continue to do to push ahead on the growth of Auckland. You were heavily involved with the C40 cities when you were here. Looking around the world, who do you see that's really innovative and really driving significant change in this space. Who's kind of leading do you think?

John Mauro: Starting in New Zealand, I would say crafting the Auckland Climate Action Plan. Putting equity at the centre, and a just transition at the centre, of an integrated mitigation and adaptation plan was I think, truly world class and best practice. It's hard not to think about some of the classic like, oh, let's go to Scandinavia, and do a little survey of what communities are dense, have great walking and cycling amenities, have a strong sense of equity, gender equity, and race and social justice. Innovation doesn't necessarily mean new technology, as much as some of what you can experience at a real visceral level walking around, a Helsinki or a Stockholm or a community like Copenhagen. It's truly tremendous. And that's sustainability in practice. You can see the same thing when you wander the rooftops of Toronto and you see an acre of agriculture on the roof of downtown. I was grateful to do a little green roof tour of Toronto and just feel like holy moly, like, that is such an untapped resource. Not just green roofs like the Chicago City Hall, but actually to think about how you grow food right above a farmer's market in the middle of one of the most populous cities around. I was really taken by a conversation or two I've had with the mayor of Rotterdam, Mayor Aboutaleb, who, he has this real persuasive and inspiring way of speaking about the circular economy. And I think his quote is something like, "Our know how is a first-class export product." And then when you think of Rotterdam as a community, you think that was the largest port in the world at one point, the largest in Europe still, and he's saying, "Yeah, we ship stuff. And a port's a big deal for us, but actually, it's our intellect and our knowledge economy that is the thing." That's pretty inspiring. You can look to places in Asia like India, where they're using micro loans and financing solar micro grids for communities of need, you can think of Shenzhen's electric bus fleet in China, happens to be where a major e bus manufacturer is, but they had something like 17,000 electric buses in that one city alone. And then I guess, landing here locally, jury's still out on whether President Biden's gonna be able to land his commitment to $400 billion of innovation in climate over the next 10 years. But locally we have somebody who was a contender for president, who's our governor, Jay Inslee, he wrote a book 15 years ago about building a clean energy economy. We have probably the most ambitious clean electricity policy, we've probably got the most inspiring Climate Commitment Act, which is Cap and Invest, which starts next year, it's pretty progressive here. And just approved in the legislature, just last month was a 16 year move ahead Washington transportation package, and it really lays the groundwork for shifting to cleaner and more efficient transportation options and driving down our emissions as a state. That state is six or seven million people and really a leader on the West Coast. And so, yes you can kind of romp around the world. But I feel grateful to have landed here where really innovative climate policy is a thing, not just at the city level, because a lot of things are so much decided above the jurisdiction of a city but at the state level as well.

Tracey Ryan: One thing from the pandemic, how do you get people drawn back into the cities, there's this precinct idea and 15 minutes, but what do your CDBs turn into? And then how do you make it an attractive place to live, but also how to utilise all the buildings and space and things like that in a very different way? Auckland Council's just released our annual budget, and concurrently consulting on the proposed climate action target rate, raised $574 million to invest in transport and active modes and urban forests. And then that whole debate around who pays for it. All ratepayers will pay around a dollar 12 cents a week, businesses paid more. One of the things is, should we put a price on sustainability? But how are you seeing other parts or how's Port Townsend funding and paying for all of these initiatives to reduce emissions?

John Mauro: It's so rewarding to see that happen in Auckland right now. Because it takes time, sometimes to build a case for actually funding climate action and I think I'm impatient by design, or maybe by default. And sometimes that helps me. But sometimes it's frustrating, we were, trying to make that case a while ago, that funding climate action is how you make a difference. And the carbon footprint, it's a great little exercise, but it's kind of an obvious accusatory exercise by the oil companies to distract us from making systemic change. Paying for change is going to be really challenging. I just mentioned, the US President's investment in climate innovation, and really pledging to get that through Congress, which is still not a done deal. And the idea is to get to net zero by 2050. And then Cap and Invest in Washington State, I think that's probably our most relevant proxy for Port Townsend, because we've got a $40 million budget, and that includes delivering almost a full service city with everything from police to, water to sewer and transportation, etc. And it's a pretty small scale, compared to Auckland. And that's not a cop out, that's just the funding mechanisms in a small community are not robust, like they might be in a larger community. So, what it means for establishing a state-wide emissions cap, starting January 1 next year, it covers things like industrial facilities, and fuel suppliers, and electricity generators, and such, sort of adds on to that over the years, and then encourages them to reduce emissions and provides a certain degree of offsets and creates a funding mechanism to actually invest in climate programmes. And we very much are always saying this to our state legislature, as a formal legislative agenda from the city to the state, we've been advocating for this climate act for three years now. And it's super rewarding to see it actually happen. And so now we have this mechanism that will benefit communities like ours, because for instance, we're doing a major bike and ped’ segment on one of our local roads here. And it costs about $5 million. And we put up, probably about 17% of that locally, the rest is in state and federal grants, because we just have not the ability to pay with our rates base and our tax base. So we're very interested in systemic change at higher levels of government, because it greatly impacts us here locally.

Tracey Ryan: Yeah John, interesting funding and finance would probably come up in every conversation around programmes, projects. Part of the challenge is to halve emissions by 2030. And to invest in better infrastructure if we're going to decarbonise the economy by 2050. The better part is the collective transformation across society and businesses. But what is the right balance? And then, what is the trade-offs that you'd have to start thinking about?

John Mauro: Yeah like, “Let's do everything”! You know, and you have to prioritise and that's why we locally are thinking, Okay, what's the big play? As we work with other cities, we're part of a 271 City Group called the Association of Washington Cities that advocates on behalf of cities to the state of Washington. And so, we find our voice there, our Deputy Mayor's on that board. We as a city, it's our wheelhouse to invest in and repair infrastructure. So that example I just mentioned, it's almost a K of bike and ped infrastructure. It's going to be transformative to that part of town. And that's infrastructure, how do we get leverage off of that work with school districts, and hospital and transit agencies, and think about how we all shift the dial there. I'd like to believe that we can plant the seeds with some of those transformative projects, and really drive that collective action. Back to what I said earlier about sustainable democracy. I really believe in a town like ours, we have really active community members who are engaged, they want to retire here, because it's just beautiful here. And it's artsy and it's fun, and it's natural surroundings. I mean, that's a huge benefit to us to say, where do we get the right person in the right seat. And so I think by sparking this interest, and by leading by example with our infrastructure, we get people around the table. And whether it be a local business, or another agency. That's something that's deeply important to systemic change. It's about three hours until we have our city council meeting, I'm holding an award actually right now that we won at the national level for communities under 10,000 people. And it was really about multiple agencies getting together. Historically, I'll be honest, we used to fight each other like cats and dogs. And now we're good friends, because we said we can't not work together, we're in a crisis situation with climate change, inequality, housing, COVID. We can't waste a single moment, not working together. And so we created a very strong alliance between four agencies, including the city, and we set the table for community involvement and the community stepped up, it was remarkable. We had hundreds of people get involved and basically co-write a resilience plan, and happen to win a national award for it.

Tracey Ryan: Congratulations! Part of sustainable development goal 17 is around that collective action of coming together and to your point that we cannot waste a single moment to not work together. I would be interested in your view, right around how well central and local government work together. Are we missing a New Zealand Inc vision?

John Mauro: Working within Auckland Council, a size of an organisation that's the size of this entire community. I often use that on this community and say, “Look, if we are working as one organisation with about 10,000 people, we need to be able to work together as one community as 10,000 people, all part of the same team”. It's obvious, but it's actually really challenging. I'm really grateful for central government when I was in Auckland Council. We seconded somebody from their climate team from the Ministry of the Environment, We worked really closely together, spent a lot of time trading data and information. Prime Minister Ardern actually opened up our climate symposium. That's another reason why New Zealand has like, I don't wanna say no excuse, but well poised to be a leader.

Tracey Ryan: And that's a great challenge or opportunity for us, John, to be well poised to be world leaders. I'm excited to be part of it. And thank you, ngā mihi nui. Thank you for joining us here today. I think what you've kind of created here and that momentum, but also drawing on a continuation of your journey, we need to keep talking and connecting and learning. Thank you so much for joining us today.

John Mauro: It's a pleasure, Tracey. Thanks so much. I had a lot of fun.


Maria Rampa: We hope you enjoyed this episode of Engineering Reimagined.

It was a fascinating discussion about future-proofing our cities and a reminder of how valuable it is to share knowledge and experiences.

If you enjoyed this episode of Engineering Reimagined, hit subscribe on Apple, Google Podcasts or Spotify and don’t forget to follow Aurecon on your favourite social media platform to stay up to date and join the conversation.

Until next time, thanks for listening.

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John Mauro on mapping future cities

How do you plan for the future of a city?

With so many contributing factors like demographics, housing demand, transport infrastructure, economic and social challenges, sustainability targets and the impacts of climate change, it’s becoming increasingly important to look beyond our own borders and incorporate lessons from around the world.

John Mauro, formerly the Chief Sustainability Officer for Auckland Council and now the City Manager at the City of Port Townsend in Washington State, USA, says it’s important to seek new approaches to urban innovation from other cities.

“Let's go to Scandinavia and do a little survey of what communities are dense, have great walking and cycling amenities, have a strong sense of equity, gender equity, and race and social justice. Innovation doesn't necessarily mean new technology, some of what you can experience at a real visceral level walking around a Helsinki or a Stockholm or a community like Copenhagen– it's just truly tremendous. And that's sustainability in practice.

“You can see the same thing when you wander the rooftops of Toronto and you see an acre of agriculture on the roof of downtown. I mean, I was grateful to do a little green roof tour of Toronto and just feel like… that is such an untapped resource. Not just green roofs like the Chicago City Hall, but actually to think about how you grow food right above a farmer's market in the middle of one of the most populous cities around.”

In this episode of Engineering Reimagined, Tracey Ryan, Managing Director for Aurecon New Zealand, speaks with John Mauro about mapping the future of cities and the invaluable lessons he’s learnt throughout his career.

Meet our guests

Learn more about Tracey Ryan and John Mauro.

Tracey Ryan

Managing Director – New Zealand, Aurecon

Tracey’s career to date serves her passion about people, places, amazing landscapes and with that reshaping and creating resilient cities and towns for the future. In her current role, Tracey is Aurecon’s Managing Director, New Zealand, and is responsible for the leadership and performance of approx. 900 people across five locations in New Zealand. Tracey is a Director of Aurecon NZ Limited.  She is also Deputy Chair of Infrastructure New Zealand, Chair of the Sustainable Development Committee FIDIC (International Federation of Consulting Engineers) and sits on the Industry Advisory Board for The University of Auckland’s Faculty of Engineering.  

John Mauro

John Mauro

City Manager, City of Port Townsend

John Mauro is the City Manager of the City of Port Townsend, as the chief executive, he directs city operations, manages all personnel, prepares the city budget and provides policy advice. John spent nearly 7 years in New Zealand, serving as the first Chief Sustainability Officer in Auckland, a city of 1.6 million.  He and his team provided thought leadership and drove strategic change for a more sustainable and resilient Auckland. John has over 20 years of experience in climate and sustainability-related policy, research and advocacy.H e worked as Policy Director for a transport not-for-profit, helped deliver the US Mayor’s Climate Protection Agreement and Seattle’s first climate plan while in the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability and Environment, and ran an organization dedicated to smart growth policy and advocacy.

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