People Behind the Plans; Enessa Janes, AICP, PhD

About This Episode

How well do the people in your area know their neighbors? Enessa Janes, AICP, PhD, considers it one of the most important questions for communities to ask when preparing for a disaster. The community resilience coordinator for the City of Arvada, Colorado, explains that during large events, police officers and fire departments may be unable to get to residents quickly. Knowing those who live nearby ensures that residents have a bigger safety net.

Janes and host Courtney Kashima, AICP, break down some terms that resilience officers use to describe hazards, like "shocks" and "stresses." They explore the important work at the City of Arvada around resilience, including its Resilience Neighborhoods program and how staff have woven concepts of resilience throughout the new six-year strategic plan. Janes shares her educational and professional background and describes what motivated her to become involved in resilience work: a passion for the environment, conservation, and social equity.

Episode Transcript

Enessa Janes: And I'm kind of looked at like an alien when I show up at these emergency management conferences with my, my planning background. But I'm seeing more and more young planners taking a closer look at emergency management. Disaster recovery is something that cannot be separated from the planning field. But I'm seeing more and more folks kind of looking for non-traditional jobs in the disaster recovery space.


Courtney Kashima: Welcome to the American Planning Association podcast. This episode continues our series that takes a look at the People Behind the Plans, showcasing the work life and stories of planners from all across the profession. I'm your host, Courtney Kashima, founder and principal at MUSE Community Design, a planning and public engagement studio in Chicago, Illinois. I'm also a longtime member of the American Planning Association.

Courtney: Our guest today is Enessa Janes, AICP. Enessa is the community resilience coordinator for the City of Arvada, Colorado. She has a PhD in design and planning from the University of Colorado Denver, and an MS and BS from Stanford University. Enessa, welcome to the podcast.

Enessa: Thank you for having me.

Courtney: So September is National Preparedness Month, and I know in my life I see the public service announcements come up and think about what I should be doing, what I could be doing. What's your experience leading and advising at the local level, how people should think about preparedness and maybe what gets lost in the message?

Enessa: I think that's a great question. So in my current role, a lot of the preparedness work I'm doing is for our organization. And so I do a lot of work making sure that the city is prepared to recoup as much money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency [FEMA] if we're impacted by a disaster. So what does that mean for our processes? How do we track our, you know, our emergency procurement of resources? How do we, how do we get contractors on call so that we can be as resilient as possible in the face of an emergency physically as an organization. We also prepare a disaster recovery plan and I think not many communities have disaster recovery plans. Almost every community has an emergency operation plan, but a disaster recovery plan is a great way to start conversations about all of the things that help our city provide services to our community members and what are the things that we need the most in order to provide those services after a shock. During our disaster recovery planning process, we talked a lot about our people. What are the human services that we need to be able to provide in the event of a disaster. Is it food, is it sheltering? Where will those assets and resources be? And how do we work across departments to situate the city best for an equitable recovery? In terms of our neighborhoods, we really encourage Arvada community members to know their neighbors as one of the most important elements of being prepared. We find after most disaster events that neighbors help neighbors and your first responder most likely is going to be the person who lives next door to you and who is willing to help. In the largest events, police and fire may not be able to get to you quickly, so I think a lot of our conversations here are about changing that expectation and empowering neighborhoods to prepare and save themselves.

Courtney: So clearly this is much more than, you know, have a first-aid kit and a meeting place. This important work sits between, I would imagine, people finding it too hypothetical, or I worry more recently becoming desensitized. So what are some of the specifics that go in a city's recovery or resilience strategy to be best prepared for a shock and even define what a shock is for us.

Enessa: Sure. So a shock can really be anything that disrupts our ability to function as a city. If you think of the city as an organism. So recently we've been talking about the difference between shocks and stresses, and those are both things that can impact the ability of a community to provide services or — a city to provide services. A shock is something that's acute and it comes on quickly and it disrupts a system. A stress is a more slow-moving disruption that might not affect us today but really impacts the way that we function in the future. What's interesting about resilience is that it comes from the field of ecology. So in the 1970s ecologists were really curious about how system — natural systems behave when they're disrupted by a shock or a stress, so something acute or something slow moving, and what makes a system able to continue on and carry on in the face of those types of things. So in a city, some of the shocks that we plan for are floods, wildfires. You could also think of a recession as a shock. A stress is something like a drought. It could also be kind of a demographic shift that stresses a community. And so at the City of Arvada and our resilience framework and our development of our strategy, we're thinking of the shocks and stresses kind of at a broader level, so what are those things that, that are going to impact our ability to, to grow, to continue to provide services, to have healthy places to recreate, a good sense of community. Those types of things.

Courtney: That's extremely helpful I think for planners and other decision makers to wrap their heads around it. Have you found that describing it that way helps individuals to connect these ideas to their own quality of life, or is there a point where sort of like if it's everything, it's nothing?

Enessa: Yeah, I think that's a really good point. So if you look at the framework, the resilience frameworks that communities who participated in the Rockefeller 100 Resilient Cities program put together, they're all different. And most cities have — all of the cities have identified, you know, two to three stresses or shocks that really resonate with the community. And some resilience plans don't even mention climate or hazards. So it's things like you know mistrust of government or health, public health. So I believe that we really do need to keep the list small and salient and that too much is — too much does run the risk of being nothing.

Courtney: But is there something either in your work or in the practice that has really excited you or you think people doing resilience work really need to pay attention to?

Enessa: So recently I presented at the Colorado Emergency Management Association conference and I was really excited that there were young planners in the audience at that conference. And I think that planners working in the resilience space really do have an advocate and a champion in the emergency management field. And so if your city is not putting resources towards a full-time community resilience officer or program, there are partners in emergency management who do this every day and would benefit greatly from having a partner with the skills of a planner to help them implement these projects in your communities.

Courtney: So interested in getting a hot take. At the time of this recording, we're in the middle of the Global Climate Strike, which I think over 150 countries participated in last Friday. What's your hot take on the Global Climate Strike?

Enessa: I think it's, it's incredibly important thing to be happening. I'm inspired that it's being led by our next generation of leaders. So it definitely motivates me in my daily work to keep talking about climate and resilience in a way that resonates with our decision makers.

Courtney: What do you think is difficult for people to understand at this point. Do you have any success stories to share around communicating and coordinating efforts around resilience?

Enessa: Yeah, I think it's really challenging for people to understand the science of climate change. There's a lot of information out there about what the causes are, what does a single degree in temperature [rise] mean for our ecosystem and our cities. So I think that can get really confusing and scary for people. So by reframing the conversation in ways that are more understandable or by telling a story that helps people connect with the issue of climate change, I found that I have had more success in helping my communities take action.

Courtney: What was your path to resilience work? How did you get to the City of Arvada? Let us, share with us how you found your way.

Enessa: Sure, sure. So I kind of started on my path towards resilience work with a passion for the environment and conservation. I was really interested in climate justice and social justice at a young age. I grew up in Colorado and I love to backpack and my family and I spent a lot of time outdoors. So as an undergraduate I studied environmental science with a focus on land use and climate. And then when I was in college, it was when I started having conversations about the climate science with colleagues and family members. I realized that their — the conversation always kind of went to the political realm, you know, and it always became contentious rather than a conversation about action and the things that we can do as stewards. So for that reason, I decided to get into science communication and journalism and really unpack how we can tell stories around climate change to motivate people to take action and to help people better understand it. And that's what led me into planning. I joined a program at the University of Colorado Denver about sustainable urban infrastructure, and that's how I got my PhD there. And through that program it brought together researchers from public affairs, planning, engineering, public health and policy, and the cohort of students and I worked together to kind of tackle complex problems around sustainability and climate change mitigation. And so I was going at that through the planning, the planning realm and found that disasters and resilience is a really compelling way to tell that story that I keep talking about — about how climate change can really impact our, our lives, our economy, and touch parts of our lives that we really value.

Courtney: So how long has the City of Arvada had a community resilience coordinator and which other communities are leading the way on issues of resilience?

Enessa: So the City of Arvada has had a community resilience coordinator position for three years. Previously the position was held by the emergency management coordinator. So I am responsible for all of our emergency management programming as well as our community resilience work. But they are intimately related and closely paired. The role at the City of Arvada was modeled after the Rockefeller Foundation's 100 Resilient Cities initiative. We are not a receiver of Rockefeller funds, but we were able to repurpose dollars to create this new position for the city based on the goals of our leadership and some of the visioning we were hearing from our community members. So some leaders in the realm of resilience include a lot of the Rockefeller Foundation cities. And that program just recently shuttered its doors about a month ago, I believe. But there's still an incredible amount of work being carried forward by those participating communities. I haven't seen many communities like ours who are not Rockefeller award winners who are creating positions like, like mine. But I think it's something that is getting the attention of more and more communities. The State of Colorado just developed a — it's through the Department of Local Affairs, and they just started the Colorado Resilience Office, and that office has been established to provide leadership and technical assistance to communities in our state who are looking to either establish a resiliency program or develop strategies and frameworks around resilience. So our state I think is doing really good work at the front, at the frontlines of resilience.

Courtney: And I should note Arvada is a city just north of 100,000 people, in terms of population. What have you learned working in the city at that scale and how it might be similar or different than smaller and bigger cities?

Enessa: Yeah, that's a good question. So Arvada is — it looks a lot like many other midsize American suburbs. We have a history in farming and that, that identity is still really important to us. We are aging fairly quickly. We're aging more quickly than a lot of our neighboring communities. So that's created some pretty unique challenges for our infrastructure and our planning but also how we kind of frame the whole idea of change and how we talk about change and shocks and resilience. So being a smaller city, we are pretty nimble. I think that we — staff members and planners and folks like me have opportunities to engage a whole lot with both our community members and our, our city council members. We have fewer resources than larger cities like Denver and Boulder. We're not as, we don't lean the same way politically that a city like Boulder does, but that still gives us opportunities to innovate in different ways than our, than our peers do.

Courtney: So what projects are you currently working on in this regard?

Enessa: So right now I am working on developing the City of Arvada's first municipal resilience strategy, and this strategy brings together a lot of the milestones and action items from our various planning documents and initiatives to give us a framework for how we're going to be resilient to all types of changes moving forward. So that's a pretty exciting thing that we're working on now. We're hoping to have a draft ready by the end of October for city council review and comment.

Courtney: I noticed on the Arvada website your Resilient Neighborhoods program and I thought that was a nice and relatively easy way to connect these issues to individuals' quality of life. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Enessa: Sure, so the Resilient Neighborhoods program is about building social cohesion and sense of community in our neighborhoods. If you look at research after Hurricane Sandy and large earthquakes in Japan, we find that communities that have stronger sense of community or neighborhoods that have stronger sense of community actually recover faster from the same disaster than ones that, in which people feel disconnected. So the purpose of the Resilient Neighborhoods program is to help our neighborhoods kind of feel more connected and get to know each other. So we fund block parties and social events, community projects where neighbors can work together to build communal gathering places. And we don't really frame this as a — setting up a place to meet in the event of an emergency. It's more of an exercise in having fun together, learning each other's names, identifying kind of what people's needs are and what resources they have. Eventually once those relationships are built, we can start talking about what we might do in the event of an emergency or a disaster or how climate change is impacting their daily lives. So we're really using the neighborhoods as a way of building resilience to any type of kind of shock or change in our community, whether it's growth or demographic shifts or a drought or a heat wave.

Courtney: How about zombie apocalypse?

Enessa: And zombie apocalypse too. I think that's a really important one.

Courtney: So how does your work — whether it's a program like Resilient Neighborhoods or the forthcoming strategy — how does it connect to other or larger city goals?

Enessa: So we just recently developed our six-year city council strategic plan. So we just wrapped up our, our last plan and we're starting a new six-year cycle. And this strategic plan outlines a number of goals that our city council would like to see achieved over the next six years. Resilience is embedded into that plan. It aligns with a lot of our infrastructure goals, our goals for safe communities, vibrant neighborhoods is also a piece of that. Organizational and service effectiveness is a big one. So what does that mean? That's how we as an organization are being fiscally responsible, how able are we to provide basic services in the event of an emergency. So the resilience — the elements of the resilience strategy fold really nicely into that city council strategic plan. We also just updated our land development code and a lot of resilience-facing measures about risk reduction are brought to bear in that document as well. So it's really, it's not another — resiliency is not yet another thing that city staff needs to, to work on. It's more of an overarching framework that draws a thread between all of the things that we do and ultimately makes it easier for us to get those things done.

Courtney: On that note, I read that you have experience with or have studied systems thinking and interagency relations, and I wonder how that impacts your work now because, as anyone in the planning field knows, how decisions get made, who makes decisions, communicating — those can be more important than the topic itself.

Enessa: Absolutely. It's so important to really understand what a win means to your partners, and I think when we're looking at leveraging resources with another agency or funder or if we're looking at influencing a decision maker to make a hard choice that will lead to better resiliency outcomes, we really need to take that time to understand what that win means. So I have been working on increasing my own skills in conflict resolution, mediation, how to collaborate with people that are different than me, how to listen better. These soft skills I think are incredibly crucial in not only seeing the — zooming back and seeing the whole picture of the problem, but also identifying kind of what nuggets are going to really motivate, motivate a partner to work closely with me and my city on achieving our goals.

Courtney: Can you share a big win or lesson learned from that approach?

Enessa: Yeah, I really do think that getting a resilience — an explicitly resilience-focused milestone and strategic result into our city council strategic plan was a huge win. Arvada is not a community that has recently experienced a big disaster. We've had some disasters in the state over the last 10 years, but Arvada really hasn't been hit hard by anything recently. We're also not a community that really talks about climate change a lot. It's not one of our top priorities. And so being able to embed resilience into our plan that's going to be — and it's going to be there for the next six years and all city departments are going to be working on achieving these results. That was, that was a huge win for me and I think it's, it's a testament to understanding the audience, listening and identifying what story is going to motivate, motivate our team. And one of the milestones we have is to create and adopt the city's first municipal resilience strategy and we're working on that now. So we're already kind of cracking on that. And then another one is to create a community-wide resilient collaborative that will be made up of, you know, internal and external stakeholders and it will allow us to have ownership — or, different organizations and folks will take ownership of our resilience actions. So even if my position were to no longer be funded, this collaborative would be able to carry forward and take ownership of the, the actions that we decide to take on.

Courtney: I noticed you have a background in pretty much every sector of planning — consulting, working at the federal level, obviously local government, academia, not-for-profit. How does that shape your work now and what are some of the differences or lessons learned from being in different sectors?

Enessa: I think one of the biggest differences is the pace of decision making and kind of the ability to innovate quickly. And so what I've learned from recognizing that difference in speed is to be patient and to be strategic and to find things that give me energy so that I can continue to push and innovate even when things might be moving slower than I would like.

Courtney: One of those positions took you to Mongolia, where you stayed for a couple of years. How has travel and working abroad shaped your views?

Enessa: Yeah. Working in Mongolia was incredible. It's something that I would love to do again and it's a — I recommend it to anyone who gets a chance to travel there. I grew up travelling — both of my parents are anthropologists, so I grew up kind of being schlepped around and taken to different cities. And I think the, the experiences of travelling and, and mostly to developing countries has really shown me how, gosh, how privileged we are here in the United States and how important it is that we look out for those who don't have as much. And so it's really instilled an importance in environmental justice, equity, in all of the projects that I work on.

Courtney: I'm really interested in examples whether from your own work or others about amplifying issues and impacts in the name of equity or in particular vulnerable populations.

Enessa: Sure. So in the past I worked on a lot of hazard mitigation plans. And these are plans that are required by local jurisdictions if they're going to get FEMA funding after a disaster, get [those] recovery dollars. And a lot of my dissertation work in graduate school was studying social vulnerability and how we can use our understanding of the social determinants of vulnerability to mitigate our hazard risk. So I took it, I took it very seriously and helped communities figure out how to use data to identify where their vulnerable populations are during the hazard mitigation planning process. And so for a lot of communities, this was new. You know, typically hazard mitigation plans look at where floodplains are, where wildfire interface zones are, and adding that extra layer of social vulnerability data I think strengthened the plan. It infused it with a social justice and equity lens and kind of allowed communities to think about that next time they update their plans and are talking about the impacts of hazards and disasters over time.

Courtney: Are there any example cities or programs, whether from the U.S. or abroad, that you can share that have really moved the needle on this idea?

Enessa: That is so hard. I have been working here at Arvada to develop metrics for measuring resilience in our city and, you know, there aren't very many communities that are doing it well yet. So I think having the conversations are important and they do have impacts. But that question of moving the needle is just such a hard one for me because measuring risk reduction or measuring the ability to bounce back is just super tricky. And that's where talking about social cohesion and using some of this information from previous disasters about how people recover and how knowing your neighbor makes a big difference can be really helpful in measuring and tracking our progress over time.

Courtney: I think for example the field of sustainability we've made more progress on as individual cities and states, integrating it with various operations. What's different about resilience work and how it fits into a municipal structure and the kinds of things you have to consider?

Enessa: Yeah, so, to a lot of folks, resilience is starting to feel a bit like sustainability. The two concepts are closely related, but the way I think about resilience is that it's about change. So sustainability at its core is really about maintaining a level of being or, you know, maintaining stability. Resilience is about kind of finding a better outcome. Finding a new normal. Kind of not returning to the old state but finding something new. It's adaptation. I think for, for the City of Arvada, we are a rapidly growing and rapidly aging community. So change and change management is something that we talk about everyday in all of our departments, at all levels. So resilience is a new lens for approaching change and it's kind of like the growth mindset. You know, we embrace change as an opportunity and — rather than kind of lamenting what we're losing through the change. And I think at our city, the conversations about resilience have gone hand-in-hand with our conversations about culture change and performance excellence and, and hearing the voice of our changing community.

Courtney: I think, as you mentioned earlier, it can be a very empowering approach and communities facing change don't have to feel victimized by it or powerless but that it can be something that brings everyone together.

Enessa: Absolutely, and I, I learned from my work in social vulnerability that categorizing a neighborhood or a city as a socially vulnerable place doesn't empower the people who live there and work there. So resilience is a really great way of reframing that conversation while still keeping an eye on kind of those social determinants of health and risk.

Courtney: So I'll never forget — I must have been a freshman in high school when the great Mississippi River flood of 1993 happened. And I saw neighbors canoeing in our cul-de-sac, even though my town was probably 30 or so miles away. And it was really a point of neighbors helping neighbors people, coming together, I think I'll never forget it. But on the other hand I feel like we collectively have a short memory. Even if you've been through something. Have you found ways to address that or overcome it?

Enessa: Absolutely. We actually in the emergency management field, we say, Never let a good disaster go to waste. And that sounds awful, but the point is we have short memories. And so in the immediate aftermath of a disaster or an event, it's important to bring up kind of ways that we can improve and to change policy and make, make your plans. Yes. I also think that resilience is, has been useful in Arvada because we are a community that hasn't recently had a disaster in the past, so we don't have that memory at all of kind of how hard it can be to recover and weather a bad storm. So the idea of, you know, getting to know our neighbors and knowing each other's names and sharing favors kind of is a way of addressing this key element of resilience without having to talk about a disaster or refer to the hypothetical all of the time.

Courtney: So I'm going to ask you to get out your crystal ball and, especially for listeners who play a role in local government, what are your greatest hopes and maybe biggest concerns, the kind of things local government planners should take into consideration if they're just getting started or want to try to implement some of the things you've discussed?

Enessa: Yeah, I think, I think that the changing demographics of our country are really interesting and might pose a really big challenge in the way that we do our work in local government. At our city, you know, we are figuring out how to engage better with our residents and business owners. And it's almost like a moving target. You know, where — the timing of our data collection and our community surveys is just a little bit too slow to really understand the voice of our, of our community members and what they want and have the right resources available. So I think that finding a way to be more nimble in understanding who your community is and what they want is something that we need to keep in mind. I also think that the American Planning Association's recent focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion is a big deal. We as, as a professional organization, we have been behind and our — planning as a profession doesn't seem to represent the communities that we will be representing in the future. So I think that we can, we can do better there and I'm happy that the American Planning Association is taking that on. I think here in Colorado, it's water, how we're going to figure out water scarcity. Also how we're going to balance the needs of our aging boomers with the needs of our younger generation. Again it's about the community voice and making sure that we're kind of taking an equitable approach to listening and decision making around that.

Courtney: Well, I really appreciate the specific examples you shared and the insightful approach to this work. Are there any resources you'd like to share?

Enessa: Yeah, so recently I took a training called Radical Collaboration, and it's about learning how to overcome defensiveness and how to build successful relationships. And I really recommend it to any planners who are looking to build better relationships across their city departments and also with external partners. It was an incredible training and experience. I also recommend checking out the Natural Hazards Center, which is a research center located here in Colorado. If you're interested in seeing some good research about disaster recovery response and mitigation, they are just always doing incredible work. They have a conference every summer in Broomfield, Colorado, where emergency management and disaster recovery preparedness and mitigation practitioners come together.

Courtney: Where can people track progress on the City of Arvada's resilience strategy?

Enessa:You can visit to find more information about our programs. We have a Resilient Neighborhoods page there that you can find. You can also visit You could also visit

Courtney: Enessa, thanks so much for joining us today.

Enessa: Thank you for having me.

Courtney: Thanks for tuning into another episode of the American Planning Association podcast. For more information and to hear past episodes, visit You can also subscribe to the podcast on iTunes and Stitcher. Have an idea for a podcast? Send them to

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