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Girding Cities for a Perilous Century

Neal Peirce / May 23 2013

For Release Sunday, May 26, 2013
© 2013 Washington Post Writers Group

Neal PeirceIt’s as bold a move as one could imagine. The Rockefeller Foundation, celebrating its 100th anniversary, is launching a “100 Resilient Cities Centennial Challenge.” It will invest $100 million in 100 cities across the world that come up with the best and broadest plans to cope with massive natural and man-made shocks of the time.

In accepting the award, each winning city will be required to appoint a “chief resilience officer” who will work across departments to make sure strong city resilience plans are developed, refreshed and strengthened over time.

As Rockefeller Foundation president Judith Rodin puts it, we’re in a time when a “once-every-hundred-year storm becomes a once-a-week storm somewhere.” Climate change is leading to massive disruptions – all in addition to potentially dire earthquake, tsunami and infectious health challenges.

And with humankind crowding into cities by the billions – numbers unprecedented in human history – metropolises become the dominant stage for humanity.

The Rockefeller Foundation is especially concerned that the shocks of the times, while a peril to all, may most seriously affect poor and vulnerable people who have fewer means to recover.

Yet some may ask: Isn’t it too intrusive for a single foundation to suggest recipient cities must appoint an official with a previously unknown title and duties – “chief resilience officer”?

One reply: The idea comes from a proven friend of humanity. The Rockefeller Foundation has already invested deeply across the world, including in the Green Revolution of the mid-20th century, which introduced crops and production methods credited with saving more than a billion people from starvation.

Second, it’s critical that cities, for their fast-expanding billions of people, focus on resilience. The word is new, a bit strange to our ear. But it has real promise. It suggests toughness, fitness and a no-excuse ability to cope with broad ranges of crises. Resilience may not have the instant verbal appeal of Green Revolution. But it’s just as essential for humankind.

A resilience officer should be a point person for continuity and keep city departments talking and collaborating on survival and long-term sustainability issues. He or she, notes Neill Coleman, Rockefeller’s vice president for global communications, should be part of the executive function of the city, not necessarily a line executive but an officer with the ear of the mayor and city leadership.

I’ve seen the need in my own reporting, as I’ve covered initiatives for better climate change protection, improved utilities, transportation and neighborhood quality initiated by such mayors as Chicago’s Richard M. Daley, New York’s Michael Bloomberg and Los Angeles’ Antonio Villaraigosa. Their programs qualify as landmarks of forward-thinking city initiatives. But will they still be active and extended across city departments two, three or five years from now? A chief resilience officer could be the key champion of continuity.

Superstorm Sandy played a role in Rockefeller’s new initiative: Rodin was cochair of a task force, “NYS2100,” commissioned by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, which has set forth a bold plan for building New York’s capacity to bounce back from inevitable future stresses and shocks.

To minimize the effects of broad scale electric power failures during severe storms, the task force suggested creating incentives for “distributed energy” – power from many small power plants with diversified fuel sources. A companion strategy could be “islanding” – isolating areas hit by severe system breakdowns so they don’t shut down a whole city or metro area power system.

Then there’s money – how can cities afford the massive repair and recovery costs huge storms make necessary? [One example: The May 20 tornadoes that hit Moore, Okla., and the Oklahoma City area are estimated to have caused $2 billion in damage.] The NYS2100 commission suggested creating infrastructure banks to attract private capital and pull together money to repair storm-created physical damage. Or they might create disaster insurance policies for local governments – dubbed “sovereign insurance” – in which cities turn to private capital markets to buy prefunded insurance that will cover their potential losses in disasters.

Other ideas Rodin now proposes range from localities building absorbent road surfaces – a way to cut back on destructive storm flooding – to emergency broadband networks to keep businesses functioning.

Rockefeller’s selection of cities will roll out over the next three years. The hope is that it will create an expansive dialogue among world cities comparing notes and experiences on how they gird themselves against the extreme perils, flood and drought to tsunami and terror that the 21st century is presenting.

In five or 10 years, will cities still have many of the chief resilience officers Rockefeller is recommending? Maybe not – they’re just a means, not a goal. But I’d be hopeful. How else will cities keep focused on their resilience strategies, keep them rolling year-to-year and mayor-to-mayor, unless there’s a clear eye and voice at city hall to stay on task? That’s a major challenge for not just 100, but thousands of cities across the globe. And, one can argue, it is no less critical for human life and welfare than the Green Revolution was in its time.


Neal Peirce’s e-mail is npeirce@citistates.com.

For reprints of Neal Peirce’s column, please contact Washington Post Permissions, c/o PARS International Corp., WPPermissions@parsintl.com, fax 212-221-9195. For newspaper syndication sales, Washington Post Writers Group, 202-334-5375, wpwgsales@washpost.com. (c) 2013, The Washington Post Writers Group

4 Comments

  1. Lida
    Posted May 25, 2013 at 4:18 pm | Permalink

    What an astonishing idea. It would be interested to see how and with what clever people come up with. As to storm surge and flooding my easiest solution is to stay out of storm urge and flood prone areas!
    Regards

  2. Michael Godfried
    Posted May 27, 2013 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

    Resiliency is the perfect frame for infrastructure renewal.

    With the collapse of the I-5 Mount Vernon Bridge into the Skagit River recently in Washington State, it continues to be evident that America’s infrastructure is not even up to the wear and tear of regular usage without even taking into account natural disasters.

    How many bridge failures (Minneapolis I-35 (2007) and levee failures will it take before we wake up?!

  3. John Hall
    Posted May 27, 2013 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

    Resilience is more than rebounding from a significant shock. For cities, communities and individuals resilience promotes successful adaptation to adversity. That means learning from stressful events while recovering from shocks, moving forward and growing stronger in the face of misfortune.

    City resilience is the sum of many factors. Some, but not all of these factors can be controlled, shaped and nurtured by city officials, programs and policies. Resilience is a dynamic force that can shift strikingly in response to the nature and intensity of the stressor. Importantly, developing community resilience takes time. It is not possible to implant resilience as a social pace maker, a quick fix program to cope with all disasters, but it is possible to positively impact the resilience building process, to nurture greater resilience capacities.

    From recent research it is clear that significant progress in resilience building requires many committed and diverse players, deep reservoirs of social capital and social intelligence, and significantly greater degrees of trust, genuine collaboration, and commitment to long term public purpose then currently exists in many fractured major metropolitan hubs. Cities can and should lead the way in this process, which is why the Rockefeller Foundation initiative is so timely and potentially valuable. A “Chief Resilience Officer” (CRO) who works “across departments to make sure strong city resilience plans are developed, refreshed, and strengthened over time” could become be a remarkable asset but to put a real dent in urban region resilience deficits, that person will need to work well beyond the confines of city hall and city organization charts. For example, presently all cities have capital budgets and long term planning processes although most don’t mention resilience goals. CROs can remedy that by developing Resilience budget and planning overlays to help cities chart progress toward resilience goals. But it would be politically dangerous and just plain bad planning to do this without including regional nonprofits, faith based organizations, other local jurisdictions and community organizations. Bottom line: CROs will need to spend lots of time out of city hall. Much of that effort will boil down to mobilizing people and communities within the region, building relationships and developing processes in ways that yield sharp increases in social and human development across regions. High craft knowledge, social skills, and capacity to innovate and experiment will be required.

    The Rockefeller Foundation experiment confronts an irony: Resilience is a powerful potential resource that by definition must lay dormant until moments of high octane crises and consequently is at times, too little too late. To cope with these paradoxes, the Rockefeller proposal emboldens cities, creates responsibility and accountability, provides significant incentives, with the hope that vertical and horizontal connections across urban regions and among levels of government will be strengthened and resilience capacities enriched. Cities are often given mandates, some meaningless, that they don’t ask for. This time they are offered resources along with a new and incredibly important leadership responsibility. Like the Rockefeller Foundation, many veteran urban watchers are betting that at least some cities will make the most of this unique opportunity.

  4. Posted June 6, 2013 at 11:18 am | Permalink

    Chief Resilience Officer is a great idea. Their influence can be both local and global, as individuals working in their cities, and as a meshwork of CROs across the planet co-creating a higher-order way of thinking of the relationship between our planet and the city-habitats we create for ourselves.