Julian Spector is a former editorial fellow at CityLab, where he covers climate change, energy, and clean tech.
As the 100 Resilient Cities initiative reaches its namesake goal, the group’s president reflects on challenges and successes thus far.
Preparing for disasters is something of a growth industry. Climate change promises rising sea levels, more intense storms, and searing desertification, even as rapid urbanization puts more pressure on cities to absorb ballooning populations.
To help plan for these and other risks, The Rockefeller Foundation launched the 100 Resilient Cities initiative in 2013. The organization funds a chief resilience officer to work full-time within the government of each participating city to incorporate resilience thinking into the way business is done. The cities then have to produce a resilience strategy, charting out how they will focus their efforts across sectors to be able to bounce back from both sudden shocks and slow-onset disasters. Those officials also network with each other to share their best ideas, and benefit from an array of companies and NGOs that have volunteered their services to help.
100 Resilient Cities announced the final cohort of 37 cities last week, completing the mission of bringing 100 cities into the fold. The new additions represent five continents and a range of risks: Miami is already feeling the effects of sea level rise, Lagos has seen its population boom beyond what its roads can handle, Addis Ababa is prepping for terrorist attacks and rainfall flooding. CityLab sat down with President Michael Berkowitz earlier this month to see how the project has been going so far. The interview has been edited and condensed.
The role of cities in international discussions of climate change has really ballooned in recent years. Have you seen that produce results?
The great thing about cities is they're a lot more tactical and a lot more nimble than nation states. You're able to try a bunch of different things and cities are piloting different solutions to different problems all the time. What has changed with our organization and others is that more and more cities are learning from each other. There's actually a pride in stealing solutions, city to city. It's not like you do it and hope no one notices. It's actually you do it and you feel really good about it. You'll run into mayors who actually brag about, “We saw gondolas and bus rapid transit in Medellín and we went back and we're looking to implement that kind of solution here.”
There are plenty of good ideas, though, that don't spread. What stands in the way?
It's actually harder for it to spread than you would think, and the reason is that cities have such a strong view of how unique they are, how local context matters more than anything else. So while there is all this optimism and energy around cities being a big part of the solution and that national governments are seen to be gridlocked politically and cumbersome and bureaucratic, the thing about cities is that there are 10,000 cities in the world. In order for cities to adopt and change themselves and their predicaments in a meaningful way, they have to get a little less bespoke and a little more commoditized.
That's one of the things we've seen as a real benefit with the way we're helping cities to organize themselves. We're insisting on a fairly high level of fidelity to have a chief resilience officer and do a resilience strategy. Those things we've seen to be really catalytic because then all the different solution providers in the private sector, civil society, the government, start to recognize that. “I understand who that person is, what they're responsible for. We're talking the same language.” That allows solutions to scale in a much more efficient way.
You've spoken about how Paris was attuned to building environmental resilience, but then discovered the risks of terrorism and radicalization. Can they build resilience for both threats at once?
Paris is low density in the middle by zoning, and what that's done is it's pushed all the new development to the outside. Paris has very good sustainable transit options—walkability, cycling, mass transit—in the middle, but once you hit the outer rings of the city that goes away and it's all cars. That's led to the suburbs being filled with new immigrants who don't have a strong connection to Paris proper or even to France or Europe at all.
At the same time, you think about what kind of things you might do to battle heat island effects or air pollution or flooding. There's going to be more green space, more sustainable transportation, a better architecture of where we live and where we work, a densification. All of those things are probably really concrete initiatives that could both address the climate issues as well as the integration issues.
To think about it in a particular project, you might propose an expansion of a cycle share. More cycle sharing is going to be good, but if you're thinking about it from an inclusion lens, you'll think about where that cycle share goes and what transportation it connects to on either end so that you start to integrate those most at-risk communities with larger society and the formal economy of Paris.
In my home town, in Brooklyn, I think one of the good things that the de Blasio administration did was expand the Bloomberg Citi Bike cycle share, and instead of doing it in Park Slope, where the affluent people live, they did it in Bed-Stuy, a community that needs better access to the job centers in lower Midtown Manhattan. What that does is give a community quick cycling access to a big transit hub at Atlantic Yards, and from there they can catch a subway much more quickly into lower Midtown Manhattan. That's a way that you use an inclusion/economic justice lens on what was normally an environmental kind of project.
This strategic approach sounds really practical, but clearly not everyone's doing it. What are the barriers to achieving that?
The barriers are that these projects take a while to get built. There's the first phase, which is the idea stage, which is what cities are engaging with now, figuring out what those possibilities are. Then you have to design it, fund it, and actually build it. All along that whole journey, which could be a couple of years, five years, a decade or more, you have lots of different risks for that project. Some are political. Over 10 or 15 years you might have two or three political cycles, so that gives it time to be unwound.
Resilient design is every bit as much about the process as it is about the product. Doing it with lots of community input, with strong stakeholder buy-in, with a consensus approach, that's the best inoculation against political risk. That makes it harder for a new mayor to come in and unwind it. It's not easy, there are lots of reasons why it hasn't worked before, but that's the best.
That sounds like meta-resilience. The resilient project needs to use resilient methods to ensure its own survival.
For sure. And you could argue that, if done well, even if the project doesn't get built, all of that community engagement and that process and those discussions will lead in their own different ways to a stronger community, to different spin-off ideas. The connections that were made, the risks understood, will make you more resilient even in the absence of a big infrastructure project being built.
Another obstacle is that it’s hard to value the risk cities are exposed to when they're not resilient. What's the best method you've seen for putting that price tag on resilience?
This is the next great frontier of what this field needs to do. We're starting to work with this community—investors, insurers, rating agencies, regulators, all of the people who value capital one way or another.
There's a difference between resilient infrastructure and infrastructure that builds resilience. Resilient infrastructure is the bridge that doesn't fall down in the flood. Infrastructure that builds resilience is the piece of infrastructure that promotes transportation or integration, that builds the fabric of the city in the strongest possible way. We're going to get better at building and valuing resilient infrastructure. You can take your 50- or 100-year risk scenarios and say, does this or doesn't this meet those standards. That's an engineering question.
The much harder thing is to say how can we value the benefits or costs of something like the Cross-Bronx Expressway. The Cross-Bronx Expressway certainly moved as many cars as Robert Moses promised it would when they built it, and it hasn't fallen down despite many, many disasters over time. And yet, the costs of it to the resilience footprint of New York City—creating the South Bronx, “the Bronx is burning,” the riots after the '77 blackout, all of that decade or two that New York has just emerged from, a lot of that came from that decision to build the Cross-Bronx Expressway and sever a functioning neighborhood in half.
Infrastructure is a great double-edged sword. If you do it right, it's amazing for the city. If you do it wrong, it fucks your city up for decades. We have to have a gold standard for how we understand the effects of a particular intervention on the resilience footprint.
Then it's getting regulators to incentivize banks making loans for that kind of infrastructure. It's rating agencies giving favorable treatment to cities or projects that are doing things in a resilient way. We saw the first little nugget of this when Moody's looked at the Hampton Roads area where Norfolk is. Moody's could have downgraded Norfolk because it's one of the most at-risk areas, but they held Norfolk stable and they cited the planning that Norfolk had done as part of the work our CRO had undertaken. You think about how much that saved the city and the region in terms of being able to borrow money in the future, the cost of capital. We love that example, because that's the first glimpse of what this shift that we're talking about might look like.
It costs more up front, though, to do this resilience work, and then it pays off in the long run. How do you sell that to a city that doesn't have any cash to spare?
Cities, even developing cities, are already spending lots of money. It's a question of doing that better. We did this 10 percent pledge where cities would pledge 10 percent of their budgets, both capital and operational, to resilience, and it's actually kind of a softball. What it did is it started to integrate the CRO and resilience thinking with the budget thinking. They started to understand, “Oh, we're already spending a lot on this, how can we do this just a little bit smarter?”
The nice thing about integrating shocks and stresses is that the benefit from tackling stresses is there now, because they're current, they're on you. If you fix high levels of crime and violence in Medellín, you can see that. If you fix chronic cholera in Accra, Ghana, you can see that year on year. If you fix transportation infrastructure issues in Mexico City and reduce people's commute times, you realize that benefit. You don't have to wait for the low-probability, high-impact Hurricane Sandy. You can realize some of those benefits now.
Are you worried about a divergence, over time, where the wealthy cities can afford to prepare for these long-term risks, like climate change, and the poorer cities can't?
Yeah, I am. It's wealthy and poor, and this lines up the same but another way to look at it is growing rapidly and basically stable. There are cities all over the developing world that are growing at such a pace that they can barely get their hands around it. That's where you just have new people living in new settlements in new slums before you even know that they're there. That is absolutely a big challenge.
One of the things we've found both in the developed and the developing regions is that cities, just generally as a rule, are basically fighting fire day in and day out. What a chief resilience officer has is the luxury to think more strategically about some of the wicked problems that they face and set a new course. It's outside of that fire-fighting ecosystem.