Laura Bliss is CityLab’s west coast bureau chief, covering transportation and technology. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
The Rockefeller Foundation’s global climate-resilience initiative will shutter by summer. But cities say the work must go on.
In Accra, Ghana, some 70 percent of commuters get around by trotro—privately operated minibuses that charge just a couple of quarters per trip. But trotros are also a bane. Drivers are notorious rule-breakers, jamming intersections and causing crashes. The aging vehicles lack seatbelts and emit noxious fumes that deteriorate Accra’s already poor air.
Trotros neared the top of the list when Accra launched an assessment of its civic weak spots last year, under the mantle of 100 Resilient Cities. That’s the Rockefeller Foundation-sponsored urban resilience network, of which Accra is one of 80 global members. In March 2018, 100 Resilient Cities convened Accra’s elected leaders and international development groups to talk about how transportation challenges, in addition to poor sanitation and flooding, threatened the city’s resilience to fires, cholera outbreaks, and other shocks. Representatives from the Agence Française de Développement, the International Finance Corporation, and the Japan International Cooperation Agency listened in.
The meeting was pretty successful: Towards the end, AFD approached the city with an offer to fund its efforts to upgrade trotros, remembers James Mensah, Accra’s chief resilience officer. A year later, Accra has just released its completed resilience assessment and is working out details with AFD over a large grant. The city hopes to leverage more funding for other projects through its auspicious affiliation with the Rockefeller group. “They have been a very, very important platform for us,” Mensah told CityLab last week.
This is just one example of how 100 Resilient Cities is helping an urbanized corner of the planet become a safer, stronger community. But such opportunities are likely coming to a close. Earlier this month, the Rockefeller Foundation, the U.S.-based philanthropy devoted to promoting “the well-being of humanity throughout the world,” announced plans to wind down financial support for this resilience program. Launched in 2013, 100 Resilient Cities had become one of the largest privately funded climate-change initiatives in the world.
Starting in July, 100 Resilient Cities will no longer have dedicated staff. Its work, which has been supported by $164 million from Rockefeller in six years of existence, will be directed to other “pathways,” according to a statement by 100 Resilient Cities President Michael Berkowitz. A new resilience office within the Rockefeller Foundation will be tasked in part with honoring existing commitments to member cities; some $12 million in funding will provide severance and job-placement assistance to the roughly 85 employees of 100 Resilient Cities. Rockefeller has also given a $30 million grant to the Adrienne Arsht Center for Resilience at the Atlantic Council, a separate climate change-focused global philanthropy. “The work will continue, but it will look different,” said Matt Herrick, a communications director at the Rockefeller Foundation.
Details are vague on exactly how much support will remain in place for existing member cities. 100 Resilient Cities had set out to fund 100 chief resilience officer (or CRO) positions in municipal governments around the world, and it got to 80. The program had shepherded the creation of resilience strategies in 49 of those 80 cities, including Accra.
Now, as cities endeavor to implement plans for disaster-proof infrastructure, improved civic cohesion, and other projects that tie into their localized definition of “resilience,” they are wondering how they might do so in the absence of the high-profile organization’s robust offerings—financial support, planning expertise, private-sector connections, and a forum to exchange ideas and best practices.
That forum is “the most powerful thing that Rockefeller has created,” said Piero Pelizzaro, the chief resilience officer of Milan, which is in the process of developing its resilience strategy. “Our daily exchange with other CROs and the mutual learning that went on let us make improvements every day.”
From Rockefeller’s opulent real-world events to simple email follow-ups, every CRO has an example of how 100 RC facilitated ideas-sharing. In the Hague, CRO Anne-Marie Hitipeuw-Gribnau learned how to strengthen cybersecurity after a visit by a contingent of officials from a recently-hacked Atlanta. Los Angeles, San Francisco, Santiago, and Mexico City had regular exchanges about protections against seismic activity.
Milan is keen to copy Paris’s plans to turn schoolyards into green oases, in order to cool down its urban heat island effect, Pelizzaro said. Although there isn’t much federal support for climate-change planning in Italy, the biggest loss from Rockefeller won’t be the funding for city staff and local projects, he said: “What we’re really losing here is the network.”
Now, Pelizzaro and other European CROs are coordinating to express their desire to Rockefeller to maintain the network’s presence, perhaps with an office in London. They are communicating among themselves about possible pathways for funding and operations, and will soon send a letter to Rockefeller with some kind of proposal. “We want to find a way to keep the network alive, with the same name and same brand,” said Pelizzaro. “That’s what is recognized around the world.”
Why 100 Resilient Cities is winding down now isn’t completely clear. Some news reports have attributed the move to a new set of priorities from the Rockefeller Foundation’s president, Raj Shah, who replaced Judith Rodin in 2017. Herrick insisted that Rockefeller is continuing its commitment to urban resilience, and said that the program’s “transition” was a sign that the organization “had reached a certain level of accomplishment.” And the program was never designed to last indefinitely. But sources close to the foundation dispute that the program had fulfilled its mission, indicating that the foundation had promised another large injection of funding earlier this year.
And, at the end of 2018, the Urban Institute released its first public report from an ongoing evaluation of 100 Resilient Cities’ efforts (paid for by Rockefeller), which had documented several points of success. “The network was critical in terms of providing technical expertise,” said Carlos Martín, a senior fellow in the Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center at the Urban Institute and the author of the report. Based on tax documents, Rockefeller’s funding to 100 Resilient Cities had been growing in recent years, from $25.5 million in 2015, to $30 million in 2016, to $35 million in 2017, with plans to make the program operationally independent. (Its grants to local and foreign governments were separate from those amounts.)
The program was never perfect, though. Some early member cities bristled at the pedantic project prescriptions and rigid timelines that the organization imposed, Martín found. And even as 100 Resilient Cities loosened its expectations, a more fundamental challenge remained, he said: whether short-term milestones were really useful for the very long-term projects required to gird cities against natural disasters, social ruptures, and the compounding effects of climate change. “These things take decades to get off the ground," he said.
Still, local affiliates of 100 Resilient Cities had come to rely on the support they’d found in one another, and on the imprimatur of the Rockefeller Foundation. And in city halls around the world, the news about their prestigious partner came as a shock. Chief resilience officers in Milan and the Hague said that they first learned of Rockefeller’s plans to sunset the organization through news reports. In Accra, Mensah hadn’t heard of the development until CityLab notified him in a request for an interview.
The shuttering of 100 Resilient Cities may also be an indication of the risk of governments relying on private funding for such existentially critical work as planning for natural disasters, social shocks, and climate change.
“Entities working with foundations and philanthropists need to be focused on exit planning from the very beginning of the funding relationship,” said Lucy Bernholz, a senior research scholar at Stanford University’s Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society. “The public should not allow itself to be fooled by philanthropic promises—foundation dollars will always move on.”
Moving on without 100 Resilient Cities may prove easiest in the U.S. Chief resilience officers in Pittsburgh, Norfolk, and Honolulu all suggested that while the news about 100 RC was unfortunate, it was not entirely unexpected—nor did it spell disaster for their climate resiliency plans. “They are a valuable resource in building Norfolk’s resilience strategy and we are continuing the work,” said Christine Morris, chief resilience officer for the City of Norfolk. In the U.S., even with a president who openly denies climate change, government support and capacity for resilience planning exists in relatively good supply. And there are other philanthropic foundations that could help fill the resilience-planning void that Rockefeller will leave, Martin said, such as Kresge, Doris Duke, and Switzer.
But moving forward without the network may be harder in developing countries. Although climate adaptation funds are available from multilateral institutions like the United Nations and World Bank, cities with fewer resources and weaker institutions may have fewer opportunities to meet with private funders and convene with global colleagues. In Accra, the work of resilience won’t stop in the absence of 100 Resilient Cities, Mensah said, “but it will be a major challenge for us. We will continue the work, but it will be very slow. 100 RC is a big platform. We’ll link faster if it exists.”