photo: an empty street in NYC
In cities now silenced by coronavirus, what will recovery look like? Gabby Jones/Bloomberg

Urban resilience expert Michael Berkowitz shares ideas about how U.S. cities can come back stronger from the social and economic disruption of coronavirus.

Michael Berkowitz is a student of disaster, and a guru on how cities weather them. As the former executive director of the nonprofit consultancy 100 Resilient Cities, and now as founding principal at the similar Resilient Cities Catalyst, he has worked with dozens of local governments around the world to plan for hurricanes, droughts, earthquakes, terrorist attacks, mass shootings, disease outbreaks, and other social shocks.

Now, as a global catastrophe unfolds in the form of coronavirus, Berkowitz is trying to think ahead as he shelters at home in New York City. He’s looking for signs of how communities will survive the aftermath, as well as for opportunities to strengthen resilience now in the face of social and economic disruption.

“The key is to think about linking various objectives together,” he said over the phone. “How can one particular intervention succeed in strengthening a city across a lot of different areas?”

Berkowitz, who also served as deputy commissioner of New York City’s office of emergency management in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks and has done global risk management at Deutsche Bank, spoke with CityLab over the phone on Thursday. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

First: Define this concept of resilience in cities. What is it, and how do you build it?

Urban resilience is the ability or capacity of a city to survive and thrive in face of disaster, any kind of disaster. It turns out that the capacities that cities — or states, or nations — need to survive and thrive in the face of all these different threats are pretty broad. It includes good infrastructure that promotes mobility and sustainable transportation. It’s also cohesive communities where neighbors check in on neighbors. It’s a diverse economy with a strong middle-class jobs base. It’s good governance with multiple stakeholders at a decision-making table. All of those things help communities overcome whatever the next crisis might be.

To build resilience, the trick is linking different goals together. When you’re doing economic development, how can you also make yourself better protected for floods? When thinking about mobility, how can you increase biodiversity or reduce exposure to extreme heat? When thinking about governance and community engagement, how do you build trust and confidence in elected officials so that in crisis situations people listen to and follow the advice of elected leaders?

What are the best examples of good governance you’ve seen so far in the coronavirus response?

Well, one observation is how governors seem to be having much more impact than mayors during this pandemic, because they’ve been able to have a remit across various administrative boundaries. In New York state, the first cluster of case was north of the city in Westchester County, in New Rochelle. By now, obviously New York  [City] has seen the majority of cases. But while the mayor has been important spokesperson, the governor has wielded much more power and has been able to unify the state around Westchester. It’s been the state that has acted more quickly around testing, setting up the drive-through testing sites, including one in the city.

So that’s been in an interesting example of state authority, which I never would have expected, by the way. In old East Coast cities, with their protocols and histories and legal authorities for public health emergencies because they dealt with smallpox, tuberculosis, cholera, and other plagues of old, I would have thought that mayors would be in the driver’s seat with this. But it feels like governors are leading the charge.

How would you rate the resilience that the U.S. has shown so far?

Michael Kimmelman wrote this week in the New York Times about how pandemics are anti-urban because the things we value in cities, like density and connection, are the things that are least desirable during a pandemic. That’s true — but only in the response phase, which we’re in right now. The things that we need now are very particular: It’s public health surveillance and testing capacity. It’s the ability to innovate and produce therapies, whether those are vaccines or anti-viral treatments. It’s surge capacities in hospitals, whether it’s ventilators and masks or more beds. It’s the ability of the public to absorb and adhere to advice that we’re getting about protective measures to take.

But one way or another, in the coming months or later, we will break the chain of transmission. Then we’re going to look up and have our small businesses hurting or closed, our most poor and vulnerable people suffering, lots of people in the middle class who didn’t have safety nets or full-time employment looking for work, the stigmatization of various ethnic, racial, or demographic groups who we think might have done things to put us at risk — all of this is going to stress our society so significantly.

And when that next phase hits, that’s when we’ll see benefits of urban resilience — of neighbors checking in on each other, strong neighborhood institutions, diverse economies, good governance. Those things will pay off in ways that will let us rebound from this situation and hopefully let us build stronger communities.

The thing is, we’re still so early in. A week of staying at home feels like forever, but we’re just at the very tip of the iceberg in many ways. We’ll see which communities are more or less resilient in the next months and years to come.

What kinds of actions should communities take now to prepare for that second phase?  

I feel like it’s a little premature, since we’re still on a steep upslope of trying to flatten the curve and making sure our hospitals and medical system can make it through intact. But I will say that when Congress starts talking about delivering aid to people, institutions, and businesses, that’s when you start to think about the resilience-building opportunities we might have.

What might some of those opportunities be?

In the U.S., there is probably going to be a jobs stimulus. And that will likely come with a lot of new infrastructure that we build. That gives us this incredible opportunity to build more resilient infrastructure and to engage communities as we do it, since they’re going to live with it for generations. We should also talk about climate change mitigation and adaptation, because if we’re potentially going to get a whole new generation of infrastructure because of this pandemic, then we have to do it better than last generation. Meaning, like, no highways that segregate communities from economic centers.

We should also set new goals — we have the tools to think about economic development, public health, biodiversity, and flood control all at once. We have the beginnings of examples of what those types of projects look like, such as building large swaths of green infrastructure to protect cities from sea level rise, like the BIG U in Manhattan.

There will also be any number of different aid packages to promote economic development and community institutions, in and out of government. With the right guidelines we can make sure those investments work for multiple benefits. One example is how, after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans saw itself as overexposed to climate change as well as the petrochemical industry. Over the past five years, the city has tried to incubate a water management sector that the city could then export as a core competency, in the way the Dutch do. So how do cities diversify economies in a way that solves multiple goals, whether it’s racial justice or mobility or health.

One last idea — I haven’t thought too much about this yet, but it seems like we’re going to bail out the airline industry. Well, what if we took some of that money and dedicated it to high-speed rail? That’d be huge. And what if we used the bailout money to push airlines towards carbon neutrality sooner than they’d normally get there? They are a huge contributor to the climate crisis.

What a good idea. Congress, are you listening?

Right. I just know [U.S. Secretary of the Treasury] Steve Mnuchin is going to read this, call me up, and just get on this.

These are large-scale changes to improve the resiliency of infrastructure and economies — what about for individuals or neighborhoods? What can they do to strengthen our collective recovery?

Even action at really small scales can feel great and start to set an example of what is possible. You can imagine that if we’re in for a prolonged economic downturn our most vulnerable communities will feel that first and in the most pronounced ways. When these shelter-in-place or social distancing restrictions are lifted, people are going to come out in a real big way. Wouldn’t it be great if we harnessed some of that to improve what our streetscapes look like, in a way that adds greenery and reduces trash and just really improves things?

One example: There is great evidence about how taking small abandoned parcels of land and rejuvenating them can transform a community. A study published in JAMA from a couple of years ago surveyed people living near vacant lots that were cleaned up and replanted for just a really small amount of money. The researchers found a 41.5% reduction in people who reported feeling depressed, and a 62.8% reduction in poor mental health. That’s astounding. Small interventions can work. People taking initiative to make things better will be appreciated when this thing lifts.  

What are some other ways that individuals can help?

I do think that there is a lot to be said for patronizing local businesses and being intentional about that. Right now, Amazon is doing really well, and while I don’t want to talk badly about them, it’s worth thinking about the local small- and medium-sized enterprises which will be hard hit. And there might be some innovative ways to help them.

At 100 Resilient Cities, we had a really interesting platform partner called Colu, a cryptocurrency [Ed: Colu no longer operates as a cryptocurrency] that lets you set up a local virtual currency as a way to reward different kinds of behavior. It let people get credits by participating in civic activities or volunteer work, and then they could spend that through local institutions. It was deployed in Tel Aviv. When we’re talking about depressed economies, that could be an interesting way of kickstarting things like civic participation, which I think will be really important.

It’s obviously true that more crises await us in the future — but one thing that is especially hard about this one is the total lack of certainty about the duration. It’s hard to imagine the future because the end of coronavirus — with all of its human, social, emotional, and economic costs — is so difficult to make out. As someone who has a lot of experience with disaster, do you have any advice or remarks for those of us struggling with the scale and uncertainty of all this?

I haven’t been through a big public health emergency like this before, but yes, I’d say a couple of things. One, we know there can be an amazing bond among people who survive things like this together. The sociologist Enrico Quarantelli found that in disasters and immediately after there is a lot of good will and community spirit. As many of us are seeing now and hearing anecdotally, people are smiling more and helping each other. This sense that we’ll get through this together is really important.

I’d also say that, again, I do think we’re going to have an amazing opportunity to transform ourselves, our communities, and our economies with all the stimulus that is likely coming. But ironically, and painfully, we might be least prepared to do that. In most disasters I’ve seen, which have been physical, there is just not the ability to think strategically in that way. Too often after a hurricane or a big earthquake, where communities have a real opportunity to think more holistically about how to rebuild, they just can’t — it’s just human to just put things back like they were and not make them better. In Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, or in Christchurch following their big earthquake, and in New Orleans after Katrina — in all of those cases, initially there was not the bandwidth to think about things more strategically until like five years down the line. Initially, there are just too many people hurting.

So that will be a big question. Will we have the strategic gumption to make things better?

That is the $1 trillion question right now for our leaders. So let me go back to a smaller scale. How can individuals prepare to hold their elected officials accountable to that kind of change?

After this crisis in particular, where transmission is person-to-person and your neighbors are potentially the ones getting you sick, it will be important not to just retreat behind our screens and phones. We know that cities with the strongest and most robust civic networks pull through the best in disaster — the more you know your neighbors and understand your community boards and really can get engaged, the stronger and more resilient you are.

If we can get engaged with each other, we can be more prepared for the next thing that is coming. Thinking really intentionally about how to build more resiliency with every intervention we take is going to be critical to taking this crisis and turning it into an opportunity. Just because we’re focused rightly on this incredible thing does not mean there are not more crises waiting for us. Because, look, hurricane season starts in June.

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