Rockefeller Foundation

A conversation with 100 Resilient Cities president Michael Berkowitz.

They’ve been talking about climate change at the United Nations again this week —talking and talking and talking. It’s the latest chapter of a conversation that has been going on for more than 20 years. And still the CO2 emissions are rising, and still the politicians are dragging their feet, and still the prospect of meaningful action seems frustratingly distant.

Meanwhile, leaders of the world’s cities are increasingly aware that they don’t have any more time to wait. Big-picture measures to reduce emissions and mitigate climate change may not be within the control of the world’s mayors. But they can prepare their cities for what is to come.

Last year, the Rockefeller Foundation launched the 100 Resilient Cities initiative, a program that aims to help cities face the challenges of the 21st century, including climate change and its attendant disruptions, by giving them funding and professional assistance. There are 32 in the program so far, including Bangkok, Rotterdam, Christchurch, Durban, Ramallah, Rio de Janeiro, and Oakland. Each city chosen to participate is given funds to hire a “chief resiliency officer” and assisted in developing a resilience strategy. The cities are linked in a network that will allow them to learn from one another, and also have access to assistance from Rockefeller partners from the private and nonprofit sectors, including the insurance giant Swiss Re, the Nature Conservancy, and the Sandia National Laboratories. The next round of cities to be chosen for the program will be announced in December.

Heading up the 100 Resilient Cities effort is Michael Berkowitz, who has a background both in the private sector—he was previously deputy global head of operational risk management for Deutsche Bank—and in the public arena, where he served as deputy commissioner of New York City’s Office of Emergency Management.

Berkowitz spoke with CityLab by phone this week about how cities get things done even when nations can’t, how infrastructure isn’t always the biggest challenge a city faces, and the limitations of philanthropy. This interview has been edited and condensed.

What’s the strategy behind the 100 Resilient Cities challenge?

100 Resilient Cities is really about two ideas. One is that cities are complex ecosystems. And when I say cities, I’m not talking about municipal governments here, but rather all of the stakeholders that make up cities—the different interests and the different perspectives and the different levels of government and the different sectors.

The other is that too often cities don’t leverage existing solutions—whether that’s funding or technical assistance or new technologies or best practices or whatever—they don’t leverage that efficiently enough. We often roll into cities, and, you know, the people who are working on seismic and the people who are working on climate change in the same neighborhoods are meeting each other for the first time at our workshop. We think that better coordination and integration will be powerful and will hopefully move the needle.

What we’re trying to do is solve for the complexity of cities and help them organize themselves better.

So how is it going since you named the first 32 cities last December?

Resilience-building, really changing the way cities work, is going to take some time. And this is a long-term process. What you can do in a year or two is you can change the street furniture. But to really make a city more resilient against floods, earthquakes, sectarian unrest, economic collapse, or whatever, that’s the work of a generation.

I would say that we’re seeing some early successes. We’ve begun to see collaboration between nontraditional stakeholders and partners. We’re seeing places where folks working around transportation, economic development, community-building, and so on, are starting to connect the dots in different ways. And so those are things that are heartening.

And we certainly have seen a change in the way cities are talking about their issues and their opportunities. Having resilience as a much more forward part of the conversation is something that’s very encouraging to us.

Could you talk about the role of the private sector?

I do think that the private sector is key. Philanthropy can’t solve the world’s problems. We need to be able to bring the power of market forces to bear on some of these challenges.

The private sector in many cities have the most assets, they deal directly with the majority of the citizens, they are a big piece of what makes the city the city. And so making sure the private sector is an important voice and stakeholder and really bringing that perspective to the planning work that is going on is a really important piece.

The second piece is trying to spur the private sector to think about more resilient solutions, to understand that they need to help cities invest in those.

We see this chief resilience officer as a catalytic single point of contact for innovative private sector partners to plug into, to work with. That will be an important step. The big firms, the Siemens and the IBMs of the world, who have begun to think about selling enterprise solutions to cities, I know don’t always find that to be an easy task. Because cities don’t generally buy enterprise solutions and don’t think about it in that way. They buy much more silo-based solutions for particular problems.

So it’s our hope that the chief resilience officer will be able to span that and take a broader view, to be a partner to some of the private-sector providers in a more holistic way.

Do you see, in your travels and your interactions with government officials, greater awareness of the hazards that climate change is going to bring in the future? And how forthrightly do you think that leaders are facing the threats that are imminent?

I do think there is greater awareness, for sure. And I do think in the absence of global leadership and national leadership, that cities are taking the lead. What we’re trying to do is to really push cities to think about, in the absence of exact threat information, what you can do in any case to help strengthen your posture.

Talk about the importance of social and human infrastructure as a component of resilience. How can your initiatives help foster those networks?

A lot of folks get into the resilience discussion through infrastructure, but in my mind social cohesion and social networks are often the key difference between more resilient and less resilient cities.

We take a very broad view of what makes a city resilient. It’s good public health and emergency response, but it’s also diverse and inclusive economies and opportunities for employment. It’s cohesive communities, it’s low levels of corruption, it’s a high level of perceived fairness, it’s good stewardship of the built and natural environments. How many cities do you see that have deforested the adjoining hillsides, and the rains come and the mudslides happen? It’s a good facilitation of transportation, mobility of people and data, and it’s integrated leadership. It’s all of those things.

And as part of our process we help take cities through an analysis of where they are, so that they can begin to target and focus in on what their challenges are. So cities might have great infrastructure, but really poor community cohesion. And we have a number of different partners that we hope will help cities identify that and build that cohesion.

You’re probably familiar with the Eric Klinenberg work around the Chicago heat wave. That’s the classic example, right? Two communities with similar socioeconomic status, but one was coming apart and had poor structure and the other was a very tight, cohesive community. And you had radically different death rates.

That to me is one of the key differentiators for cities and how they survive different events.

The reason I like to start cities with looking at a holistic diagnosis of their capacities is that it’s free of trying to figure out what the next hazard is, what the cause of the next disaster will be.

I spent a good part of the ’90s in New York City helping to plan for hurricanes. And then two planes flew into two buildings. We used a lot of those plans, around debris management, damage assessment, fatality and casualty management. We used those. But it underscores, you never know what the next thing is going to be. Trying to look at it more holistically will help you to be better prepared for whatever comes, whether it’s an earthquake, a flood, a riot, a blackout.

The same way that if you’re a fit individual, you’ll be more likely to recover quickly from a virus or a trauma.

It’s an analogy we often use.

I would say one other thing: Working along those lines also helps you make your city more livable, sustainable, and prosperous for the good times as well. The work you do around community-building or enhancing the transportation system or improving the infrastructure, that’s what we’re starting to call here at Rockefeller, “the resilience dividend.” It’s the ancillary benefits of working around resilience that helps you in peacetime as well.

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