A community march against police violence winds through Berkeley, California. REUTERS/Noah Berger

The Bay Area city hopes that strengthening neighborhood bonds will help the community bounce back from a disaster.

Berkeley, California, is a small city facing some large-scale challenges. There are the environmental: the Hayward fault line runs straight through the city, and the California drought and the impending effects of sea level rise on the San Francisco Bay pose threats of fires and floods. And there are the social: despite its progressive history, socioeconomic and racial inequity persist in Berkeley, and have only been exacerbated by the regional tech boom.

These are not isolated challenges, says Timothy Burroughs, Berkeley’s chief resilience officer. Mirroring the thesis of John C. Mutter’s 2015 book, The Disaster Profiteers, “we know that social inequality corresponds to a greater vulnerability to structural and environmental threats,” Burroughs says. “So if our challenges are interconnected, our solution must be, too.”

Which is where Berkeley’s Resilience Strategy comes in. The Bay Area city was among the first selected to participate in the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities challenge; it released its Resilience Strategy—the first in the Bay Area and the sixth in the world—at the beginning of April. In it, the city outlines a plan for addressing its myriad threats, but it begins with an unconventional first step—strengthening bonds between neighbors.

That this unique approach comes out of Berkeley is not surprising. The small city has long been a stealth innovation hub; it was the first city in the nation to offer curbside recycling, and the first to require that energy and water-saving measures be implemented whenever a commercial building is renovated or sold. The 100RC board, Burroughs says, “looked to our ambitious 2009 Climate Action Plan… and it looked to our local Hazard Mitigation Plan, which has become a model for many other cities—they saw that we have these significant challenges, but also the capability to address them in an integrated way.”

Berkeley is known for a politically and environmentally engaged community. Here, a protester at the Berkeley Marina stands against California’s controversial 2014 water bond measure. (REUTERS/Robert Galbraith )

By putting community building at the core of citywide resilience, Berkeley aims to invert the tendency for neighborhoods and communities to come together in the wake of a disaster, Burroughs says. The neighborhoods that fare best after an emergency are often the ones where people know each other. Berkeley’s resilience strategy “is designed to foster these connections before the next earthquake, rather than having too many of us realize their importance only in the aftermath,” Burroughs adds.

At the center of that plan is the new Community Resilience Center program, which links the city in partnership with pre-existing organizations, like the social-justice focused La Peña Cultural Center, which will offer disaster preparedness training and provide free disaster supply caches. While Berkeley has a robust system of preparedness programs already in place, like a Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) training class, “only a minority of people were taking advantage of the programs, and they tended to be only the more well-to-do residents who live in North Berkeley,” Burroughs says. The new partnerships will be established primarily in lower-income areas of the city like West and South Berkeley; they “are specifically designed to improve access to residents who have been underserved in the past,” Burroughs says.

West and South Berkeley are also most at-risk for structural damage in the event of a disaster. West Berkeley, which borders the Bay, struggles with flooding, and lower-income residents, Burroughs says, are by and large more likely to live in buildings that have not been seismically upgraded. The resilience strategy addresses those disparities while simultaneously strengthening the city through more abstract neighborhood connections. For example, the city will appoint Neighborhood Disaster Preparedness Liaisons who will communicate the needs of their specific residents with the local government.

The concept of strengthening these communication channels extends to the Bay Area region as well, Burroughs says. Alongside Berkeley, San Francisco and Oakland were also selected to participate in the challenge (San Francisco’s strategy was released in April, and Oakland’s will follow soon). The three cities “are the only regional grouping chosen by 100RC,” Burroughs says. “I think there was a lot of wisdom in that selection.”

Much like how Berkeley’s resilience strategy aims to bridge neighborhood divisions, the three Bay Area cities have opened up channels of communication to address their shared concerns. Burroughs and the chief resilience officers from San Francisco and Oakland are collaborating on a scheme to address sustainable water use in the face of a drought situation that could become “the new normal,” he says. They aim to host a regional summit around the topic in the fall. The Bay Area officers have also taken a leaf out of post-Hurricane Sandy disaster response and are launching a Resilience by Design competition—modeled after the Tri-State area’s Rebuild By Design program—which will bring together design teams from all over the world to address regionally specific needs.

Burroughs says there’s much other cities can derive from Berkeley’s initiative—specifically the emphasis on building up from the community level. “But our resilience strategy,” he says, “is also the product of lessons from a whole network of global innovators.” The 100RC competition encourages cities to address resilience at a local level, but it also points to the fact that such concerns are growing increasingly universal.

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