The Death and Life of the Resilient City Movement
Resilience, in the most basic sense, is the ability to not only recover from shocks and stresses but to build back better. So it is safe to say that the Rockefeller-funded organization known as 100 Resilient Cities (100RC)—which was disbanded effective August 2019—turned out to be quite resilient. Formed in the wake of Superstorm Sandy in 2012, the 80-plus person, multimillion-dollar initiative spent five years building a coalition of cities to plan, develop, and implement strategies to address climate change and foster resilience in the U.S. and around the world. The organization’s early demise was an unexpected shock, and yet was not nearly as shocking as what came next: Within six months, the world would be engulfed in a 100-year pandemic.
“We could have gotten jobs doing other things, but we felt compelled to continue this work, and it turns out that was important,” says Michael Berkowitz, the former executive director of 100 Resilient Cities. The leadership of 100RC quickly began forming two independent organizations: The first to launch, Global Resilient Cities Network, serves as a platform for regional directors to maintain the coalition of cities created by 100RC. The second organization, announced in January just as Covid-19 was beginning to spread around the world, is Resilient Cities Catalyst (RCC). RCC carries forward the knowledge gleaned from developing and implementing data-driven resilience projects in the face of climate change. “At RCC, we are like monks guarding the sacred scrolls,” he jokes.
But the new organization is not just hand-writing replicas of received wisdom. With a more nimble and flexible approach, RCC maintains its core mission to prepare for the era of climate change, but applies a few important lessons learned. “100RC focused on cities as the entry point,” says Berkowitz. “With Resilient Cities Catalyst, we intentionally built in the flexibility to scale it up and down.”
THE NEIGHBORHOOD SCALE
The city-centric approach predominated in the early days of climate change thinking—especially in the U.S., where regional and federal-level planning is almost nonexistent. This fact naturally focused efforts where cities have an existing budget and can control the process, such as infrastructure and urban design projects. But as the movement matured, it became clear that resilience depends as much on social cohesion as the built environment. To that end, RCC is intentionally working at the neighborhood level, as well as the regional scale (more on that later).
RCC founding principal Corinne LeTourneau’s work with the Brownsville Partnership in Brooklyn is instructive. This community-based advocacy organization undertakes a wide array of social sustainability initiatives but constantly bumps up against outdated programmatic and funding structures along the way to achieving its goals. One idea RCC is prototyping with the Brownsville Partnership is to reimagine nonprofits operating at the intersection of city government and local residents—such as Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) and Park Conservancies—by taking a data-driven approach to collaboration, engagement and perhaps more importantly, resource allocation.
“So our theory is, in the 1970s there were new institutions developed in that crisis, like BIDs,” says LeTourneau. “What is the 21st century model for neighborhood improvement? Do we want to defund the police by moving money from one pot to another, or is there a data-driven, Universal Basic Income–type approach to all the resources coming into a neighborhood? Another idea is, the network we developed among cities at 100RC was very successful. Could that happen at the community level, where expertise and professional resources are shared?”
These lines of inquiry speak to another lesson that is being applied by RCC: learning by doing, rather than learning by planning. The previous organization typically started its work with cities by assisting with the funding of a chief resilience officer and the development of a comprehensive resilience plan, which could take more than a year to develop. “We aren’t emphasizing the big weighty strategies as an entry point,” says Berkowitz. “There is something really useful about going in and doing a project to demonstrate what the resilience lens is all about.”
RCC is demonstrating that lens in Minneapolis, where the previous organization had funded a chief resilience officer and resilience plan. Now, on a pro bono basis, RCC is assisting the E. 38th Street community, where George Floyd was killed. Jeb Brugmann, a founding principal of RCC with 35 years of experience in the global sustainability arena, is providing data analysis to inform an economic development plan that is focused on creating opportunities without ushering in gentrification.
One idea to emerge from the data is to cultivate local restaurants and food industry workers to expand into catering. The benefits are twofold: restaurant owners and workers make up a substantial portion of the economic activity in the neighborhood, but catering has a higher rate of return. What’s more, this approach would enable businesses to export their product to other parts of the city without drawing in “food tourists,” which can lead to displacement.
If this work sounds like it has gotten pretty far away from its origins, RCC has numerous climate change projects at the regional scale as well. But another key lesson learned is, rather than thinking of social justice as one of many factors that needs addressing, RCC has centered social justice as the surest pathway to resilience, regardless of the challenge—be it a pandemic, sea level rise, wildfires, police brutality, or economic inequality.
“Think of shocks as the risk of exposure and stresses as the vulnerability,” Brugmann explains. “Together, they determine resilience.”
“Think of shocks as the risk of exposure and stresses as the vulnerability,” Brugmann explains. “Together, they determine resilience.” In other words, the shock in this case was the murder of George Floyd, who was clearly at high risk for police brutality. The ongoing stress, experienced by Floyd and his community, is a diminishment of economic opportunity. Both require systemic change to achieve resilience. So when the inevitable next shock happens, the community will be better equipped to handle it because stress will have been reduced.
“100RC was critiqued as taking a ‘bounce back’ approach,” Brugmann continues. “Now we focus on ‘bouncing forward.’ Without understanding resilience as part of a strategy to achieve the community’s vision for itself, it’s always about recovering and that is not optimal.”
THE COUNTY SCALE
Many “traditional” climate change issues can’t be addressed at the city scale, either, such as wildfires and coastal erosion. RCC’s latest work in Southern California to address both demonstrates the evolution of resilience thinking in just a few years. In November 2018, the Woolsey Fire in Ventura County, just north of Los Angeles, burned 97,000 acres, destroyed 1,643 structures, and forced the evacuation of nearly 300,000 people. Two other fires started earlier the same day—notably the Camp Fire, which leveled Paradise in Northern California and commandeered a lot of the state’s emergency response resources. Fortunately, only three people were killed by the Woolsey Fire despite dramatic images of thick smoke billowing over the wealthy enclave of Malibu.
The less-visible impact, however, occurred in the small municipalities and farming communities in Ventura County where undocumented workers live, many of whom are unknown and/or uncounted. And yet, all of a sudden, a lot of people needed shelter, food, and other emergency supplies in a place where city managers are mostly part-time and staff are volunteers. What’s more, a power outage prevented first responders from getting real-time information about where and how to allocate scarce resources.
On the heels of the fire, 100RC launched a data-driven emergency deployment approach that has been carried on by RCC. The solution that emerged was to create the VC Insight Center, an initiative that would be owned by the county government and focused on making data compatible across agencies and municipalities, such as tax and employment records, to get a better picture of vulnerable communities and map out how to reach them. Knitting together pieces of government for a disadvantaged population turned out to be critical when the coronavirus hit. The VC Insight team took charge of the pandemic response, and even though the full scope of the VC Insight Center project was not yet complete, they weren’t starting from scratch, either.
“Resilience projects are hazard-agnostic,” says Sam Carter. “It’s about strengthening core capacity.” Carter, a founding principal of RCC, who leads the organization’s climate and urban transformation projects, is guiding a scale-able approach from the experience of the Woolsey fire that is considerably evolved from how the previous organization initially framed its work.
THE REGIONAL SCALE
The Woolsey fire is turning out to be a catalytic event not just for Ventura County but for Southern California’s approach to resilience. The Conrad N. Hilton Foundation attended 100RC’s initial Woolsey fire convening where stakeholders gathered to hash out a plan. Not only did that prompt the Hilton Foundation to provide funding for VC Insight, but the obvious need for more robust regional planning and coordination led the foundation to seed the formation of the Southern California Resilience Initiative (SCRI). With the addition of more funders and partners, the regional collaboration has expanded from Ventura County to L.A. County, a large geographic area comprising many municipalities that may or may not even have a planning department.
In L.A. County, for example, RCC is guiding a team of researchers to undertake a comprehensive climate change risk assessment with an emphasis on the interplay between heat, wildfires and air quality. “When it’s really hot, air quality is bad and wildfires are more frequent and intense, and they exacerbate each other,” Carter says. “Even if you’re not directly affected by the wildfire, the air quality goes from bad to dangerous. That was made very visible by the 2020 wildfires up and down the west coast. Identifying heat-vulnerable communities can reduce wildfire risk—it helps prioritize where investment should be made.”
A related wildfire project within the city of L.A. focuses on developing a sustained working group of wildfire experts, community members, hospitals, firefighters, public officials, and the like. The standing resilience committee model, being developed in collaboration with the nonprofit TreePeople, is an approach developed in Australia based on the idea that always reacting to a wildfire after it’s out of control is much more dangerous and costly. A working group that is meeting regularly, monitoring risk conditions, and developing data-driven tools to deploy resources will be able to issue early warnings and react more quickly to save lives and property.
It’s not that [governments] aren’t spending a lot of money to deal with the impacts of climate change—it’s that all the money is spent on the backend and not at the front end when it would be most effective.
This, of course, speaks to how emergency response is funded in the first place. It’s not that the federal, state, and local governments aren’t spending a lot of money to deal with impacts of climate change—it’s that all the money is spent on the backend and not at the front end when it would be most effective.
Coastal erosion is another regional planning project that emerged from the SCRI but has taken on a life of its own. While the area of focus is based in San Diego, the area of influence is expected to be much wider. Planning for this effort began in November 2019 based on another lesson learned from the previous work at 100RC. “We had done these peer-to-peer ‘exchanges’ within our cities network,” Carter says. “This one is different. It’s at a regional scale. No one city can deal with coastal erosion. We knew it was going to be multijurisdictional.”
While the previous approach was based on building capacity through chief resilience officers who would then collaborate across cities, RCC’s approach now is to tap into existing local resources. “An enormous amount of institutional capacity was already focused on climate research, including at U.C. San Diego, University of San Diego, as well as other contributing partners that together had done four or five climate assessments,” says Carter. “But there just weren’t a lot of projects happening, not a lot of action. Coming in as outsiders, we can create momentum to focus all these stakeholders and coordinating committees on what can be done and drive forward some action.”
“So I was in California in early March planning this convening,” Carter continues, “and got a note that basically said, ‘Go home.’”
Despite the pandemic, a virtual two-week coastal resilience convening occured in July. The coalition of partners—including RCC, Climate Collaborative and others, with funding from the San Diego Foundation and the Alumbra Innovations Foundation—are in the process of writing a final report of action items that will be shared soon on a newly unveiled website. But the first step will be to create an innovative philanthropic fund that will seed and accelerate coastal resilience projects.
“Right now everyone is heads-down focused on Covid, but there will be a vaccine,” says Berkowitz, who was the deputy director for emergency management in New York City under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. “We will still have wildfires and hurricanes, and economic inequality will be worse. The places that do the best thinking before the next disaster hits will be in the best position in the future. A disaster may seem like an opportunity but it’s very hard to do strategic thinking in the immediate aftermath. You have to do the planning and community building first.”
While there have been some key lessons learned about how to foster resilience in the era of climate change, the guiding principle remains the same. As Berkowitz said recently in a TED talk: “An intervention, even a small one, that starts with one purpose and leads to other benefits that reduce fragility—that’s what we call the resilience dividend.”
Featured image designed by Aislinn Weidele of Gotham Projects.