Building Community Resilience: Lessons from the Bay to Boulder

San Francisco, California and Boulder, Colorado are both honored to have been selected as two of the 32 cities in the first group of the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities Initiative (100RC). Our cities have been recognized for their extensive investment in sustainability and resilience and are committed to working to mitigate the impact of climate change in the coming century.

Both cities understand that investing in residents' capacity to steward their community’s resilience is an essential step in building urban resilience. Given this common focus, and on the advice of 100RC Director of Relationship Manager Amy Armstrong, San Francisco Director of Neighborhood Resilience Daniel Homsey connected with Boulder’s Senior Environmental Planner, Brett KenCairn, to discuss the cities’ different experiences and approaches to building resilience at the neighborhood level.

Daniel briefed Brett on San Francisco’s Neighborhood Empowerment Network (NEN) and its Empowered Communities Program (ECP), a nationally recognized approach that strengthens the capacity of local leadership to steward their community’s resilience. The ECP provides leaders with technical support and resources to create and implement a culturally competent Resilience Action Plan that is customized to mitigate the unique hazards that their community could face. After learning of these two programs, Brett determined that it would be an ideal time to bring Daniel to Boulder to introduce San Francisco’s approach to community resilience.

Boulder County has been in full recovery mode over the last three years. In 2012 the region experienced immense forest fires in the surrounding mountains and then in 2013 a rare, massive rain event hit the deforested hillsides and dropped a year’s worth of rain in just three days. Soon rivers were bursting over their banks and bringing an unprecedented level of damage to almost every municipality in the County.

In 2013, Boulder county received as much rain in three days as it typically gets in a year.

Residents came together and supported each other through this time of stress and have actively participated in the restoration and recovery plans of their communities since. The opportunity now is to keep the residents at the table to participate in the conversation about their region’s long term resilience and contribute their ideas and goals. Brett hoped that highlighting the NEN’s Empowered Communities Program would offer the spark to civic leaders to engage in a collaborative cross-sector effort to mobilize residents as part of the Boulder County Long-Term Community Resilience Initiative

Day One

On the first day of his visit, Daniel toured the County accompanied by a delegation of Boulder City and County Officials. The tour focused on three communities that were hit the hardest by the floods in 2013. During the rain event, billions of gallons of water barreled down on small mountain towns, converting sleepy creeks into torrents that tore through the communities and smashed into larger neighborhoods downstream. The resulting damage was unprecedented and the entire region is still taking stock and determining how to both rebuild and make smart and substantive investments to mitigate the effects of future water events.

Billions of gallons of muddy water tore through sleepy mountain towns, ripping buildings apart.

The first stop on this tour was the town of Jamestown, which is nestled high up in the valleys above Boulder. This small community of just a few hundred residents was virtually bulldozed by a wall of water and debris leaving the town with no water system and dozens of homes destroyed or damaged beyond repair.


Community cohesion and engagement following the flooding was powerful and exciting.

The next stop of the tour was the town of Lyons. The floods had sliced Lyons into six islands that left residents and first responders scrambling for resources to support the most vulnerable while access to the outside world was severed.

The City of Longmont was the third leg of the tour. Daniel met with almost a dozen city leaders, including the City Manager, who explained the struggles of recovery and the lengthy process of waiting for federal dollars to arrive in order to begin recovery efforts.

To view videos of community leaders from Jamestown and Lyons sharing their stories of resilience, please visit the NEN’s Voices of Resilience.

Jamestown was the first site on the visit, virtually leveled by the flooding.

Day Two

In the immediate wake of the flooding, the leadership and staff of both local and County government were thrilled to see the level of civic engagement that grew out of the tragedy. But they were also concerned that once life returned to some level of normalcy, residents would retreat from the planning process, and the opportunity to build resilience beyond recovery from those events would be limited.

The second day of the Daniel’s trip was dedicated to a community resilience workshop that highlighted the NEN’s Empowered Communities Program (ECP). A large rain system’s arrival in Boulder the day before the workshop reminded people of the previous year’s events and drove up attendance. The room was full of people who had been part of the previous day’s tour as well as representatives from local community foundations, the Red Cross and Colorado University. The energy in the room was high and the enthusiasm for the content rich.

The highlight of the workshop was running the Build Your Resilientville exercise, which is a fun, human-centered design experience that allows small groups to work together to identify the interventions they can make today in order to ensure that they will have water, power and food for the first three days following a disaster. Ideas such as encouraging local food production like backyard chicken coops and neighborhood based power micro-grids were just some of the many brilliant ideas that were brainstormed out of the workshop.

Build Your Resilientville asks groups to identify what the could do in the first three days after a disaster to ensure the provision of basic services."

During the wrap-up phase of the meeting, participants expressed the feeling that many aspects of the ECP’s approach could fit their communities. Specifically, they felt that the approach stuck the right balance between offering structure and space for the community to customize their plan development process, and ensuring that any outcomes would be culturally competent. In addition, the attendees who would most likely manage the deployment of the Empowered Communities Program felt very comfortable with its approach and appreciated its focus on leveraging existing assets in its deployment. This led to a spirited post workshop debrief about creating a joint pilot project that would be informed by many of the useful elements of the NEN’s ECP approach.

While separated by over a thousand miles of mountains and desert, the cities of Boulder and San Francisco are facing a similar set of challenges and opportunities. Both cities are in the recovery phase of a significant natural disaster and are grappling with the challenge of getting people to remain invested, active, and engaged in the important work of identifying and implementing investments that will mitigate the impact of future stressors. The unifying opportunity the NEN’s ECP offers both municipalities is the ability to generate and sustain cultures of resilience at the neighborhood level that will fuel a citywide vision and advance a collective impact on advancing resilience measures.

This was just the first step in advancing a partnership between the two cities. Within weeks of Daniel’s visit, Boulder hired Greg Guibert as its first Chief Resilience Officer, who joins San Francisco’s Patrick Otellini in this important role, and the two cities are now outlining next steps on how the NEN model can contribute to Boulder’s community resilience efforts.

History has shown that when cities come together and support each other disaster recovery they develop rich and sustainable partnerships that over time generate outcomes that few anticipated and but are valued for generations. We believe Boulder and San Francisco laying the foundation for such a future.

100 Resilient Cities is looking for innovative and engaging community envolvement tactics. Share your ideas in the comments below!

Body photos courtesy of Daniel Homsey

Head photo, Nurpu, Flickr, Remixed by 100RC