Racial Equity: Resilient Cities at the Forefront

Structural racism and institutional bias have long played an insidious role in the history of the United States. More recent patterns of migration and economic development have spurred similar disparities in other countries and regions of the world as well. The lingering impacts of structural racism are particularly acute in cities, which tend to attract more diversity than non-urban areas. As cities work to build their resilience, actively addressing those inequities and divisions will help to deliver transformational results. Racial equity is a key resilience priority in North American cities and worldwide; over 80% of resilience initiatives published to date explicitly address racial equity. Therefore, in November 2018, 100 Resilient Cities and the City of Boston brought together Chief Resilience Officers (CROs) and city government officials from Atlanta, Greater Manchester, Los Angeles, Louisville, New York City, Seattle, Toronto, and Tulsa for a convening on Equitable and Resilient Cities, to collaborate and spur continued action toward infusing strategies to promote racial equity across city government.

Over the course of three days, CROs and practitioners used the Boston Network Exchange to discuss common challenges, learn from existing best practices, and explore tactical pathways for mitigating racial inequity. As a result of this Exchange, 100 Resilient Cities is proud to release Racial Equity: Resilient Cities at the Forefront, which positions racial inequity as an essential component of the urban resilience agenda, particularly in the United States, and shares strategic approaches and best practices to help urban practitioners effect tangible change in cities worldwide.

These approaches address deep inequities that, in so many cities, deprive communities of color of representation in mainstream social and political spheres, result in an unequal distribution of resources and opportunities, and lead to deep mental and emotional trauma for marginalized communities. The disparities evident today have intersected and compounded over time, leading to extreme risks for disadvantaged populations such as poverty, housing insecurity, and a lack of economic mobility. These interdependent stresses can widen existing income and resource gaps between White communities and communities of color and exacerbate the effects of natural disasters and major shocks citywide. Racial inequity is not just a matter of individual prejudices, but rather a systemic stress that weakens cities  as a whole making it an existential resilience challenge. 

Exchange participants had the opportunity to learn directly from practitioners in the City of Boston, who are leading the way in implementing innovative approaches to advance racial equityas outlined in the City’s groundbreaking Resilience Strategy – in areas from economic development to policing to infrastructure investments. They saw these policies come to life during interactive visits to Dearborn STEM Academy and Upham’s Corner, two examples of how coordinated planning and investment, and new kinds of partnership, can lay the groundwork for just, sustainable growth.

To help practitioners on the ground implement solutions that reduce racial disparities and enhance their city’s resilience, we recommend the following strategic approaches all of which have been tested in or inspired by Boston or the other eight cities participating in the Network Exchange:

Lead for ChangePrioritize and operationalize racial equity through open and courageous leadership and dialogues. Fundamentally changing how a city prioritizes and operationalizes racial equity depends largely on a strong and consistent message from leadership – whether that’s by empowering a diverse cabinet, requiring department heads to report on equity outcomes, or facilitating city-wide conversations about race. But for this approach to be effective, mayors must be willing to engage in an open, honest, and continual dialogue with city employees and the communities they serve, which requires the kind of vulnerability that is often at odds with political incentives.

Activate Existing Levers – Build racial equity and resilience by creating and embedding decision-making tools in key city processes. Cities already possess a powerful toolkit to advance their equity and resilience goals: the procurement, legal, funding, financing, and regulatory mechanisms they utilize day in and day out. While the power of Mayors to lead on racial equity cannot be underestimated, institutionalizing equity practices via legislation, procurement practices, budget guidelines, and other city levers can ensure that true commitment trickles down to the people bringing this work to life on a daily basis – agency leads, planners, program managers, and other implementers.

Co-Create with Community – Partner with community members to co-create solutions that drive equitable and resilient cities. Cities need to partner with communities in new and different ways beyond traditional stakeholder engagement, to design and deliver the innovative approaches needed to address racial inequity at the neighborhood and city scale. By taking a hard look at who is at the table in the design of policies and programs and exploring new ways to bring communities into city processes, municipal leaders can transform not only the initiatives they co-create with their residents, but the very way cities talk to their communities about collective future opportunities and risks.

Integrate Data and Historical Context – Integrate data, measurement, and historical context into decision-making. At the end of the day, if the interventions advanced by cities to improve racial equity lead to inequitable outcomes for people of color, then those interventions are in fact contributing to the cumulative impact of structural racism. To understand where cities are succeeding or failing on the issue of equity, a commitment to data, measurement, and transparency is critical. At the same time, our community of practitioners cautioned against an over-reliance on numbers without historical context or impact stories – as bare data without this context can cloud the harsh and visceral realities of the impacts of racial inequity.

To find out more about how city leaders and urban practitioners can implement concrete tactics, approaches, and initiatives that concurrently develop greater racial equity and urban resilience, read the full report: Racial Equity: Resilient Cities at the Forefront.