Reflections from a Resilient City: Norfolk

This past Thursday, I had the great privilege of being a part of a conversation about Norfolk’s future.

Norfolk, Virginia, is one of nine cities I work with as part of 100 Resilient Cities—and it is an inspiring and fascinating place at the forefront of urban resilience.

Norfolk port, photo: Amy Armstrong

At our Agenda-Setting Resilience Workshop, run in collaboration with the City government and community stakeholders, the sense of pride and roll-up-your-sleeves attitude was palpable (so much so several city employees arrived an hour early to see if they could help set up!).

The city’s natural and man-made assets are remarkable: 144 miles of coastline; 125 active and engaged civic leagues; the world’s largest naval station; the most multi-modal city in Virginia; and on and on. And the city is full of incredible charm, like the cobble stone streets of the award-winning Freemason’s neighborhood, and the many surprises that make you smile like the interactive art installation downtown that creates music in response to the movements of passing pedestrians.

But these assets are coupled with very serious risks. Since the 1930s, Norfolk has experienced 14 inches of sea level rise—among the highest in the country. Recurrent tidal flooding has become so regular some residents use the lunar cycle to determine when to move their cars to avoid the water. And the city’s poverty rate exceeds the region and state averages.

Norfolk workshop, photo: Amy Armstrong

Examining the range of shocks and stresses the city faces, the conversations at the workshop explored their interconnected—and often unexpected—impacts. Citizens discussed the potential effects of sea level rise on the cohesion and trust within their neighborhoods. Others explored the range of impacts a strained transportation infrastructure can have, from residents’ ability to get to their jobs to the city’s ability to attract and retain businesses, to the region’s ability to evacuate its citizens in case of a large-scale disaster.

I learned a lot talking with residents and city officials about Norfolk’s resilience. One of the things that most stood out most for me was the community’s willingness and ability to adapt to changing circumstances. Indeed, one of the points participants raised as key to their city’s resilience was its innovation and openness to trying new ideas, like being the first city in Virginia to develop a light rail system.

Even as a newcomer to the City, it’s easy to see that ethos and approach in the City’s dynamic leaders. Mayor Paul Fraim, speaking about the City’s resilience strategy at the event, commented:

“The City’s strategy should plan for nearly every contingency, and would be fully capable of not just surviving, but thriving in the face of challenges. A successful resilience plan would target not only investments to save lives, protect property, and avoid catastrophic economic losses, but also would slow the growth in economic and health disparities among population segments…. Modern society is fast changing and complex. Political climates as well as the natural environment are volatile, with the potential for shocks and stresses. We hope to understand from network colleagues the complex systems we live in, and how to make smart interventions accordingly.”

I share the Mayor’s ambition. And moving ahead in my work with them, look forward to finding ways to build connections between Norfolk’s resilience strategies and our other member cities. Places like Oakland, California, a similarly sized port city with strong community engagement confronting a diverse range of physical, social and economic resilience priorities. And places like Bristol, England—where I head this week for their Resilience Workshop—which has centuries of experience in water management, and an innovative leadership also not afraid to try on new ideas, adapt and evolve with the changing circumstances and growing risks the city faces.

Head photo: Amy Armstrong