Leading the Way to a More Resilient Future

This piece is part of The Rockefeller Foundation’s 2018 United Nations General Assembly series.

A few weeks ago, Houston, Texas became the latest city to join 100 Resilient Cities (100RC), and will now begin the difficult yet rewarding task of creating and implementing a comprehensive resilience strategy. The idea behind 100RC is simple: help cities around the world become more resilient to the physical, social, and economic challenges that are a growing part of the 21st century. As the UN points out, roughly 4 billion people live in cities around the world, and with this mass migration to cities comes a host of new challenges for the world—growing numbers of slum dwellers, increased air pollution, inadequate basic services and infrastructure, unplanned urban sprawl, and vulnerability to disasters.

As we approach the 73rd Session of the United Nations General Assembly meetings in New York later in the month, it’s worth revisiting Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 11: Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.

The Rockefeller Foundation launched 100RC in 2013 to address this very challenge, approaching it from a local level within the ranks of city governments around the world. With seed funding and training for a new position in city government—the Chief Resilience Officer (CRO)—100RC and our city partners forged a new model for interceding on this systemic scale.

Even the most visionary mayors preside over a governance structure created in the 20th century that has solidified over generations and administrations. The agencies they oversee have been optimized for efficiency, but those silos often hinder the kind of integration cities need to successfully address their challenges. Transport people talk to transport people, as do economic development, housing, and immigration. Those conversations are more efficient at least in the short-term. But that approach has risks, and misses significant intersectional benefits. How many times in the 20th century has road construction damaged existing development (or missed upside) because it was planned and built by people using a single metric—moving cars? Similarly, how often do social services operate in silos, where a coordinated approach would provide better impact, more cheaply?

Taking a more comprehensive systems view will allow cities like Houston to begin to address this issue. Hiring a Chief Resilience Officer is a rare opportunity for the disruption city leaders seek to change this status quo. A CRO is a senior city official that often reports directly to the city’s chief executive, and works, across departments and city sectors, to help a city address its complexities systemically.

In Melbourne, CRO Toby Kent is working across the city’s fragmented metropolitan area and has catalyzed the collaboration of its 32 separate councils. Together with the Nature Conservancy, the city’s resilience office has developed a metropolitan urban forest strategy. Rather than pursue greening projects piecemeal, the project will allow for the broad coordination of reforestation and natural asset development that will mitigate many of the city’s shocks and stresses, such as the urban heat island effect and flooding and will foster positive public health outcomes and social cohesion benefits.

The CRO also works to ensure that the city applies resilience thinking to local decision making to achieve multiple goals. In Paris, CRO Sebastien Maire has spearheaded a project to transform the city’s schoolyards into local “oases” for cooling, recreation, and well-being in the city by replacing their impermeable asphalt covering into vegetation or other surfaces. Along with mitigating the urban heat island effect, the schools will be open after school hours to the surrounding communities, most of whom live within 200 meters of a school. This has required planning from school officials, climate specialists, and social service agencies.

In New Orleans, former CRO Jeff Hebert created the Resilience Design Review Committee to integrate resilience into every aspect of public storm-water infrastructure projects so they not only provide the benefits of flood mitigation but provide other co-benefits as well. Jeff’s legacy also includes the establishment of the Office of Resilience and Sustainability, reforming the city’s procurement system to focus on outcomes, the creation of a climate action strategy, and securing major federal funding to change infrastructure design. This work perfectly illustrates how seed funding for one critical position catalyzes systemic change that cascades into all aspects of how a city can function.

In recognition of how pivotal a CRO can be, almost all our cities continue to fund the position beyond the 2-year 100RC commitment. To that point, in Los Angeles, Mayor Eric Garcetti signed a historic executive order that commits City departments to appoint CROs. Through the work of his CRO, Marissa Aho, Mayor Garcetti understands resilience as a value that every city leader should embed in their departments. Together they developed a coalition of change agents throughout City Hall to contribute to a successful Resilience Strategy—change agents from departments that do not typically collaborate or see their mandates as similar, contributing to goals and initiatives that will bring tangible change to Los Angeles.

These institutional changes, in how a city governs and works with new partners, is exactly what we envisioned when creating this philanthropic model. Local governments stand at the forefront of the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century. Enabling them to innovate and catalyze change is key to our collective resilience. By working directly with them, and supporting CROs to create an environment for systemic change, we are seeing what tangible progress toward achieving SDG 11 looks like.