#18 cities
Michael Berkowitz

The Resilience Revolution

Hurricanes, earthquakes, violence, terrorism – these are just a few of the risks that threaten modern-day cities. The concept of resilience is growing in popularity in the development community and describes the ability of a city or region to withstand such catastrophes. 100 Resilient Cities (100RC) is one initiative seeking to guarantee and improve the resilience of the world's urban centres. Funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, 100RC is dedicated to helping cities around the world prepare for future challenges. Cities can apply to receive assistance in the form of a Chief Resilience Officer who works with city executives. Over 1,000 cities have applied so far, and 100RC recently welcomed its 100th member. DDD talked to Michael Berkowitz, president of 100 Resilient Cities, about the initiative's goals and what characterises successful governance.

DDD: To start us off, how do you define resilience?

Michael Berkowitz: Urban resilience is a city’s ability to survive a disaster. These are not only acute shocks, like hurricanes, earthquakes, flooding or terrorism, but also long-term, slow burning disasters, such as shortages of food, water and energy, high levels of crime and violence, or shifting macro-economic trends.

DDD: In an interconnected, globalised world, there are many aspects that affect the resilience of a city. How can cities build resilience and what are the most important factors to consider?

Think about what makes a city able to survive a disaster: Good emergency response and public health are essential, but you also need strong neighbourhood-based institutions and cohesive communities where neighbours check on neighbours. Resilient cities have a good infrastructure, both of built and natural environments. They are strong in transportation and mobility, and they have integrated planning processes with strong, diverse stakeholders.

DDD: In DDD’s issue on sharing, Rob Hopkins argued that choosing to buy apples from local farmers was a kind of resilience. Does resilience mean “a return to the local”?

Open borders (…) are important and not just building a wall and doing everything from within a city.

Particularly with something like local food production, resilient cities try to get the most out of any intervention. Buying an apple locally has many advantages. The local apple was grown by a local farmer. It didn’t have to travel far. It created green space near the city. Buying local food helps build resilience, but it does not mean we have to retrench from globalisation. Certain things stay interconnected as cities continue to grow around the world. Open borders for the free flow of trade, commons, people and ideas are important and not just building a wall and doing everything from within a city.

DDD: While sustainability looks for ways of avoiding crises, resilience seems like a concept that has “accepted” them. How would you respond to that?

Resilience is about avoiding crises, too, but it tries to recognize that the roots of crises are broad. Take the Rodney King race riots sparked in Los Angeles in the early 1990s for instance. Resilience recognizes that what caused the riots was not police violence against an unarmed motorist named Rodney King. That was just the final spark.

People felt disconnected from the narrative of the city.

What caused the crisis was endemic racism, the lack of good transportation and economic opportunities for whole communities. People felt disconnected from the narrative of the city. The resilience thinking that we are helping to develop is able to recognize those symptoms before the crisis happens and begin to address them holistically.

DDD: How does your organisation help a city build resilience?

We do four things: First, we have them hire a Chief Resilience Officer, a point of contact who works with the city’s executive. This officer focuses and connects the different resilience efforts in the city. Second, we think of a strategy to outline risks and opportunities, key goals, and initiatives. Third, we connect them to best practice partners through our platform, such as technical assistance, funding opportunities, and experts. And fourth, we put them together in a peer-to-peer network so they can share best practices and support each other.

DDD: What are the biggest challenges that cities face today?

Governance. A city’s governance is sometimes too high up or too broken up. In India, for example, states, not cities, have most of the power. Bangalore, the third most populous city, is under the power of Karnataka. But the state is too removed from the problems, challenges, and opportunities happening in Bangalore itself. Karnataka just does not care enough. On the other end is Manila in the Philippines. It has five different municipalities with a weakly structured metro Manila. Each of these five operates in its own silo, but the big problems that impact Manila are transportation, water management, disease management and solid waste. They all cross borders and affect Manila as a whole.

DDD: Is governance an issue in Europe and the United States, too?

Finding the right balance is important.

You definitely find it there, too. Los Angeles is a municipality with a mayor, Eric Garcetti. It is in a county with another 105 municipalities that all have different jurisdictions, and the state is on top. The Netherlands provide a positive example: Rotterdam’s mayor is elected by the city council, not directly by the people. He is more of a representative and less of a politician, although he still has accountability. And that mayor is the chair of a regional governance group that includes Den Haag and some surrounding municipalities around Rotterdam. This allows the area to take the right decisions while also maintaining local power. Finding the right balance is important.

DDD: You have eleven African cities listed on your website. Do you think Africa has more problems achieving good governance?

Africa is the place where we will see the highest growth in urbanisation over the next two or three decades. Small cities will become megacities and in 20 - 30 years, they could even become the biggest cities in the world.

Africa is the place where the battle for liveable, sustainable and resilient cities will be fought.

That is why we announced the 100 Resilient Cities from Nairobi: We wanted to send a signal that Africa is an important place. Right now, only 30% - 35% of the continent is urban, but this is changing. Africa is the place where the battle for liveable, sustainable and resilient cities will be fought.

DDD: When you work with politicians and local mayors, some of the suggestions you make are going to limit their power. Is there resistance to the ideas and how do you deal with it?

The goal is to start a resilience revolution. Not just in 100 or 1,000, but in 10,000 cities.

There is resistance, yes, but we see our work as disruptive work. We are trying to change the way they think, and to disrupt the normal course of business. Over the three years in which we selected the 100, we got 1,100 applications. We chose them to cover different sizes, complexity and interconnected issues. We also screened their governors, mayors and stakeholders to make sure that they were open to this kind of partnership. We envisioned some examples of successful resilience building, so that all of the world’s cities would find applicable patterns in the 100 Resilient Cities. The goal is to start a resilience revolution. Not just in 100 or 1,000, but in 10,000 cities. If we need to, we push a finger into the mayor's chest and say: „This is what your citizens need.“

DDD: Would you share some positive stories that illustrate your best practices?

The best example of the cross-silo, risk aware, and inclusive thinking we are looking for comes from Porto Alegre in Brazil. Through the practice of participatory budgeting, a large part of the city’s annual budget is decided bottom-up. Broken down into 17 districts, people argue about financial priorities and the whole process takes up to a year. In this form of public debate we see good resilience thinking: risks, hazards and interdisciplinary opportunities are all openly discussed.

While tackling one threat, the city managed to offer resilient solutions to multiple problems.

Another goal we support: If cities can address multiple issues with a single intervention, we call that the resilience dividend. New Orleans, Louisiana, for example, is at high risk from climate change. The city is below sea level, sits in the Mississippi River Delta and next to a warm body of water, the Gulf of Mexico, which spawns huge hurricanes and storms. New Orleans is also heavily dependent on the petrochemical industry. Giant oil wells provide the revenue for city and state. Hence, New Orleans decided to instruct water management experts to lower the flood risk and make the city greener. A water management centre was inaugurated and featured economic development trainers. As they began to make the city more flood resistant, they also began to change dominant jobs in the petrochemical industry into water management jobs. While tackling one threat, the city managed to offer resilient solutions to multiple problems.

DDD: What is your hope for the Habitat III conference?

The more we empower cities, the better off the world will be.

For me, the most important outcome would be a statement directed at national governments about what good governance should look like, how to empower cities, what funding and financing cities can access, and what their rights might be. National governments should give more power to city executives so they can solve the issues that plague them. We have seen that cities find much more practical and innovative solutions to local problems than national governments. The more we empower cities, the better off the world will be. If we can get that kind of statement out of Habitat III, I think it will be a very positive step.

Interview by Frederik Caselitz

Photocredits: 100 Resilient Cities

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