Columnist: Girding Cities for a Perilous Century

May 28, 2013

By Neal Peirce

It's as bold a move as one could imagine. The Rockefeller Foundation, celebrating its 100th anniversary, is launching a "100 Resilient Cities Centennial Challenge." It will invest $100 million in 100 cities across the world that come up with the best and broadest plans to cope with massive natural and manmade shocks of the time.

In accepting the award, each winning city will be required to appoint a "chief resilience officer" who will work across departments to make sure strong city resilience plans are developed, refreshed and strengthened over time.

As Rockefeller Foundation President Judith Rodin puts it, we're in a time when a "once-every-hundred-year storm becomes a once-a-week storm somewhere." Climate change is leading to massive disruptions -- all in addition to potentially dire earthquake, tsunami and infectious health challenges.

And with mankind crowding into cities by the billions -- numbers unprecedented in past human history -- metropolises become the dominant stage for humanity.

The Rockefeller Foundation is especially concerned that the shocks of the times, while a peril to all, may most seriously impact poor and vulnerable people with fewer means to recover. 

Yet some may ask: Isn't it too intrusive for a single foundation to suggest that recipient cities must appoint an official with a previously unknown title and duties -- "chief resilience officer"?

One reply: The idea comes from a proven friend of humanity -- the Rockefeller Foundation that has already invested deeply across the world, including the Green Revolution of the mid-20th century that introduced crops and production methods credited with saving over a billion people from starvation.

Second, it's crucial for their fast-expanding billions of people that cities now focus on resilience. The word is new, a bit strange to our ear. But it has real promise. It suggests toughness, fitness, a no-excuse ability to cope with a broad range of crises. Resilience may not have the instant verbal appeal of Green Revolution. But it's just as essential for mankind.

A resilience officer should be a point person for continuity, keeping city departments talking and collaborating on survival and long-term sustainability issues. Notes Neill Coleman, Rockefeller's vice president for global communications, he or she should be part of the executive function of the city, not necessarily a line-executive but an officer with the ear of the mayor and city leadership.

I've seen the need in my own reporting -- covering initiatives for better climate-change protection, improved utilities, transportation and neighborhood quality initiated by such mayors as Chicago's Richard M. Daley, New York's Michael Bloomberg, and Los Angeles' Antonio Villaraigosa. Their programs qualify as landmarks of forward-thinking city initiatives. But will they still be active, extended across city departments, two, three, five years from now? A chief resilience officer could be the key champion of continuity.

Superstorm Sandy played a role in Rockefeller's new initiative: Rodin was co-chair of a task force, "NYS2100," commissioned by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, which has set forth a bold plan for building New York's agility, its capacity to bounce back from the all-but-inevitable future stresses and shocks.

To minimize impacts of broad-scale electric power failures during severe storms, the task force suggested creating incentives for "distributed energy" -- power from many small power plants with diversified fuel sources. A companion strategy could be "islanding" -- isolating areas hit by severe system breakdowns so they don't shut down a whole city or metro-area power system.

Then there's the money issue -- how can cities afford the massive repair and recovery costs huge storms make necessary. The NYS2100 commission suggested creating infrastructure banks to attract private capital and pull together funding to repair storm-created physical damage. Or actually creating disaster insurance policies for local governments -- dubbed "sovereign insurance" -- in which cities turn to private capital markets to purchase prefunded insurance that will cover their potential loses in disasters.

Other ideas that Rodin now proposes range from localities building absorbent road surfaces -- a way to cut back on destructive storm flooding -- to emergency broadband networks to keep businesses functioning.

Rockefeller's selection of cities will roll out over the next three years. The hope is it will create an expansive dialogue among world cities comparing notes and experiences on how they gird themselves against the extreme perils, flood and drought to tsunami and terror that the 21st century is presenting.

In about five to 10 years from now, will cities still have many of the chief resilience officers Rockefeller is now recommending? Maybe not -- they're just a means, not a goal. But I'd be hopeful. Because how else will cities keep focused on their resilience strategies, keep them rolling year-to-year and mayor-to-mayor, unless there's a clear city hall eye and voice to stay on task? This is a major challenge for not just 100, but thousands of cities across the globe. And, one can argue, no less crucial for human life and welfare than the Green Revolution in its time.

Neal Peirce's email address is nrp@citistates.com.

(c) 2013, The Washington Post Writers Group

The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of the National League of Cities.