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Mayors from Three Continents Talk Resilience

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Officials from Medellín, Colombia; Dakar, Senegal; Oakland, California, and New Orleans, Louisina provided first-hand perspectives on both challenges and solutions to urban resilience at The Rockefeller Foundation’s one-day Innovation Forum, held in New York City on Dec. 3.

Speaking through a translator, Dakar mayor Khalifa Sall described his city’s rapidly changing demographics as a major challenge to resilience, as a pervasive drought in the countryside drives villagers and farmers into the 32-square mile city, the capital of the West African nation, for survival. “We are constantly facing new issues of housing and settlement,” education, and public health, he said. Lacking job skills, these rural refugees often turn to selling on the streets to earn money. “We are spending millions every year to arrange places where there can be markets,” Sall told the forum, to rein in the spread of ad hoc bazaars citywide.

Dakar’s location on the Cape Verde peninsula makes it vulnerable to coastal erosion and endemic water shortages, according to Sall, and the region’s historic economic reliance on fishing is diminishing under the pressure of global trade and resource treaties. All these factors combine to make urban planning crucial to Dakar’s resilience, he said.

“Resilience is a human construction,” said Claudia Restrepo, vice mayor of Medellín, speaking through a translator. Restrepo defined resilience “as an ethical response to violence in our city,” referencing Medellin’s historical struggles with drug cartel-related violence. Civic efforts in the past decade to improve Medellín’s most impoverished neighborhoods, as well as increase city policing, have helped curb the murder rate and restore the city’s civic life.

The sharp decrease in narco-violence, as well as growing government transparency and stronger legal institutions both locally and nationally, are creating the opportunity for Medellín to plan for other kinds of future disruptions, suggested Restrepo, whether economic or environmental.

Restrepo’s emphasis on strengthening the social fabric was echoed by Jean Quan, mayor of Oakland.  “It is clear that everything is happening on local level, now,” she said. Oakland must address its poverty rate and struggling economy to build resilience, she said, as well as take on infrastructure challenges—such as retrofitting buildings to withstand the all-but-inevitable major quake in the city’s future. Separating physical and economic resilience isn’t even possible, in fact: Quan noted that about one-third of the city’s low income housing would likely be destroyed in a big earthquake, unless improvements are made.

“Mayors have to reinvent their cities constantly to deal with economic and other challenges.”

“Mayors have to reinvent their cities constantly” to deal with economic and other challenges, said Quan.

Mitch Landrieu, mayor of New Orleans, agreed that city governments must be on board with resilience planning if those efforts are to succeed—but that effective state and federal involvement is also crucial. Restoring the eroding coastal marshes of Louisiana, the main line of defense against storm surges for inland residents, is important to New Orleans’ future existence, but must be tackled by collaboration at all levels of government.

While building back from the disaster of Hurricane Katrina has been hard, it has been providing opportunities for New Orleans to strengthen itself, said Landrieu, in part because the city has been able to admit that what it had before wasn’t very effective. “We didn’t build back all the schools where they were” or how they were, he said, but instead consolidated districts and created schools along a “21St century, knowledge based tech model.” And instead of recreating centralized medical centers, there are now smaller primary and preventative care health centers distributed around the city, separate from hospitals providing emergency and acute care, he says.

These changes have to take the local culture into account, he emphasized, particularly when a community has been traumatized. “When disaster happens, you want security, you reach back to what was,” Landrieu said. “But that’s not always the best thing to do.”

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