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On the Path to a More Resilient New York

New York City
Photo credit: Wojtek Witkowski

One year ago, Superstorm Sandy made landfall along the Eastern Seaboard, destroying homes, devastating businesses, and damaging key pieces of New York’s physical infrastructure beyond recognition. The storm was just the most recent catastrophic event in a new century characterized by the sudden and unforeseen – and a reminder that we need to prepare our cities, New York included, to withstand crises and bounce back quickly and effectively, come what will.

The idea of New York needing to be resilient to a potential storm like Sandy had been developing for several years prior to the Superstorm. For example in 2010, The Rockefeller Foundation funded a “Rising Currents” exhibit at The Museum of Modern Art, highlighting new research and fresh thinking about the use of New York City’s harbor and coastline to respond to the impacts of climate change.

And so, when the Superstorm did hit, New York was more prepared than it might have been five years earlier. But there were still vulnerabilities, many of which were exposed: Power failures left most of lower Manhattan in the dark. Back-up generators, housed in building basements, failed due to the storm surge, putting some hospital patients at risk. Flooded subway tunnels made commuting a hardship, if not an impossibility, in some places for months.

To look closely at these failures and make recommendations for the future, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo asked The Rockefeller Foundation to co-chair the New York State 2100 Commission. Our teams of experts pulled together a set of recommendations, many of which were included in Governor Cuomo’s legislative agenda for 2013, including the creation of a NYS Homeowner Buyout Program, the acceleration of ConEdison’s plans to deploy smartgrid technology, and the creation of a $1billion Green Bank to expand the use of green infrastructure. The Commission’s findings were also echoed in both Mayor Bloomberg’s ambitious proposal for a More Resilient New York and the Federal Sandy Taskforce’s own recommendations – for the first time, all levels of government are pursuing disaster recovery with an eye toward resilience.

Resilience is finally taking its place as one of the key imperatives for our young century. We see four lessons that other cities can learn from New York City.

This sends an encouraging message: resilience is finally taking its place as one of the key imperatives for our young century. We see four lessons that other cities can learn from New York City.

First, while many of the necessary changes are low-cost – such as institutional coordination, rapid and accurate information sharing, and timely decision making – building urban resilience is not something local governments or philanthropy can do alone. We need the partnership of the private sector.

One recommendation we made through the NYS2100 Commission was the creation of a dedicated infrastructure bank to help coordinate infrastructure development and investment across the region. A centralized approach to infrastructure-related decision making, rather than a project-by-project, agency-specific process, would go a long way to catalyze and maximize private sector investment.

Second, we’re learning that even when cities have the resources and the partnerships, they’re not always using them effectively. In hard-hit Breezy Point, for example, homeowners were stalled from rebuilding their homes, not for financial reasons, but because the map the NYC Department of Buildings was using to grant permits was from 1948, before many of the areas most devastated by Sandy were even built. This caused massive, ultimately unnecessary delays.

Third, while investments in infrastructure are critical, we must also empower individuals to build their own resilience and the resilience of their communities.  In a  Rockefeller Foundation-funded Associated Press-NORC poll of more than 2,000 people impacted by Sandy, one-third said they reached out to nearby friends, family and neighbors for assistance – far more than those who turned to the government for help. The poll also found that neighborhoods with higher social cohesion recovered more quickly.

Finally, true resilience is not a city-by-city effort. Today, one city’s resilience is inextricably bound up with the region – and the rest of the world. We need to think about resilience on both a regional and a global scale. One regional model with great potential was launched this summer by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development in partnership with The Rockefeller Foundation and the Municipal Arts Society: a competition to understand regional interdependencies and to introduce design and planning approaches that fit local contexts but that can be scaled regionally.

On a global scale, The Rockefeller Foundation’s worldwide challenge, ” 100 Resilient Cities,”will soon announce the first round of 100 cities to support building resilience. The selected cities will receive a holistic platform of tools that will help them plan for the future and help them serve as models for other cities and communities around the world.

While Sandy wreaked havoc in the lives of many New Yorkers, the storm also offers an opportunity to come together as a global community – philanthropies, governments, business and civil society – in service to a more resilient world. New York can lead the way.

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