Ideas & Insights / All Perspectives / Ideas & Insights

The City Resilient

Dr. Judith Rodin addressed the crowd of The City Resilient, an event co-hosted by the Foundation and PopTech at BAM in New York City to address how to build communities that can recover, persist or even thrive amid disruption.


There is perhaps no better location to discuss the concept of resilience.

This institution — and this city — have built their resilience over centuries — enduring fires, floods, the Great Depression, the Great Recession, hurricanes, Superstorms…and, if one only reads the opinion page of the Wall Street Journal, the biggest crisis to hit New York yet: CitiBike.

All joking aside, while Superstorm Sandy was a stark reminder of how exposed New York City is to major disruptions, the truth is it has always been a place of great vulnerability. In 1835, for example, a Great Fire burned much of Lower Manhattan to the ground. Despite being surrounded by water on all sides, there was not enough of it available to put the fire out.

In response, the city and state dammed the Croton River in Westchester County, and built an extensive —aqueduct system.  It was hailed as one of the greatest engineering achievements of its time — and the access to this great water resource built up New York’s resilience to future fires.

Fifty years later, New York would experience another shock: the Great Blizzard of 1888 which shut down the city’s system of elevated trains, and prompted the city to build the underground subway system that we know today.

History tells us that responding to vulnerabilities is not a new concept for cities — and there is a long record of these responses yielding — in the case of the aqueduct systems and our underground subways — some of our greatest innovations.

Today, though the global community is experiencing these shocks and disruptions on a near weekly basis.

Boston, Istanbul, San Jose, Costa Rica. Athens, Budapest, Colorado Springs,

All from different regions, with different demographics, geographic terrains and political systems.

But they all share at least one thing in common: in the last year they’ve experienced a major disruption: bombings, protests, earthquake, financial ruin, unprecedented flooding, devastating wildfires.

We can’t predict when or where the next shock will hit. But we know that those shocks will come — and that they will only continue to increase in frequency, scale, and impact.


At least, three reasons: Urbanization, Globalization, Climate Change

When the Rockefeller Foundation opened our doors on Broadway one hundred years ago in 1913, only 1 in 10 people lived in cities. Today, around the world, half of all people call some city home, and by 2050, that number will rise to 75 percent.

Most of this growth will be in the developing world, where already overcrowded slums will nearly double in population to 2 billion, putting strains on already fragile ecosystems and hindering the ability of these areas to respond to shocks and recover from them.

In New York, the city’s population is set to grow by 1 million before 2050, adding even more people to our already swelling boroughs. With more than one-third of the population already living in flood zones, imagine how many more will need to be evacuated during storms.

Then there is the matter of globalization, which, in addition to opportunities and advancements, carries profound consequences. Our challenges are more interconnected, more dynamic, and more complex than ever before.

Remember the SARS outbreak which swept through Asia and rippled across the world? Right now, a similar virus originating in the Middle East has killed half of the people it has infected, including a Frenchman in Paris who contracted the infection while visiting the United Arab Emirates.

And globalization doesn’t just threaten our health — it can impact entire systems. Global supply chains disrupted by the Japanese tsunami and the floods in Bangkok, Thailand, affected production as far away as Detroit.

And then there is the pressing matter of climate change. Many cities including  New York could experience three times as many days with temperatures exceeding 90 degrees by 2050.

Warming temperatures, rising sea levels, changing weather patterns all put added pressure on both urbanization and globalization challenges.

Indeed it is in the places where these three spheres meet that we see the greatest threats and disruptions manifest.

All cities deal differently with these shocks. Some will return quickly to a full way of life. Others will take much longer. And even others will never fully recover at all.

What makes this true? Why do some cities never recover, while others seem to rebound in just a matter of weeks?

The answer, as I am sure you have surmised by now, is resilience.

We define resilience as:

“…the capacity of individuals, communities and systems to survive, adapt and grow in the face of changes, even catastrophic incidents.”

In other words, building resilience is about making people, communities and systems better prepared to withstand catastrophic events — natural, climate change-driven, and man-made — and able to bounce back more quickly and sometimes even emerge stronger from those shocks and stresses.

As we unpack what resilience is, it’s helpful to talk briefly about what resilience is not.

It is not solving for the last problem.

For example, after 9/11, property owners were so worried about attacks from the air that they buried their generators underground, where they were submerged by storm surge during Sandy.

It is not an innate human quality that bubbles up in times of stress — as it is often talked about, for example, after the Boston bombings.

And it is not the emergency response after the disaster has hit.

Rather, resilience is what we build in those moments between catastrophe and the next big disruption, a skill that can be learned, and a quality that can be adapted, from toughening up building codes in San Francisco to withstand the shocks of the next earthquake to the creation of “Evacuspots” in New Orleans to ensure a speedy evacuation of residents ahead of future storms.

And building resilience is critical to protecting the poorest and most vulnerable among us, those who typically live in the most easily impacted areas and who are least likely to have savings stashed away or insurance to protect them in case of disaster.

The Rockefeller Foundation has pursued a range of initiatives based around the concept of resilience. After Hurricane Katrina we provided almost $22 million towards helping New Orleans establish a single, broadly shared framework for planning and development and targeted investments to increase both equity and resilience.

Today, our Asian Cities Climate Change Resilience Network, or ACCCRN, works in several cities across four countries—Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia and India—to help them build resilience, from drainage and flood management, to ecosystem strengthening, citizens’ awareness and disease control.

Based on our work with New Orleans and through ACCCRN, we’ve learned there are five characteristics that resilient systems share, in good times and in times of stress:

  • The capacity for robust feedback loops that sense and allow new options to be introduced quickly as conditions change.
  • The flexibility to change, and evolve, in the face of disaster.
  • Options for limited or “safe” failure, which prevents stressors from rippling across systems — requiring islanding or de-networking at times.
  • Spare capacity, which ensures that there is a back-up or alternative available when a vital component of a system fails.
  • The ability for rapid rebound, to re-establish function quickly, and avoid long-term disruptions.

Let me put this into the context of Superstorm Sandy once again, which is not only top of mind for many people in this room two weeks after Mayor Bloomberg’s presentation on building a more resilient New York City, but also close to my work as the co-chair of Governor Cuomo’s taskforce to improve New York State’s infrastructure.

Sandy wasn’t just any storm — it was unprecedented, and left an enormous amount of damage in its aftermath.

After the storm subsided, it was clear that some things went right — the safe failure of the subway system which allowed it to get up and running in many parts of the system quickly after the storm. Emergency responders who went above and beyond the call of duty. Food supply chains that were relatively unharmed.

Other things didn’t go as right. Too many property owners lacked proper flood insurance — if they had flood insurance at all. Damage to refineries left drivers dry at the pump, or waiting in long lines, for weeks. Nearly 2 million people lost power — and it took more than two weeks to bring the entire overhead system back online, including major hospitals.

All of which made it more difficult for the city and all of its citizens to fully rebound…in fact, many would say we still have a long way to go.

Based on the characteristics of resilience I just outlined we made recommendations that included upgrading existing systems, rebuilding smarter, replacing some systems with newer and better alternatives, improving the sharing of equipment, enhancing institutional coordination, and improving data collection and analysis.

For example, we recommended investments to smart grid technology that would decouple and delink parts of the electric grid, so that when, for example, equipment was damaged by storm surge in Lower Manhattan, the whole lower part of the island wouldn’t be left in the dark. To prepare for future storms, Con Ed is installing smart-grid technology, including “smart switches” which can isolate areas of the electric grid where a disruption occurs and limit the widespread failure for other customers.

Another area where there was a clear need for resilience strategies was along the coastlines, where entire beaches were swept away, leaving little protection for the residents of communities along coasts and waterways. Strategies for fortifying and protecting these shorelines, such as here in the Bronx Concrete Plant Park, include hard infrastructure —adaptable floodwalls, levees, and bulkheads — as well as soft infrastructure — such as dune systems, stone shorelines, oyster reefs and wetlands that can minimize waves and increase barriers.

Back on land, rebuilding means much more than putting houses back together and repaving the streets. We have to build back stronger and in a way that minimizes the impact of future stresses and shocks —encouraging some people who lost their homes not to rebuild in the same way and others, not in the same places.

Mayor Bloomberg’s plan alone is estimated to cost $20 billion.

Which brings us to the question: whose responsibility is it to finance resilience?

While government must take the lead, it will not be able to pay the bill on its own.

The private sector has both a role to play and an interest to do so — the continuation of businesses and markets depends on it.

But what, exactly, is the role of the private sector?

For one, financing. While there could be sufficient financing available to meet the world’s infrastructure needs — cities must make these projects more attractive to private investment through strategic prioritization and integrated design of projects. For example, projects to upgrade a city’s stormwater infrastructure could be done in conjunction with improving broadband and energy infrastructure at the same time.

To help package these kinds of investments, New York State will create a dedicated infrastructure bank to help coordinate infrastructure development and investment across the region, introducing a centralized approach to infrastructure related decision making rather than a project-by-project, agency specific process.

The private sector can also do more to take on some of the risk. Our commission made recommendations on insurance that included sovereign insurance instruments that will go a long way to prefund disaster recovery and protect the state from large losses.

While the private sector must engage, it is largely the role of governments to develop and implement the technical and policy frameworks that encourage private capital to participate in resilience — building public-private partnerships. Government must also add critical resources as well, often in the form of tax incentives or concessionary financing.

NGOs and civil society play a role in ensuring all voices — particularly those who don’t always have a seat at the tables where decisions are made — are reflected in resilience building strategies.

And individuals are also critical pieces of the puzzle — a recent poll from the AP and the University of Chicago, funded by Rockefeller, found that 31 percent of people impacted by Sandy reached out to nearby friends, family and neighbors for help in the aftermath of the storm, whereas only 17 percent reached out to government programs.

Philanthropy can be critical to bringing these stakeholders together, and catalyzing the innovations that will then be brought to scale by other actors.

For example, last week our Foundation joined with the federal Hurricane Sandy taskforce, headed by Housing Secretary Donovan, to launch a collaborative design competition to encourage innovation that will promote resilience in the Sandy affected regions.

But our efforts are also global in aim. In that spirit, for the Rockefeller Foundation’s Centennial, which was on May 14, we announced a $100 million effort to build urban resilience around the world. This summer, cities will have a chance to apply to be named among 100 Resilient Cities, which will receive four kinds of supports:

  • Support to hire a Chief Resilience Officer — an innovative new position within city government who would be charged with leading the implementation of resilient strategies, and ensuring all stakeholders are brought to the table.
  • The technical support to build a city-wide resilience strategy.
  • Access to a suite of services that will include innovative technology and support to leverage billions of dollars in private financing to bring resilience projects to life, whether it’s through infrastructure banks or microinsurance models
  • Finally, access to a network of 99 other cities to share what works.

You can visit 100 Resilient Cities to learn more about the Challenge.

One last question before I close my remarks.

“Why should we be focusing so much attention on Resilience?”

Resilience forces us to think more strategically about how we plan, build and run our cities — and ensure that our systems are working for all citizens. If we are spending fortunes of money rebuilding and repairing after emergencies we’ll never make a dent in any of our other goals — whether it’s fighting disease outbreaks, social inequities, or rising unemployment.

It is critical that we not just see resilience as something that we call on after a shock, but something we actively pursue — governments, private enterprise, and citizens — together in those moments in between…

Not just for the benefit of our city, but for all cities…

And because our future is an urban future — for the betterment of the world.

Leave a comment