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Acceptance Remarks by Dr. Judith Rodin for J.C. Nichols Prize for Visionaries in Urban Development

“We must not be blind to the constant opportunities for improvement in our own industry—we must never allow ourselves to follow a rut into our own graves.”

Thank you so much for that generous introduction: Omar, Michael Berkowitz, and, of course, Ron Terwilliger. I am so grateful and humbled to share Ron’s company, as well as the company of so many other distinguished individuals, who have preceded me in this honor.

Thank you to the Urban Land Institute. This recognition is made all the more meaningful because of your leadership and the impact ULI is having in cities all over the world.

Of course, I’ve long admired the work of J.C. Nichols. He paved the way for Jane Jacobs, whose writing of the Death and Life of Great American Cities was funded by The Rockefeller Foundation and inspired much of the work we did in West Philadelphia.

But looking through his writings, I was struck by a line in an address he gave to an audience of realtors in Tulsa—which I can assume was quite a party. He said, “We live in a rapidly changing world. Many of our methods of yesterday may not serve today.” Now, this was in 1936…

Long before rising sea levels captured headlines in cities around the world…

Long before the term resilience buzzed through real-estate circles…

Long before the Royals bounced back to the World Series after nearly 30 years…

And I’m sure Nichols, as he had so much to do with the development of Kansas City, is leading the cheering section up in heaven.

Even back in 1936, Nichols was thinking with a resilience approach. But today, crisis has become the new normal. Because of that triple threat of rapid urbanization, globalization and climate change, a week doesn’t go by, that we don’t see some kind of disturbance to the normal flow of things—a cyber-attack, a new strain of virus, a structural failure, a violent storm, a civil conflict, an economic blow, a natural system threatened. But not every disruption has to become a disaster. There are investments we can make upfront to save time, money, and lives on the backend.

This is the promise and the potential of resilience.

I want to urge us to take this concept once step further, beyond the three “Rs”—”readiness, response, and revitalization”—to add a fourth R that crosses all three: “return.” That’s what we at The Rockefeller Foundation call the resilience dividend. It’s the return on making investments in resilience that we can see every day. And not just financial return, although often it is, protecting assets or creating new jobs that provide new kinds of goods and services. The dividend can also come in the form of increased social cohesion—building bonds among neighbors, usually the first responders in time of disaster. It can come in the form of better air quality, water and energy access and utilization, and health outcomes.

There are limitless possibilities.

But good design is at the core—and we must front-load our thinking and planning for resilience at a large scale. Rockefeller has a portfolio of projects we call “Resilience by Design.” They aim to catalyze resilience planning and building with nature through interventions at land-scape scale. Our partners include the US Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, architects, engineers, and planners, as well as local governments around the world.

You’ve heard about 100 Resilient Cities from Michael and many of you might be familiar with Rebuild by Design—which was featured heavily at your recent Urban Resilience conference in San Francisco last month. Teams of architects and city planners worked with communities in the Sandy affected regions of New York and New Jersey to propose designs that would protect neighborhoods from future storms, while also providing a resilience dividend. Let me describe one.

The BIG Team—had an appropriately BIG proposal: a barrier stretching 8-miles protecting Lower Manhattan from future flooding.

Big U - Photo Collage

When you think of a flood barrier, you might envision quite an eyesore. But that’s not what this team has in mind. Rather, the project, which they call “The Big U” is actually a series of urban designs, uniquely developed in concert with the communities it protects.

Each community has championed a design that would enable it to reap their own dividends: from increased green space and places for communities to gather to new bike paths to ease traffic congestion to infrastructure that doubles as art. In one community, plans call for walls to attach underneath the FDR. The walls can be easily deployed for flood events but also provide lighting at night, increasing safety along this dangerous pathway. The panels will also be deployed to create a seasonal market during winter time, bringing new economic activity to the neighborhood. This is a powerful symbol of what good design and planning can achieve, when taken through a resilience-building lens.

But while we build resilience project by project, city by city, we need a broader change in thinking across all sectors. That’s where all of you come in.

I go back to the words of J.C. Nichols:

“We must not be blind to the constant opportunities for improvement in our own industry—we must never allow ourselves to follow a rut into our own graves.”

A resilience approach offers us all—no matter our industry—the chance to improve our work, break old patterns, adapt, and evolve. And no one has more opportunity to influence wide-scale evolution of where we live and how we live than the people in this room.

Thank you again for this honor.