News and Announcements / News and Announcements

Remarks by Dr. Judith Rodin at the Cities for Tomorrow Conference

As prepared for delivery:


Good afternoon, everyone.

Thanks to Michael Kimmelman and the New York Times for focusing on the future of cities. Undoubtedly, the first 15 years of the 21st century have proven that the road to the future is not a straight line.

For cities, it’s no longer an “if” they’ll be hit by a disruption that threatens to throw them off course, to stop progress in its tracks.

It’s a matter of when—and how long it will take for that city to get back on course.

There are three global forces colliding to make crisis the new normal for so many cities.

The first is the demographic and migratory tsunamis that are causing major urban transformation. The global urban population is growing by 63 million people annually, equivalent to adding seven Chicagos a year, according to a recent McKinsey Global Institute report.

Nearly half of global GDP growth between 2010 and 2050 will come from 400 cities in emerging markets.

And many developed world cities, from London to Athens to Los Angeles, are seeing greater volumes of immigration and shifts in the composition of their populations.

These shifts bring both new opportunities and new challenges in housing, education, economic development, and social identity – as cities work to bridge socioeconomic divides and build a sense of community among new and life-long residents now living as neighbors.

The second trend is globalization. We are more connected than ever before. Contagions—health, financial, or otherwise—don’t respect borders.

We learned this yet again in the recent Ebola outbreak in West Africa, which sent people to the emergency room right here in New York City.

The third trend is climate change, which has led to dramatic fluctuations in rainfall, and sea-level rise, longer periods of more intense heat, and the disturbance of natural ecosystems and disease patterns.

All three trends have effects on structural, social, and natural urban systems.

Every week, we see another disruption in a city somewhere in the world, sometimes even in the same day.

Two weeks ago, the New York Stock Exchange brought trading to a halt, while United Airlines brought its fleet to a standstill, all because of separate computer glitches. It would have been a Wall Street Journal’s reporter dream, except that site went down, too.

That’s three technological failures…

Any of which individually could have caused great disruption in the lives of New Yorkers in their travels, in their trading, and in their pursuit of information.

If it’s not technology disruptions or cyberattacks threatening our cities, it’s an earthquake, a heatwave, a violent storm.

Social, political, or economic upheaval.

And then there are the slower burning stresses, such as traffic congestion, searing inequality, air and water pollution, that cities must deal with every day.

Kind of makes the dystopian futures in H.G. Wells novels look a little more appealing, doesn’t it?

But I am an optimist.

And here’s why:

Not every disruption must become a disaster.

We can “furturize” our cities by making them more resilient – to be better prepared for, rebound more effectively from, and even transform and grow in the face of these shocks and stresses.

And through those same investments, cities not only become future-proof, they become better places to live and work.

They become more appealing places to do business, because companies aren’t as worried about the transit lines failing or supply chain disruption…

They become healthier places, with more green space for recreation, more bike trails that cut down on traffic emissions, fewer pollutants running into and contaminating our waterways.

They benefit from innovations in local government that leverage a wider, data-driven online world.

And they contribute to building community capacity, the importance of which cannot be overstated.

These are all examples of what we call “resilience dividends.”

And it’s the kind of investment and innovation that 67 cities around the world are putting into action right now through our 100 Resilient Cities Challenge.

Today, I am pleased to announce that we are opening the challenge for the final round of applications to become one of the remaining 33 cities to join this network—rounding out our 100.

We believe that with four unique supports that we offer, cities can become significantly more resilient – structurally, socially, and economically. The first support is to help cities better understand the reality of the threats they face.

We find that sometimes cities overestimate a particular threat—perhaps an earthquake—while downplaying vulnerabilities that are both more likely to occur and have a greater impact.

For example, in the first 700 city applications we’ve received, one quarter of the cities were underestimating the threat of flooding.

And so the first thing we do is fund a strategy development process, which works with a broad range of stakeholders in a six to nine month process to assess where the biggest problems—and where the greatest opportunities—are, and begin to build a strategy from there.

Typically, because resilience is a new idea in many of these cities, there’s not a single person with the responsibility for building it. Rather it lies within several departments—law enforcement, disaster planning, housing, transportation, economic development.

These departments sometimes do not even talk to each other. And city government may not be as effectively engaging community leaders, civil society, and the private sector as they must to become resilient.

And so the second thing we provide is funding to hire someone to act as a conductor of this disparate orchestra of resilience builders, a position we call a Chief Resilience Officer, or CRO.

The CRO is responsible for coordination within city government and interfacing with national and regional government, businesses, civil-society and communities to ensure that planning is integrated.

Two years ago, this position didn’t exist.

Today, 30 CROs are at work in cities around the world, and many more are about to be announced.

We stipulate that the CRO must have the ear of the top-decision maker, not just another middle manager that has to fight through the red tape.

After the strategy is completed, the cities get to work.

Here, our third offering is pro bono access to a group of nearly 50 Platform Partners: private sector companies, universities, NGOs, and publicly funded labs that provide resilience building tools to our cities and help them execute their resilience strategy. This includes SwissRe’s risk assessment models; Palantir’s big data analysis capabilities; Microsoft’s cyber security tools, just to name a few.

Finally, we offer membership in a true, global network of future-oriented urban resilience builders.

Through 100 RC, cities, led by the CRO, have access and an open line of communication to each other to share best practices, bounce ideas off one another, encourage each other to think together about their resilience building.

We saw a great example of this last month in Norfolk, Virginia, where the Chief Resilience Officer held a 5-day workshop with community stakeholders from Hampton Roads and resilience experts and engineers from Rotterdam.

Community members in Norfolk learned how to embrace rising coastal waters as an asset, and integrate it with the economic and social infrastructure of the city. These exchanges aren’t always so formal – last year when storms were approaching Ashkelon, Israel, the CRO sought advice from the CRO of New Orleans, a city thousands of miles a way that just happens to know a little something about the importance of storm preparation.

100 Resilient Cities responds to the complexities of cities of the future, and the challenges of scaling good ideas globally.

And we’re looking for engaged, energized cities who want to be on the leading edge of this work with us.

If that sounds like your city, head to our website at 100ResilientCities DOT ORG to start an application.

The application period will be open through November 25th, and winners will be selected in early 2016. I am also pleased to announce that in addition to The Rockefeller Foundation’s initial $100 million commitment, we’re adding another $64 million dollars, bringing the total amount we will invest in 100RC to $164 million, in addition to access to all the pro bono goods and services on our platform.

This is an exciting time to be a part of 100 Resilient Cities. I’d like to acknowledge the person leading the effort, Michael Berkowitz, who is here with us today.

Now, let me take you around the world, to a few of these cities and share how they are turning resilience building into transformative outcomes.

But before I do, I’m going to tap into my previous life as a professor, and ask you to keep in mind, as you listen, five characteristics that all resilient cities share. This way, my examples will be more than just anecdotes, but applicable lessons that you can apply in your own jobs in your own cities.

First, they are aware of their vulnerabilities and their assets. They have both a willingness and the ability to assess, take in new information, and adjust to that information using robust monitoring and feedback loops.

Second, they are diverse and often redundant in the types of back-ups and alternatives they can access, so that if one part of the system is challenged, it can rely on another.

For example, the disruption to the New York Stock Exchange was not as catastrophic as it might have been even a few years ago.

The reason?

Diversification in trading platforms. There are now 11 exchanges – so if one goes down, the entire market doesn’t go down with it.

Third, they are integrated in the way they share information, ensuring coordinated action across all components. The left hand knows what the right hand is doing, and they’re working together toward the same goals.

Fourth, they are self-regulating, meaning that if one part of the system fails, the entity can adjust to changing circumstances by developing new plans, taking new actions, or modifying past behaviors.

And fifth, a resilient city is adaptive. It’s flexible – it bends rather than breaks.

Based on these characteristics of a resilient city, here are some important themes that have emerged.

One: When disruption happens, resilient cities don’t rebuild things the way they were before, because doing so opens the city up to the same weaknesses that caused the crisis in the first place.

Rather, more resilient cities reject this build-back mindset and find opportunities to transform, to shed past vulnerabilities, and they don’t waste time in a downward spiral of finger-pointing and blame.

No city in the world has learned this better than New Orleans.

As we approach the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, we are reminded that event wasn’t just about a failure of the levee system.

It was also the other problems the flood surfaced: a lack of jobs, racial divisions, poor leadership, weak public education system to name a few.

Today, thousands are flocking to a renewed New Orleans. Why? Because the city is taking care to rebuild in a more resilient and more inclusive, integrated way – especially for communities historically denied opportunity. New Orleans has fundamentally changed how public education is delivered, it diversified its economy, once dangerously reliant on oil and gas…, fostering entrepreneurship and innovation and it reimagined its neighborhoods, with transformative results.

In partnership with the State, New Orleans is working to combat its collapsing coastline. Louisiana is losing an acre of land to coastal erosion each day.

But through a 50-year, $50 billion plan, leaders are not only protecting against huge economic losses that would result if the port was ever closed down, but restoring wetlands that will protect and revitalize the entire Lower Mississippi Delta.

New Orleans still has a lot of work to do, including solving for its high unemployment among African American men and bringing down still-high crime rates.

But the resilience-building process they have undertaken significantly increases the likelihood of success.

Another theme we are seeing is that Resilient Cities are finding ways to live with water, rather than trying to keep it out.

We know that coastal and river cities all over the world are experiencing increased incidences of flooding, caused by sea-level rise, in addition to ever more intense storms and storm surges.

In the past, the approach has been to pave, pipe, and pump to keep out water of places where it shouldn’t be.

But in resilient cities, water protection is embraced as both an asset and an opportunity.

And like Norfolk, they can learn from Rotterdam, one of our 100RC cities.

Much of the urban area in the Netherlands is below sea-level.

Yet, 9 million Dutch live in those places and 60 percent of the nation’s GDP is generated there.

The reason?

Its system of dams, weirs, and storm surge mechanisms— Are based on protection that embraces living with water while enhancing quality of life and commerce.

I saw a great example of this on a recent visit to Rotterdam’s low-lying Zoho District.

We stopped to watch children playing on a basketball court. It looked like an ordinary court in any other city.

But had we been there after a rain storm, we would have seen a much different scene: the court doubles as a major water catchment facility in times of heavy rain. But in dry times, children gather to play basketball and hang out with friends. Social workers are integrated on site to help local residents connect to community services.

So not only does it protect from flooding, the facility improves social cohesion, important as the City now looks at the social aspects of building resilience, asking tough questions about how to integrate a growing immigrant populations into the economic and social life of the port city.

Other new water-resilience strategies are catching on in cities around the world.

In Boulder, for example, which saw historic levels of rainfall and flooding in 2013, city agencies partnered with private developers to build a multi-purpose system where storm drains double as bicycle trails, flood gates double as new transportation routes and recreation areas, and ecosystem measures protect water quality.

That’s the resilience dividend.

As I hinted at in the Rotterdam example, a fourth learning of Resilient Cities is that building social resilience is as important as building physical or economic resilience.

Following the wave of police violence and tensions around our country – and recent terror attacks around the world – many of our 100 Resilient Cities are tackling the endemic problems of racial and social exclusion.

Boston, a city with a checkered past when it comes to racial issues has identified social resilience as a key goal of its work with 100 Resilient Cities.

The City has been engaging directly and honestly with community groups to get ahead of any tensions that could boil over down the road. In a major acknowledgement of the city’s history, Mayor Walsh announced that the Boston school curriculum would be revised to include the city’s troubled bussing history.

This is using the resilience characteristic of “awareness” I noted before.

In Oakland, the Citizen Police Academy is making inroads at improving police and community relations by giving residents a first-hand look at the policies and procedures Oakland police officers follow while on the job. The community classes have been so popular that they have waiting lists.

Other cities are seeking solutions in which social resilience and physical and economic access are linked, drawing on the resilience principle of integration.

For that story, I take you to Medellin, another of our 100RC.

Medellin, Colombia, confronted decades of drug trafficking, crime, and homicide.

They spent billions in police and military efforts to wipe it out, including massive amounts of support from the US government, as you know.

But it wasn’t working.

So they looked to the root causes of the problem – poor people, in barrios high in the hills, geographically disconnected from the economic center, were both the agents and the victims of the drug-trafficking trade.

The solution was building transit systems that linked the poorest and most vulnerable communities to the economic and social core of the city down below using a “gondola” system and hillside escalators.

The government built health care clinics and day care centers at the transit stops.

Indeed, the modes of transportation most commonly associated with fancy ski resorts and shopping malls now provide the connective tissue necessary to spur economic integration and social cohesion and allow the city to transform from the shock of decades of murder and drugs.

The new transit system also provides safe and effective escape routes during emergencies.

Today, Medellin is a vibrant, more resilient city with a strong tourism economy and the murder rate is down by 90%!

Medellin is now sharing its lessons with New Orleans to potentially help lower crime rates in the Big Easy.

The fourth and final lesson is that integration and cross-sector collaboration is a hallmark of a truly resilient city.

And San Francisco, another 100RC city is a great example.

Through work with 100RC, SF has moved from a focus on seismic resilience to a resilience plan that also includes planning for sea level rise, greater community cohesion, and more inclusive housing.

The city has embraced two resilience characteristics in creating an integrated and adaptive plan that includes private businesses and community groups in the city’s resilience planning.

And San Francisco is also integrating the strategies of its growing “sharing economy” businesses such as rideshare company Lyft and home-share company AirBnb in its planning, because their business model is built on a resilience principle—the effective use of excess capacity.

These cities and their stories of resilience are just the beginning of the incredible transformations set to take place in cities around the world, through 100 Resilient Cities, and beyond.

With 75 percent of the urban infrastructure that will be in place by 2050 yet to be built…We have a choice ahead of us:

We can build our cities to be resilient, not just future-proof but future-ready to unleash an age in which disruptions are just another opportunity for growth, transformation, and revitalization.

Or, we can keep along our present-course, responding rather than preparing.

Failing catastrophically rather than failing safely.

Doing city business as usual, and hoping for the best.

But I am an optimist.

And I believe we’ll choose the former not just to make cities of the future more resilient…

But to unleash an entire Resilience Age.

Thank you.