As the triple threats of climate change, rapid urbanization, and globalization exert pressure on cities, many of those places are looking to be more resilient — now and 25, 50, or 100 years from now. But what is urban resilience, and how do you plan for it?
The first question, a definition, is easier; it’s the second that’s knottier.
In a dynamic and crowded session at the National Planning Conference in New York City on May 6, participants in the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities shared their experiences.
Some takeaways about resiliency planning:
- Collaboration and coordination is essential.
- Efforts must include planning for the most vulnerable populations.
- Resiliency isn’t a “plan.” It’s layered into every part of a city and every department of its government.
What is resilience?
Urban resilience is the capacity of individuals, communities, institutions, businesses, and systems within a city to survive, adapt, and grow no matter what kinds of chronic stresses and acute shocks they experience. Like illnesses, there are chronic stresses — high unemployment, poor or overtaxed infrastructure, water shortages — that weaken cities. Acute shocks are the devastating occurrences that often get conversations about resilience going: earthquakes, floods, disease outbreaks, terrorist attacks.
Hurricane Sandy “was definitely a shock to New York City,” said panelist Amy Chester, managing director of Rebuild By Design. “We always thought we were preparing for the next generation. We had no idea Sandy would come,” said Chester, who worked on the sustainability agenda PlaNYC under the Bloomberg administration. “We’re going to start thinking of [those events] as regular,” said Chester.
New York is one of the 100 Resilient Cities.
Another 100RC participant, Norfolk, Virginia, has a chronic flooding problem that’s no longer shocking. Flooding regularly occurs even on sunny days during the king tides, thanks to a wicked combination that includes sea level rise, land subsidence, and the paving over of creeks in favor of roadways. “People can kayak in the streets, literally,” said speaker George Homewood, FAICP, Norfolk’s director of city planning.
But, a result of that city’s resiliency efforts is the realization that water isn’t a problem to be solved, it’s an amenity. “We can turn much of our city into a sponge, daylighting creeks and turning this nuisance into an amenity. We can actually create more waterfront property.”
Marissa Aho, AICP, sees herself as a convener as much as anything in her position as LA’s Chief Resiliency Officer. She said she feels like a “matchmaker” going around the city connecting people, organizations, and government agencies, helping them see how interrelated and interdependent they are — and how they fit in to the resiliency strategy. “I can tie just about anything back to some element of resilience.”
100 Resilient Cities’ Corinne LeTourneau works with several large cities, including New York and Los Angeles. The Chief Resilience Officers funded by the Rockefeller Foundation program come from different disciplines, bringing their core expertise with them — as well as getting outside their comfort zones. “Planning is a field really predisposed to resilience planning.”
“It’s very simple: We are the profession that thinks about the future,” agreed Homewood. “We also have skills to manage change, but need to work with other disciplines with other skillsets.”
Top image: 100 Resilient Cities logo, courtesy Rockefeller Foundation.