Judith Rodin, president of the Rockefeller Foundation, is clear that “resilience is an urgent social and economic issue.”

Our rapidly urbanising cities are, in her view, creating a new level of vulnerability due to growing populations and increased density. Her recently released book, The Resilience Dividend, opens with her account of Superstorm Sandy and the night it wreaked havoc on New York City and the other communities in its path.

Rodin reflects on pre-Sandy initiatives that the Rockefeller Foundation had previously supported, which explored the potential impacts of extreme weather events, including the identification of innovative design solutions and exhibitions that displayed and communicated new ideas and thinking around what resilience might look like. But on this occasion, no amount of innovative thinking would help New York.

Superstorm Sandy was the catalyst for a chain reaction of planning and preparedness responses across the United States. Various reports, such as the Urban Land Institute’s Beyond Sandy: Advancing Strategies for Long Term Resilience and Adaptability, attempted to unpack what happened and didn’t happen, when Sandy hit, and how we could be better prepared for such disasters.

Funding also started to flow into developing new resilience strategies and projects. The Presidential Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force, in partnership with the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), launched Rebuild by Design to pioneer new ways of designing, funding and implementing more resilient communities. Using $930 million in disaster recovery funding from HUD, the Rebuild by Design competition identified 10 groundbreaking design interventions that are now progressing, including “The Dryline” by the Bjarke Ingels Group. It seems ideas are now being deployed into the field.

But among the many initiatives that were spurred by Sandy, one of the most ambitious has been 100 Resilient Cities by the Rockefeller Foundation, whose goal is to provide the resources to 100 cities around the world to create a road map to resilience for their city.

As part of the support provided by the program, a Chief Resilience Officer is being deployed in each of the 100 cities selected.

Bouncing Forward, Beyond Storms

Let’s get some clarity on the definition of resilience. It has been a bugbear of mine how the resilience dialogue over the past few years has focused on natural disasters, like Sandy. There is no doubting the importance of building greater community resilience to natural disasters, whether fire, flood or earthquake, but there are so many other shocks that disrupt our communities and their ability to thrive.

Political instability, terrorism, deep social inequity and racism, economic decline and rapid technological advancement are but some of the shocks that have been studied at EcoDistricts. Our scope of the resilience discussion is therefore framed in the STEEP framework, one that acknowledges that social, technological, environmental, economic and political change can disrupt our communities.

We are not alone in sharing this view. According to the Rockefeller Foundation:

“100RC supports the adoption and incorporation of a view of resilience that includes not just the shocks – earthquakes, fires, floods, etc. – but also the stresses that weaken the fabric of a city on a day to day or cyclical basis. Examples of these stresses include high unemployment; an overtaxed or inefficient public transportation system; endemic violence; or chronic food and water shortages. By addressing both the shocks and the stresses, a city becomes more able to respond to adverse events, and is overall better able to deliver basic functions in both good times and bad, to all populations.”

Work in building out protocols with an amazing global network of reviewers and advisors uncovered a view on resilience that ran deep in people’s thinking – that resilience is both a process and an outcome-based concept. It was a commonly held view that treating resilience as a silo issue on its own, and making it solely about ‘bouncing back,’ would be detrimental to the ability of project teams to successfully plan, design and implement programs that would build greater community resilience.

Herein lies the critical role of the Chief Resilience Officer (CRO).

Networks, Trust and Cooperation

It was roughly a year ago that the world’s first CRO was employed by the City of San Francisco. Patrick Otellini, a seasoned resilience guru, snapped up the first of what has been a continual stream of appointments across the world for this unique position within established and emerging leadership cities. A total of 67 cities have received funding to place a CRO, and 33 more are waiting.

I first penned my thoughts about the CRO role when I suggested a position description back in August 2014 as a light-hearted attempt at outlining what such as role might entail.

Having now met with a small handful of these CROs in Australia and the United States, I see a new style of government staffer – one that floats above the detail at times to strategically observe, interrogate and recommend, but one who can also dive deep where and when it is necessary.

Urban governance and community engagement again gets raised in my discussions with the CROs, as well as whether we can establish district and neighborhood leadership in a way that builds better resilience. Building networks, trust and cooperation has been a priority, rather than berms, sandbags and back-up generators.

The later is of course important infrastructure to stem the rising tide and provide post disaster support. However, this infrastructure doesn’t check on your elderly neighbor to see if they are surviving a week-long 43-degree Celsius heat wave in South Australia. Being neighbourly and building community can be effective strategies in building resilience. And to build community, scale matters.

Much focus, both in academia and in practice, has been placed on resilience in cities rather than in districts and neighbourhoods. At EcoDistricts, we are broadening the discussion on resilience and boldly promoting the district and neighbourhood scale as the optimum level to build city resilience.

In doing so, we asked ourselves some key questions, including:

  • What makes a neighbourhood resilient?
  • Why is resilience at a district level important?
  • How can we assess resilience in a neighbourhood?
  • How can we enhance resilience in a neighbourhood?

After conducting a thorough literature review and researching a number of recent case studies (including responses to natural disasters, terrorist attacks and technology disruptions) that seemed to express the characteristics of communities undergoing stress, EcoDistricts identified four common themes/core characteristics of how the communities responded and adapted, or didn’t. These were:

  1. Leadership and governance
  2. Community resourcing
  3. Software solutions
  4. Hardware solutions

Across government, the CRO has a key role to play with the first characteristic, in building effective leadership and governance frameworks at a neighborhood level. This includes everything from promoting institutional coordination, helping confirm clear lines of responsibility across departments and supporting an integrated funding strategy for resilience planning and capacity building.

However, in order to develop all four of these core characteristics of resilience at a district level, there is a need for a network of community leaders that can share information, ideas, best practices and more effectively develop innovative solutions.

On Post-Sandy Resilience in An Era of the Chief Resilience Officer

Much of our urban regeneration efforts help promote great place-making – well-sited, mixed-use developments that are compact, and high-performing buildings and infrastructure that minimize our footprint. However, establishing the conditions for greater resilience in our neighbourhoods – the building blocks of cities – is yet to become a priority with a responsible city official held accountable.

Converting the resilience discussion to an economic development discussion, an improved social services discussion and a building community prosperity discussion may change that. Crafting this value proposition within the city, and externally with the business and civic sector, is a prime opportunity for the CRO.

A key tenant of Rodin’s Resilience Dividend confirms this, highlighting resilience as a process for facilitating the “co-benefits that investing in resilience can yield to a city: job creation, economic opportunity, social cohesion and equity.”

I have seen no better example than the Neighborhood Empowerment Network created and curated by the City of San Francisco. It is efforts like this that must rise to the surface and be visible, inspiring others and acting as a blueprint for leaders and communities to act in building resilient cities, from the neighborhood up.