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Livable Planet

International City Officials Met to Preempt Climate Change Destruction

At the 100 Resilient Cities Urban Resilience Summit, city leaders from around the world met to figure out the best way to thrive in the age of climate change.
Photo via MTA's Flickr account.

New York City, we are repeatedly warned, is in trouble. It has 520 miles of coastline and 400,000 city residents at a high risk of flooding. Three feet of sea level rise -- a not outlandish estimate of what we could see in the next 75 years -- sees the water eat away at the edges of Manhattan. Daniel Zarrilli knows these threats all too well; he worked on the city's recovery from Hurricane Sandy and lives, as he did during the storm, on Staten Island, which suffered the most deaths of any borough during the storm.


"Sandy had different outcomes depending on where you were in the city," he told VICE Impact. "If you looked in poorer neighbors and communities of color, you saw in many cases worse impacts."

Connecting the dots between superstorms and inequality is at the heart of his current role as the city's first Chief Resilience Officer, or CRO. His office is in the middle of shepherding the implementation of One NYC, an ambitious resiliency plan that runs the gamut from reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050, and lifting 800,000 New Yorkers out of poverty by 2025. In April, the mayor announced new "resiliency" guidelines that will require new city construction to incorporate the projected impacts of climate change into their designs.

"Resiliency" includes not only those programs meant to protect cities from and sustain them after disasters, but also ones to help residents and infrastructure deal with the daily shocks of urban life.

Last week, Zarrilli had the chance to demonstrate the fruits of that labor to an international audience when New York City played host to the 100 Resilient Cities (100RC) Urban Resilience Summit.

Founded in 2013, the 100RC is pioneered by the Rockefeller Foundation. 100RC's program of grants, training and support help their select member cities develop and implement robust resilience strategies. With a massive $164 million in funding, their organization is largely responsible for the CRO position's rapid, global spread.


New York was part of the first wave of cities to join the network, and the first to release a resiliency strategy. But in the four short years since the initiative's founding, the network has expanded to include a diverse array of cities that range from Ramallah to New Orleans to Rotterdam.

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This year's summit brought together more than 400 attendees -- ranging from fellow CROs to non-profit partners to city officials -- the largest meeting since the initiative's founding.

Resilience traditionally conjures narrow images of floods and tornadoes, of cities bouncing back from storms or shoring up against rising seas, acts of God or terror. But the definition of resiliency put forward by the 100RC is far more expansive. It includes not only those programs meant to protect cities from and sustain them after disasters, but also ones to help residents and infrastructure deal with the daily shocks of urban life.

Resiliency recognizes that all of these issues, from affordable housing to flood prevention, are linked. In order for a city to not just survive disasters but thrive in their wake, they need to create a city strong enough to withstand the shock of trauma. Imagine a smoker who goes to the doctor for bronchitis; if they just get pumped up with antibiotics, they'll address the immediate problem. But that does nothing to fix the underlying issue — the smoking — that's exacerbating their condition.


"We stopped talking as much about the what, and started talking a lot more about the how. How are we going to do it?"

This is still a very new field. San Francisco — threatened by the twin perils of an affordable housing crisis and an overdue earthquake — was the first city in the world to appoint a resiliency officer, also just two years ago. (Indeed, upon his hiring in 2014, the first official CRO in the world, San Francisco's Patrick Otellini agreed that resiliency was "such an encompassing term that it's very hard to define.")

Image via MTA Flickr.

Michael Berkowitz, the president of the 100RC program, says the expansiveness of the definition and the scope of the problems it encompasses had been at the heart of his group's discussions.

"We stopped talking as much about the what, 'what is urban resilience?'" he said, "and started talking a lot more about the how. How are we going to do it?"

That "how" was answered this year in the form of 14 "living laboratories" scattered around the city, covering issues such as food security, flood preparedness and post-industrial development.

Brooklyn Navy Yard was the "lab" demonstrating the latter. A mostly vacant industrial space that had been used as a prison, the Navy Yard now houses around 400 businesses with a focus on advanced manufacturing.

David Ehrenberg is the president of the Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation, the non-profit that now manages and develops the area. He sees the Yard as a space where a middle class workforce in metalwork and carpentry can exist alongside jobs for PhDs.

Flooding on Miami Beach. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

"They're choosing to be in New York for real business reasons," he told VICE Impact, be it access to talent or to clients or other clusters of related companies. It means those companies are also potentially more likely to stick around in the face of financial stresses or environmental threats. "The fact that they're connected to the wider economy in the city means that they're resilient," he said.

One of those on the tour of the Navy Yard was Kiran Jain, the CRO for Oakland. She was impressed by the work there and hoped to bring that focus on diverse job opportunities back to her city.

When asked about the interdisciplinary nature of her job, one that covers earthquakes as well as workforce development, she laughs. "Somebody once called me a 'chief silo buster,'" she said, "and I think it's true." The challenges cities face, she says, are too complicated and too vast for any single group to face alone. It's this interdisciplinary view of how cities function that make the CRO position, and indeed the entire resiliency field, so potentially innovative.