A flood forced 100,000 people to evacuate Santa Fe, Argentina, in 2003. More than 150 people died in the disaster. It’s been nearly 15 years and the city’s leadership is still figuring out how to retrofit infrastructure and prepare for the next storm. One of the people at the center of this work is Chief Resilience Officer Andrea Valsagna.
CROs are becoming more prominent and commonplace in cities across the world. Last week, people from over 40 countries who have that title met in Manhattan for the 2017 Urban Resilience Summit. The event, part of the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities initiative, was a chance for Valsagna and her contemporaries to trade tips, share lessons and discuss how they’re preparing their cities for the future.
One common conversation that’s been echoing more loudly in resilient cities circles in the last few years: Improved economic stability for all citizens can make a huge difference in how well and quickly cities recover from a disaster.
In Santa Fe — where the threat to the population of 650,000-plus is intense rains that flood the rivers surrounding the city — being prepared includes addressing low-lying areas, which are not only prone to floods, but also home to informal settlements where many poor Argentinians live.
“In recent years, there has been much progress in disaster risk reduction policies,” Valsagna said in an email. “But the challenge is to relocate informal settlements in low-lying areas, to serve many neighborhoods where the highest rates of unemployment and violence are concentrated, and to promote sustainable economic development.”
Santa Fe published its resilience strategy in June, and according to Voice of America, the city is “expected to funnel 10 percent of its municipal budget into ways of making the city more resilient.” They’re working on the strict nuts and bolts of flooding — like better drainage — in addition to trying to relocate roughly 4,000 people living in 1,500 homes in flood-prone areas.
“Santa Fe must face dilemmas of mobility, waste management and urban development with a metropolitan approach,” Valsagna said. “With comprehensive programs that enhance its comparative advantages and guarantee a better future for all its population.”
In Bangkok, CRO Supachai Tantikom is tackling similar issues. In 2011, Thailand’s capital was hit by a severe flood that left the city with $45 billion in economic damages and losses, according to the World Bank. Bangkok’s new resilience strategy has three pillars: increasing quality of life, reducing risk and increasing adaptation, and fostering a stronger and more competitive economy. The strategy covers everything from equitable transit to environmentally conscious development. But, as in Santa Fe, the recent devastating flood is the driver of the city’s push for resilience.
“Our greatest challenge is to reimagine fundamental problems in our city, such as flooding, in new and creative ways,” Tantikom said in an email.
He’s concerned about drainage and how to best prepare Bangkok for the next flood, but Tantikom, who is a civil engineer, also explained in the city’s resilience strategy that a central part of their goal is to harness rising waters with smart infrastructure:
No longer is it enough for us to only protect Bangkok from flooding. With a changing climate and increasing urban development, managing floods will only become more complex. Instead, we must harness water in the city for life and livability. Our new approach to water management will use green and blue infrastructure — parks and canals, as much as it uses the traditional protection of grey infrastructure — pipes and pumps. This will provide multiple benefits for Bangkok, including contributing towards our goal of growing green space and encouraging environmentally friendly urbanization.
After Hurricane Sandy hit New York, resilience became a buzzword. There was a focus on creating and filling chief resilience officer positions, and bringing around all city agencies to think across sectors. Storm preparation and climate change are central issues in the planning process but, as CROs take larger roles in city halls, and resilience plans are been published, that buzzword is expanding. Boston, Honolulu and Louisville have — like Bangkok and Santa Fe — baked equity into their resilience strategy.
“The people who are often the first to be hurt in catastrophes big or small, sudden or slow-moving, are often the people who have the least resources,” Louisville CRO Eric Friedlander said upon his appointment earlier this year. “Cities must plan for how to respond to the shocks and stresses found at the intersection of race, poverty, the environment and the economy.”
Over 70 percent of Santa Fe is composed of “rivers, lakes and marshes,” according to Voice of America. Valsagna — like Tantikom in Bangkok — is working to better understand the natural environment and prevent another natural disaster from taking lives, upending families and stalling the economy. But, like Boston and Louisville and Honolulu, Valsagna and Tantikom are working to make a resilient city more than just a 21st-century metropolis with retrofitted infrastructure ready for a storm. Economic stability is as central to their planning as drainage. And in a world beset by rapidly increasing inequality and the rising threats of climate change, CROs have an opportunity to prepare their cities for the risks of rising waters and, hopefully, foster a more equitable economy as well.
Bill Bradley is a writer and reporter living in Brooklyn. His work has appeared in Deadspin, GQ, and Vanity Fair, among others.