Dutch cities are rightly famous for their dual-purpose parks and playgrounds that double as flood protection, where what might be a basketball court most days becomes a temporary water retention pond during a big storm. Half a world away, Surat, India, along the Tapi River is similarly concerned about floods. But instead of basketball courts, the Gujarati city has devised temples surrounded by so-called water plazas. They will accommodate worshippers during normal periods, but transform into islands of Ganesha statues during heavy rains. In March 2019, flood management specialists from Rotterdam traveled to Surat to help conceptualize these one-of-a-kind water plazas, which are scheduled to be built this year.
These moments of sharing big ideas but adapting the particulars to address one of the most common challenges facing cities around the world — nearly all of which are situated on at least one waterway, for example — is what motivates Lauren Sorkin, the acting director of the newly formed Global Resilient Cities Network, which formally launched on Tuesday at World Urban Forum 10 in Abu Dhabi.
Just under a year since the Rockefeller Foundation announced it was pulling the plug on the highly regarded 100 Resilient Cities program, Sorkin is adamant about what the next phase of urban resilience looks like: “We are going to double down on the power of city-to-city exchange.”
100 Resilient Cities was a $164 million effort that pushed cities around the world to incorporate resilience thinking by preparing for sudden shocks and chronic stresses likely to impact their city, from natural disasters to economic crises, by establishing the mayoral cabinet-level position of chief resilience officer (CROs) in roughly 100 cities. Over six years, 84 ultimately prepared “resilience strategies” meant to guide city operations.
When the Rockefeller Foundation announced in April 2019 that it would not be renewing the program’s funding, the worldwide community of CROs pushed back and pleaded for a chance to keep their network alive. In July 2019, the foundation committed $8 million to see the cause forward. Six months later, that financial commitment has revealed itself as the Global Resilient Cities Network, comprised of 98 cities in 40 countries, or nearly the entire universe of 100 Resilient Cities members.
With considerably less financial runway at the outset, the new operation will be more streamlined than 100 Resilient Cities’ more than 100 employees working intensively with individual cities as one-to-one brokers to shepherd their resilience strategies and ultimately a small handful of resilient infrastructure projects. For example, 100 Resilient Cities played matchmaker between Semarang, Indonesia and the Institute for Global Environmental Studies to prepare a pro bono feasibility study for replacing the city’s bus fleet with lower-carbon models. While the Japanese government ultimately chose to invest development aid in that project, the process took over two years.
Instead of what Sorkin calls “high-touch partnerships,” she expects the Global Resilient Cities Network to max out at 25 employees that will operate on what she calls a “demand-driven model.”
“Our job is to very carefully curate city demand and partnership around certain themes,” she says.
For example, when The Hague diagnosed itself as vulnerable to cyberattacks that could knock out critical infrastructure like traffic lights, CRO Anne-Marie Hitipeuw invited Atlanta to debrief on its 2018 saga with a ransomware attack.
“They shared their experiences and were very open on the lessons that they have to learn and the next steps they have to take became more cyber resilient,” Hitipeuw says. “For us, this openness, transparency, and trust between the different cities — but also the fact that the network is now city-led — is very important.”
Global Resilient Cities Network hopes to recruit 10 additional members this year, though it remains unclear if the new entity will be able to pay for the salary of the CRO position, which 100 Resilient Cities did for the first two years of all cities accepted as members. “It was never the intent to fund CROs for the long term,” Sorkin points out. “The first two years were a proof of concept.” By the end of the program, two-thirds of cities were fully funding their CROs.
For former 100 Resilient Cities president Michael Berkowitz, while the network that will replace the flagship effort he ran will be leaner, he is confident that the idea of urban resilience has gone mainstream.
“We are seeing much broader adoption of the kind of urban resilience that we have been talking about,” Berkowitz, who is also founder of the newly launched Resilient Cities Catalyst, says. “Not just disaster risk reduction but rather thinking about cities in very integrated and holistic ways as a way to build strength and resilience.”
Berkowitz spent six years updating his pitch deck with the disaster du jour, which in early 2020 could have easily featured wildfires and a global pandemic as a reason to think about resilience.
“Every time I do my basic talk, I update my first slides with what’s happened just in the last month,” he says. “Unfortunately, we’ve had six years where every week there is a new reason why we need this work.”
UPDATE: We’ve added Michael Berkowitz’s current title to this story.
Our special correspondent Gregory Scruggs will be in Abu Dhabi to cover World Urban Forum 10, taking place February 8 through 13, 2020. To stay on top of the essential conversations and innovative solutions presented at WUF 10, sign up for Urban Planet, our global sustainability newsletter.
Gregory Scruggs is a Seattle-based independent journalist who writes about solutions for cities. He has covered major international forums on urbanization, climate change, and sustainable development where he has interviewed dozens of mayors and high-ranking officials in order to tell powerful stories about humanity’s urban future. He has reported at street level from more than two dozen countries on solutions to hot-button issues facing cities, from housing to transportation to civic engagement to social equity. In 2017, he won a United Nations Correspondents Association award for his coverage of global urbanization and the UN’s Habitat III summit on the future of cities. He is a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners.