Michael Berkowitz is no stranger to natural disaster, having responded to a West Nile Fever outbreak, tropical storm and major flooding as a deputy commissioner at the Office of Emergency Management in New York City. Today, as president of the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities initiative, Berkowitz continues to help cities prepare for and respond to these types of disasters. He has led 100 RC since its founding in 2013. With a network of 100 selected cities across the globe, the program aims to better address the increasing “shocks” — sudden natural disasters like hurricanes, earthquakes and floods — and “stresses” — slow-burning crises like homelessness and water shortages — of the 21st century. 100 RC announced its final cohort of 37 cities last summer, and more than 50 cities, including non-participating cities, have appointed “chief resilience officers” in recent years.
I spoke with Berkowitz on Thursday, while he was in Athens, Greece, meeting with mayors, about a smart recovery strategy post-hurricanes Harvey and Irma, how chief resilience officers can leverage their small budgets to effect change, and projects he admires from New Orleans to Paris to Rotterdam and beyond.
Do you have any experience with flooding that’s touched you personally?
I was in emergency management in NYC in the ’90s and early 2000s, so I’ve seen a lot of flooding up close and personal, but none of those instances was my stuff.
The closest I would come to that was, I was moving to Mumbai in 2007 during the last big flood there. We were still in a hotel at the time, which was dry, but the floodwaters were on the streets for a whole day, if not the better part of 36 hours. We did go out in it, in a car and were sort of trapped by it at different times. But that’s not anything like if you lose valuables or irreplaceable personal family items and so on from flooding. So I haven’t had that, but I have seen a bunch of it.
Is there anything specific about the public reaction to Harvey and Irma that made you feel 100 Resilient Cities’ work has had a positive impact?
Well as you know, Houston is not a 100RC city. Miami is, but nothing else in the state of Florida.
I’m not sure I can point to anything yet that has had a huge impact, but I do think what you’re going to start to see is people more directly connecting issues of economic diversity and social capital and how to build back better, smarter and more resilient. We’ve seen a number of editorials that are going to call for Houston in particular to think more holistically and proactively and strategically about how to rebuild the city and to use the word resilience in that way. That that term even means that these days is in part a credit to 100 RC and our movement at the time to get people to think in this new way.
The other thing I’d say is that the Harvey and Irma stories are just at the beginning of being written. In Houston, where the floodwaters have gone away, what the real test will be, over the next month and years, is how does the city really recover? Is it able to get not just back to where it was, but to use this as an opportunity to make itself more equitable, more diverse, more vibrant? So we still have a lot of dark days ahead of us, in terms of people reentering, and in terms of getting neighborhoods back up, trying to save small enterprises from going out of business in damaged areas.
Imagine a U.S. city mayor looking at Houston, worried about his or her own city’s disaster preparedness. That mayor gets on the phone with Sylvester Turner six months from now. What’s the first thing that worried mayor should ask Turner?
After disaster, there is a rush to rebuild as quickly as you can, and there’s a need to do it more strategically. So my sense is that Turner and the state will look back and wonder whether or not they got that balance right. And I’m not coming down on either side of this, both are legitimate and important concerns. People are hurting and will be hurting for a long time, and so to the extent that we can get money back to them and we can rebuild and we can mitigate future flood impact — we’re not even through 2017 hurricane season — so there will be a sort of ticking clock of wanting to mitigate risk and get people back on their feet and stop the hurting as quickly as possible.
And yet, there is such an incredible opportunity, with the billions of dollars that are going to be spent on infrastructure, that if Houston, or any part of Florida or the Caribbean for that matter, thinks about how to rebuild that infrastructure in a way that connects communities instead of disconnecting them, that makes more livable streets that promote neighbors checking on neighbors, or creates an environment where small and medium-sized ventures can flourish and not just the big corporations, all those things are important, real, opportunities for Houston and for Florida as they rebuild. And those things do take time. And so the question is, how do you balance the need to get back quickly, and the need to do things more strategically?
A number of our [100 RC] cities, including Norfolk, Virginia, are thinking about what they might do post-disaster. So they started the thought process before the crisis happened so, if tragically they’re impacted, they’re able to make the most of their recovery and all the opportunities that holds.
So, to put that to a question as you asked: How did you think about short term and long term at the same time, and did you get the right balance?
Houston CRO Stephen Costello has said that his big challenge is money. He started with zero staff and no budget. He now has one staffer and very limited resources pulled from other departments and federal grants. This must be a common story across the network’s cities. 100 RC announced its final cities last year and you’ve said the next step is implementation for cities in the network. Where will the money come from?
Cities do things all the time and spend lots of money all the time, and so being able to spend that money more strategically and more in line with resilience strategy, is one way that without new money you can affect what’s going on. So one of the things we’re trying to do is encourage CROs to partner more closely with CFOs and those two can be a real tandem. We’ve seen in New Orleans for instance, because the CRO also became the first deputy mayor, Jeff Hebert, who oversees the budget, now all the money that is spent in New Orleans has to go through a resilience screen.
The second thing I’d say is that there will be a lot of money coming into the states for sure to oversee rebuilding, and the $15 billion disaster appropriation for both Irma and Harvey has been said to be just the first step. So you could think that there could be somewhere between $8 [billion] and $10 billion coming into Houston and Florida for rebuilding. So how can a CRO most effectively insert himself and his resilience lens into that process so that you can rebuild better?
And then there is a lot of leverage cities have. In Singapore, they granted additional [square footage] for buildings that build with more green space because they want to both absorb rainwater as well as mitigate urban heat islands. And they did this in the ’80s or early ’90s, and what they’ve done in the last two decades is significantly increase the population of the island nation, but also significantly increase green space.
And so the more general question is: How do you incentivize the right behavior? If permeability and taking water out of the storm drain and putting it back into the ground at the source is one of your main policy agendas to reduce flooding, then how do you incentivize private developers who build most of the infrastructure in cities to add those features, which individually might have a relatively small cost, but collectively can have a big impact.
I’ll tease you with another example: Paris, France, is going to release its resilience strategy on Oct. 4. Paris is one of the most dense cities in the world, with very little open and green space, and what they’ve realized is they control 551 schools, each of which has a small interior courtyard. So they’re looking at retrofitting that green infrastructure as part of their strategy, which would come out to something like 700 acres.
The other important piece is that building something is not always better than building nothing. Just think about the Cross Bronx Expressway in New York, and how that highway severed a functioning middle-class neighborhood and created a downward spiral that has contributed to many of New York’s resilience challenges over the last five to six decades.
You’ve also said that building more resilient cities is the “work of a generation,” meaning that it will take multiple administrations and many, many federal budgets. Do you think Washington has a significantly better appreciation now for the value of long-term mitigation and adaptation planning than it did back when 100 RC launched and if so, what is the evidence?
I’m not sure Washington does. I think in general we see an adoption of a longer-term mentality and a better understanding of that in cities and engineering firms and by politicians and NGOs and other stakeholders. But I’m not sure I necessarily see it in Washington.
Beyond natural disasters and flooding, Rockefeller’s resilience work has put a megaphone behind the fact that today’s urban stressors disproportionately impact poor people and people of color. And amid Harvey and Irma, I saw many media outlets use data and maps to show this unevenness to readers. Can you cite another example of a narrative or language shift around resilience initiatives that you’ve seen since starting this work that excites you?
I’ll touch on Rotterdam, where the Dutch were very interested in technical solutions to their environmental problems over the past years. So that led to all the levees and designing floating houses and so on. And yet, the mayor of Rotterdam understood that he was becoming a city of immigrants. [Mayor Ahmed] Aboutaleb is actually a Moroccan immigrant himself. And what he did was he announced a large inclusion program called the “we society” and insisted it be a part of the resilience strategy so that the various technical and environmental initiatives could also speak to these integrator initiatives.
The Dutch are engineers at heart, and there’s not a problem that they don’t have a technical solution for. And yet they started to understand that actually it was the social element that they were weakest on.
The other example I’d say is Boston. Boston started to frame its fundamental resilience strategy around ending structural racism in Boston, which has lots of manifestations. There’s the transport scarcity issue in Boston, where you have whole neighborhoods that are underserved, and of course those are poor black neighborhoods. You have this incredible climate story during blizzards a couple years ago where poor people — and largely poor black people — did not have the ability to do things like telecommute, or when school closed had to skip work at abnormally high rates to take care of kids because they had no other option. So you see the linkage of something like transport or economics or the impact of climate and what that means to a city that has a long history of isolating and discriminating against certain populations. So that’s a shift in terms of the way they’re thinking about how to make Boston stronger, more sustainable and more resilient going forward.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Kelsey E. Thomas is a writer and editor based in the most upper-left corner of the country. She writes about urban policy, equitable development and the outdoors (but also about nearly everything else) with a focus on solutions-oriented journalism. She is a former associate editor and current contributing editor at Next City.