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American Cities Tapped to Spur 'Climate Resiliency' Action Worldwide

'Resiliency has risen to one of the top subjects that we talk about now in the sustainability world.'

Dec 18, 2013

American cities on the frontline of climate action are quietly but dramatically shifting their approach—from primarily trying to limit global warming to coping with its impacts. They're building forested buffers to shelter homes from wildfires, considering concrete sea walls to restrain ocean waters and developing software to conserve water during drought.

Now, a new global initiative aims to make nearly a dozen of those cities into models that can spur urban resiliency around the world.

The Rockefeller Foundation, which launched its 100 Resilient Cities Network earlier this month, said that cities' ability to "withstand and bounce back" from climate and other disasters is crucial as more people move to metropolitan areas and as urban economies become inextricably linked.

"What happens in one part of the world can shake the stability of another," said spokeswoman Carey Meyers. "There's this interdependency, this need for cities to be stronger." By 2050, three-fourths of the world's population will live in cities, up from about 50 percent today and 10 percent a century ago.

Until recently, even the most climate-conscious cities focused narrowly on mitigation—reducing greenhouse gas emissions by switching to cleaner energy sources and curbing fossil fuel use. But urban leaders are increasingly folding long-term resiliency strategies into their climate agendas as they seek to armor their cities against rising seas, fiercer storms and other threats.

In most cases, they were jolted into action by events that exposed their vulnerability and lack of preparedness. In New York City, the $50 billion, deadly Superstorm Sandy convinced Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his top officials to launch the Special Initiative on Rebuilding and Resiliency, a sweeping $19.5 billion rebuilding plan to help protect New York and its infrastructure.

MORE: E-book: Bloomberg's Hidden Legacy: Climate Change and the Future of New York City

"Resiliency has risen to one of the top subjects that we talk about now in the sustainability world," said Marty Howell, the chief sustainability officer for the city of El Paso, Texas. "That storm [Sandy] really woke up the nation to the fact that ... we don't just need to stop bad things from happening—we need to learn to handle bad things when they do happen."

New York and El Paso are two of 11 U.S. cities, and 33 cities worldwide, participating in the first round of the 100 Resilient Cities Network. Two more rounds will be announced in the next couple of years. The work is among the first attempts to define and measure urban resiliency and develop strategies to address it.

SLIDESHOW: The 11 U.S. Cities That Are Leading on Climate Change Resiliency

The challenges facing the participants reflect a range of climate threats. In El Paso, a desert city on the U.S.-Mexico border, long droughts threaten to shrink the supply of drinking water. A 2006 flood destroyed hundreds of homes in mostly poor neighborhoods, and a 2009 deep freeze and snowfall caused electricity and gas-line failures and water shortages, paralyzing the city for days.

"In both cases, we were not as resilient as we had hoped to be," Howell said.

Boulder, Colo., another member of the network, is vulnerable to wildfires and severe flooding. This fall, a 100-year flood swamped the region, washing out roads and destroying 1,800 homes in Boulder County and a neighboring county. The disaster left 10 people dead and caused $2 billion worth of property losses across the state.

After the flood, city leaders realized that "we were going to have to take seriously our vulnerabilities to climate impacts," said Brett KenCairn, Boulder's senior environmental planner. "Our experience is that the way we were framing these issues wasn't complete. ... And I think this is the experience that many places are starting to have."

The other U.S. participants are coastal cities that are facing threats such as sea-level rise and warming-fueled hurricanes. They include Jacksonville, Fla., Los Angeles, New Orleans and Norfolk, Va., plus four cities in the San Francisco Bay Area.

The network's 33 inaugural participants have at least four things in common, said Michael Berkowitz, the network's managing director. All of them have strong support from mayors and city managers for resiliency initiatives and already collaborate with groups outside City Hall on their strategies—including universities, utilities, citizen advisory organizations, state environmental agencies or regional transit authorities.

Participants also have clear plans to ensure resiliency extends to the poorest and most vulnerable residents. And they have a broad understanding of what resiliency means—that it's not just writing disaster response plans, but shaping a longer-term vision for developing cities in a way that keeps them safe and vibrant. All selected U.S. cities have Democratic mayors, with the exception of outgoing Mayor Bloomberg of New York, who is an independent.

The Rockefeller initiative will grant cities portions of a $100 million pot of money for hiring a chief resilience officer and developing comprehensive resiliency plans to assess and tackle risks they face from climate change—as well as public health crises, terrorism, rising poverty rates and economic vulnerability. The goal is to make resiliency planning a staple of city work, as institutionalized as education or health services, Berkowitz said.

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