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'Chief Resilience Officers' Could Help Cities Cope With Calamity

A meeting of Chief Resilience Officers and other officials took place in New Orleans this week, as the Rockefeller Foundation looks to help cities prepare for potential calamities.
100 Resilient Cities
A meeting of Chief Resilience Officers and other officials took place in New Orleans this week, as the Rockefeller Foundation looks to help cities prepare for potential calamities.

The word "resilience" is increasingly on the tongues of urban thinkers these days, as city officials, planners and designers discuss how to prepare better for natural disasters, especially in light of climate change.

One of the big financial drivers of the conversation has been the Rockefeller Foundation, offering grants intended to help cities prepare for future shocks and stresses. Now the foundation is taking a major step to up that game, creating a new non-profit organization called 100 Resilient Cities.

In the coming years, the philanthropy will use private money to pay for "Chief Resilience Officers," or CROs, in 100 city governments around the world. The first meeting of those CROs took place this week in New Orleans. So far, there are just 26 of them.

The project uses the word "resilience" in its broadest sense — the CROs will be focused on getting urban places ready to handle all manner of shocks and stresses.

"Crisis has become the new normal," Rockefeller Foundation president Judith Rodin said at this week's meeting. "Because of the triple threats of urbanization, globalization and climate change, a week doesn't go by in which we don't have a disturbance to the normal flow of things somewhere in the world."

Rodin says she's concerned about the specter of everything from "a cyberattack to a new strain of virus, a violent storm, a civil conflict or an economic blow." The CRO's task is to approach the threats holistically, rather than piecemeal.

As you might expect, among the cities listed as early recipients are big coastal places that have recently suffered major disasters: New York City and New Orleans, for instance.

The list also includes some smaller inland places: Boulder, Colo., for example. The city and neighboring communities suffered serious flooding from rainstorms last September that destroyed hundreds of homes and caused several deaths.

Boulder 's new CRO Greg Guibert tells NPR that his goal is not to tackle everything at once.

"We are going to be taking a look at all the services the government provides to its citizens," he said, "and try and identify areas that we're doing very, very well — and we feel pretty strongly about how we're doing in terms of flood management, for instance — and then identify areas where we think we could improve on the services that we provide."

Another aspect of what Guibert wants to do is to get beyond what he calls the "siloed" system in which city governments often function.

He says that means "thinking about how does transportation affect affordable housing, and how does that affect our carbon signature and footprint. Looking more at an integrated holistic viewpoint of the city."

The CRO program is a rare example of private money being used to pay for positions in local governments. The folks at Rockefeller are hoping that each CRO will be a key person in city government, perhaps a direct report to the mayor. Cities must apply for a grant to get the funding for the jobs.

Guibert says he doesn't see the private funding for his new government job as a point of tension, but rather as an advantage. He says the job has "the seal of approval from a well-recognized organization with resources behind it."

And Guibert points out that CROs are automatically hooked into a network of other people tackling similar problems, through meetings like the one this week in New Orleans.

What's unclear is how long Guibert's CRO position and others like it will last. The grants last for two years. Talk is just beginning about how 100 Resilient Cities might finance those jobs later, or whether city governments pick up the tab after that.

-- Franklyn Cater is editor of the NPR Cities Project.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Franklyn Cater