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In Praise of Resilient Cities

Article By Alison Gross for Daintree Advisory

What do we mean when we talk about how a city is resilient? How does one location compare to others in terms of the quality of life you can expect to find there? Will we find joy, culture, employment, a better place to raise a family or retire? These are the questions that speak to how livable a particular place is. Livability is the sum of the factors that add up to a community's ability to contribute to its residents’ quality of life, including the built and natural environments, economic prosperity, social stability and equity, educational opportunity, and cultural, entertainment and recreation possibilities. To that end, the Economist Intelligence Unit, provides a global livability index on categories including health care, culture, environment, education, infrastructure and of recent interest—stability (crime, conflict and terrorism).

Every day, we see how cities are being challenged in unprecedented ways. The black swan events that risk professionals have talked about, identified and tracked since the phrase was first used in 2007 have become so frequent that this term, originally referring to a once-in-a-hundred-year event, has become almost cliché. Storms, hurricanes and floods occur in ever increasing frequency. Such foreseeable challenges for cities would have been enough to manage through; when these are coupled with climate and extreme weather instability and the global pandemic, well, now we have a black swan the size of a cargo plane.

The challenges that the world is facing in 2020 are exacerbated for densely populated cities where COVID-19 has hit hardest, in places where science-based protocols, like wearing masks and social distancing, are the most challenging to implement and maintain. Commercial building in cities, mostly high-rises with elevators and non-opening windows, have been the most difficult challenge to stability and subsequent recovery – in a word: resiliency. Many local businesses, which account for a large percentage of the tax base, have been closed and their owners filing for bankruptcy. Cities and counties are looking for ways to cut their budgets as tax revenue and economic activity decline and medical costs soar. The $3.8 trillion municipal-bond market—loans used for infrastructure (schools, hospitals and community development) — has stalled as market liquidity for this debt has evaporated.

There is no argument that economic resilience for cities requires preparedness; some have been addressing the issue of resilience as part of their strategic planning. The Rockefeller Foundation pioneered the Resilient Cities Initiative in 2013 and since then cities have begun to appoint Chief Resilience Officers (CROs). The first to be appointed was Patrick Otellini, CRO of San Francisco in 2014. These CROs were hired and trained to lead their cities’ resilience initiatives. The Rockefeller Foundation’s project ended in July 2019; however, members of the 100 Resilient Cities (100RC) have founded a nonprofit, Resilient Cities Catalyst to continue the work.

In the first quarter of 2020 when urban centers became pandemic hotspots, the initial exodus of city dwellers caused many real estate analysts and city planners to wonder if COVID-19 would be the death of large cities. Despite the initially dire scenarios, larger cities have remained some of the most resilient, with robust health care systems, greater economic diversity and commitments by innovative citizens and businesses who have collaborated to put their communities first.

Resilience in a post-pandemic world will require partnerships between various constituencies. Only through the collective efforts of city governments, the private sector, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and community organizations will we be able to reclaim the true potential of cities and rebuild their economies. This collaborative approach will be the key for successful and resilient cities. As the Resilient Cities Catalyst states, “Cities and urban areas represent our greatest risk and our biggest opportunity. Cities embody the good and bad of the most important trends of the 21st century. They are drivers of wealth and innovation.”

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