The route to resilience
Adversity. It’s an occurrence that’s as common to the human experience as it is various in the forms it can assume.
As humans encounter profound forms of adversity more frequently over their lifetimes, they learn to adapt to it and to bounce back from it while still experiencing the emotional hardship that it yields. The process for this adaptation, according to the American Psychological Association (APA), is called resilience. In its online pamphlet “The Road to Resilience,” the APA also defines it as “’bouncing back’ from difficult experiences.”
“You interact with someone who has faced a great tragedy or a great trauma, and they’re able to bounce back, and you comment about how resilient he or she was or that they were. The same [has] to do with a company or a community,” says Otis Rolley, managing director of city resilience delivery – North America, for 100 Resilient Cities (100RC), a nonprofit organization that provides cities worldwide with resources for adopting resilience measures.
While people arrive at resilience differently, it is something anyone can learn or develop, the APA notes. The same can be said for cities, which encounter forms of adversity that other cities may not.
“Because every individual sadly has either had to face or knows someone that’s faced any kind of trauma, they get what it means to try to bounce back and why it’s important to have those resources necessary to bounce back,” Rolley explains.
Urban resilience is a discipline that more and more cities and organizations are starting to formally recognize and practice. As experts note, striving for resilience is important to a city’s existence, and actively pursuing it can provide a city with multiple benefits.
What is urban resilience?
Urban resilience is heavily related to the concept of sustainability, says Arizona State University Emeritus Professor of Public Affairs John Hall. Whereas sustainability can connote endurance and upholding the status quo, “what resilience thinkers are all about, is having this growth that occurs as you adapt to the stressors,” Hall says. “So, learning and growing and shifting gears and so forth is part of resilience.”
On its website, the Rockefeller Foundation-funded 100RC defines resilience for cities as, “the capacity of individuals, communities, institutions, businesses, and systems within a city to survive, adapt, and grow no matter what kinds of chronic stresses and acute shocks they experience.”
Shocks and stresses comprise the adversity that cities face, according to 100RC. Shocks are sudden events like natural disasters, terrorist attacks or riots. Stresses like homelessness, economic inequality or institutional racism are more long-term in nature and slowly affect a city’s strength.
Collectively and often in tandem, they’re issues that local governments by their nature confront on a frequent basis, Pittsburgh Chief Resilience Officer Grant Ervin says. Cities have thus taken actions towards combating these shocks and stresses for decades.
“This is not a brand new thing that has never been thought about,” Tallahassee, Fla., Chief Resilience Officer Abena Ojetayo says. “It’s just how we think about and make decisions, how we integrate policies and plans so that one decision here won’t hamper another objective that we have.”
This integration of policies and decision-making is among the benefits that resilience holds for cities.
What can resilience do for a city?
Integration, bringing coherence to different city plans and resources and the breakdown of silos are hallmarks of resilience, Rolley says.
Indeed, Hall explains, “resilience requires some relationships and trust and understanding, some level of all of that, to have that capacity to learn and to bounce back, as opposed to just respond to the moment.”
This integration contains inherent benefits — aligning city systems “promotes consistency in decision-making and ensures that all investments are mutually supportive to a common outcome,” 100RC notes in its “City Resilience Framework” document.
Integrating policies and plans under the fresh lens of resilience yields another benefit — what 100RC calls the resilience dividend. In other words, applying resilience’s “forward-looking, risk-aware, inclusive and integrated” principles to designing projects and policies can address several challenges at once, saving resources and improving city services, according to the websites of 100RC and the Rockefeller Foundation.
To illustrate, consider the construction of a road. Viewing it through the lens of resilience, “you don’t just think about building the road, but how does that road best connect to economic opportunities, appropriate housing,” Rolley says. “How does the construction of that road help to fulfill things like job creation? How do you make sure that that road actually helps to reduce emissions? Can that road be narrow and enclose cycling and enclose greenspace?” Breaking down silos between departments helps make answering those questions an easier process.
“What we’re looking for is not just to fix the obvious problem, but to see if we couldn’t advance the other goals as well. And that really, gives you what they call the resilience dividend,” Norfolk, Va., Chief Resilience Officer Christine Morris says. Therefore, budgeting money towards a cause planned using resilient thinking can buy benefits beyond just the original problem area, she adds.
Resilient systems that grow out of such thinking share a few common traits that can yield improvements over previous city systems or processes, according to 100RC’s website. These systems are reflective of past experiences in determining future decisions, resourceful, integrated, inclusive, robust, redundant, flexible and inclusive in consultation to yield “a sense of shared ownership in decision making.”
Chief resilience officers (CROs) like Ojetayo, Ervin and Morris have emerged as the architects of such integration and resilience within cities. The backgrounds of these CROs vary widely, but experts agree that they share certain skills and duties that make them adept at integrating resilience into city affairs.
What does a chief resilience officer do?
100RC dubbed Patrick Otellini the world’s first CRO when he assumed the role for San Francisco in March 2014. Since then, numerous cities across the world have hired CROs to spearhead the building of resilience in their communities.
Many of these cities, including San Francisco, Pittsburgh and Norfolk, are members of 100RC’s worldwide resilience network. As part of a city’s membership, 100RC pays their CRO’s salary for two years, helps them devise their resilience strategy, gives them access to numerous no-cost resources and facilitates discussion between other member cities. However, cities like Tallahassee, St. Paul, Minn. and Charleston, S.C. have hired CROs while remaining independent of 100RC’s network.
“I feel good about the approach that Tallahassee took — on their own, investing their own resources, not waiting really for an external agency to bankroll it,” Ojetayo says, noting that she’s learned a lot from the Rockefeller Foundation and 100RC’s work on resilience.
Given the variety of shocks and stresses facing cities, resilience is a highly interdisciplinary concept. As such, the position of CRO comes from a diverse array of backgrounds — Ervin says a CRO’s background is typically dependent on the needs of their city.
Nevertheless, CROs tend to share a few key traits. Rolley lists high technical intelligence, a great sense of humor (given the job’s arduousness), excellent interpersonal communication skills and a strong commitment to their city’s success as essential to the role.
The interpersonal communication skills come into play in CROs’ major roles as integrators. “I think in all cases, what you see is the need for a person as an integrator, that can work across sectors or work across departments to help break down silos to find partnerships that can help deliver better outcomes to collaboration,” Ervin says.
Think back to the road planning example that illustrated the resilience dividend in action. “Typically, if the transportation engineer was only thinking about building the road and not thinking about the multiple benefits that come to resilience planning, they would not think of those other things,” Rolley says.
A CRO, then, serves as a force amplifier to implementation agencies across a city in a such a way that they can apply resilience thinking and planning to those agencies’ work, Rolley explains.
“The big thing that I would underscore is that you’re not looking for a master of one trade, but a jack and jade of all trades that can see how different systems can work together,” Ervin says.
What results, Morris says, is a change in focus. With resilience thinking applied, a city’s planning department may have to consider the economic opportunity of different kinds of companies. “They’ve kind of seen their role one way, and you’re asking them to pivot a little bit and see their role as not only the primary role they’ve served in the city, but also advancing the other departments,” she explains.
Implementing this sort of resilience thinking, however, takes a thorough plan. That’s where a city’s resilience strategy comes in.
How does a resilience strategy work?
“Most cities are awesome at planning, but they have great difficulty around execution and implementation,” Rolley says. “And so, the resilience strategy is very much focused in and around implementation and direct actions that can help a city with those shocks and stresses.”
Stakeholder engagement is a major part of resilience planning. Morris, Ervin and Ojetayo note that in developing their resilience strategies, they spoke with people in multiple sectors across their communities to determine the major issues facing their cities.
Ervin notes that constructing social networks is another key component of building resilience. This can vary from gathering a project team and coordinating numerous partners to create strategies to building neighborhood-based networks that can come together to clean vacant lots or build a community garden.
Many cities already have processes in place that support resilience. In devising their cities’ resilience strategies, CROs study what their cities are currently doing to address their most pertinent issues.
“I think a lot of departments [in Tallahassee] have done things that support resilience that maybe other departments didn’t really know about,” Ojetayo says. “So, a good part of my work, in the beginning, has been taking stock of all of that, and it’s actually been really rewarding just to see that. We have elements of this happening. However, we may not have communicated that to other groups.”
Building networks and busting silos help bring these disparate city resilience processes together. So, consider Norfolk’s resilience strategy, which was launched in October 2015 after Morris became the city’s first CRO in July 2014. The strategy’s three chief goals are, briefly, 1) designing the coastal community of the future, 2) creating economic opportunity and 3) connecting communities, deconcentrating poverty and strengthening neighborhoods.
This resilience strategy, Morris says, is a lens through which the city’s work should be viewed. “So, if you’re going to spend a dollar in public works, is that improving not only the one goal of the coastal community but the economic goal and the de-concentration of poverty and increase of opportunity goal?” she posits.
These goals don’t just involve city processes, either. In fact, they involve a macro view considering the city, regional agencies and the private sector in determining the best ways to advance work so as to accomplish as many goals as possible.
“So, if you think of it that way, are you working with local businesses to try to get that dollar so that they build and can hire more people? Are you working to make sure that people have an opportunity to be hired when you’re doing this work? So, are you connecting potential contractors to these residents? Are you thinking about how the education system is going to produce folks that can work in these industries where the city will be spending money in the future?” Morris explains.
After Ervin became Pittsburgh’s CRO around June 2015, the city released a preliminary resilience assessment in the summer of 2016 and ultimately its resilience strategy in spring 2017, he says. So far, by-products gained from Pittsburgh’s resilience work include a climate action plan, an integrative budgeting process for the city’s facilities and fleet divisions and changed contracting and accountability practices in labor agreements to foster more equity.
“There are these different things that might seem like isolated activities but are really business and systems improvement measures that are being yielded as the result of the strategies that we’ve created in light of the resilience assessment that we made,” Ervin says.
Having started as Tallahassee’s CRO in October 2017, Ojetayo says that her city is still in the planning stages of its resilience work. She expects the city to have its resilience plan in mid-2019.
“What I’m hopeful will happen with Tallahassee, and I see that already happening now if you take resilience seriously and you embed it in the organizational structure, it becomes part of doing business,” she says. “And, it can, I think, have a more long-lasting effect, no matter what the changes might be at the political level.”