Atlantic Cities

Does Every City Need A Chief Resilience Officer?

Does Every City Need A Chief Resilience Officer?
Reuters

For cities, developing a plan for "sustainability" no longer sounds like enough. The word carries with it an environmental connotation (we need to live alongside nature in a "sustainable" way). And the absence of sustainability implies environmental disaster (resource shortages, rising sea levels, super storms). But many of the major problems facing cities in the 21st century don't quite fall under this category (poverty, economic crises, pandemics). And "sustainability" only speaks to half of any environmental story – you may power your entire city with solar cells, but what happens the morning after a hurricane passes through?

The new goal is now something more like "resiliency." This updated rallying cry takes as a given that some pretty bad things will inevitably happen: Cities will flood, and diseases will spread, and whole transportation networks will shut down. But now the mark of a competent city is this: How quickly can it bounce back?

There is obviously some overlap between the two terms (as well as some contradiction). But the broad idea is that cities of the future need to be ready for anything, climate change and foreclosures included.

The Rockefeller Foundation, this year celebrating its 100th anniversary, is throwing its weight (and its money) behind this mandate. Today, it's announcing a 100 Resilient Cities Centennial Challenge, a three-year, $100 million prize with one particularly interesting component: The foundation plans to put up the money to hire a Chief Resilience Officer position in 100 cities around the world. Ultimately, though, these cities will have to scrounge up their own funds to keep the job alive.

The Chief Resilience Officers are "part of the prize," says Neill Coleman, Rockefeller's vice president for global communications. "But they’re also key to getting the other components of the prize done."

Rockefeller is inviting cities to apply to be one of these 100 resilient cities – to be named in three rounds over the next three years – by arguing for how they're working to become "resilient." Rockefeller wants to then help them create a resilience plan, preemptively sketching out how they would address any number of catastrophes including but beyond climate change.

"We see it as broader than that," Coleman says. "It’s really about how cities are able to deal with shocks and stresses. Those could be climate-related, or more general weather-related. But they could be other natural disasters like earthquakes. They could also be things like financial shocks and stresses – something we’ve seen a lot of over the last few years. Or health crises. Really anything that is going to test the city and its response."

The foundation previously tried a similar program, with Bloomberg Philanthropies, to create "chief service officers" in city halls who would be responsible for promoting public service and volunteerism (75 percent of those 20 awarded cities kept the job after the money ran out). This latest idea obviously follows some other high-profile additions to city government that have migrated from the business world: the chief innovation officer, the chief data officer, the chief sustainability officer.

But each of these roles brings a common critique: If you put one person in city hall in charge of innovation, or sustainability, or public service, does that imply that everyone else in government is not also responsible for thinking about these issues? Coleman says Rockefeller doesn't share this concern.

"We feel that having someone specifically tasked with thinking about and acting on and planning for resilience will mean that other people within the city government will need to pay – and will be required to pay – attention to the issue," he says. "They won’t be able to ignore it. Or, what tends to happen more often is not that it’s ignored, but it’s put on the back burner because it’s not seen as a priority until something happens."

Maybe this will be one of those jobs that becomes obsolete through its own success: When "resiliency" is baked into everything a city does, we won't need resilience officers any more.

In the short term, Rockefeller is planning to measure the impact of the program in the opposite way. If these 100 cities – and other copy-cats across the world – still have resilience officers five years from now, after the grant expires, that will say something (the length of the grants will ultimately be determined by which cities win).

For now, Rockefeller is unaware of any city already hosting a job quite like this one, so it's hard to say exactly how the role will work (or what a qualified candidate might look like). Perhaps some mix of urban/transportation planner and sustainability officer and emergency manager? All of those jobs already exist, so it will be interesting to see how the people who hold them view the arrival of this new official tasked with reporting directly to the mayor.

Top image from the Breezy Point neighborhood of Queens, New York, six months after Superstorm Sandy: Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

Emily Badger is a former staff writer at The Atlantic Cities based in Washington, D.C. She now writes for The Washington Post. All posts »

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