What makes a city resilient to the shocks and stresses of the 21st century, and how does one prepare for it? Those are the questions that 100 Resilient Cities, a global urban rejuvenation initiative, seeks to answer. Its president, Michael Berkowitz, tells how he scored this fascinating job and what it is like to be part of a movement that is making the world a better place, one resilient city at a time.

SINGAPORE (May 14): The word resilience is defined as the ability of a substance or object to spring back into shape, or in other words, elasticity. In the larger context, urban resilience takes on a more comprehensive meaning — it is the capacity of individuals, communities, institutions, businesses and systems within a city to survive, adapt and grow no matter what kind of chronic stresses and acute shocks they experience. In recent history, there have been many cities that have proven their resilience. For example, New York and New Jersey post-Hurricane Sandy in 2012, Acheh in the wake of 2004’s Boxing Day tsunami and the multiple times that cities across India, Bangladesh and the Philippines have rebuilt themselves after torrential rains and floods.

Since funding storied urbanist Jane Jacobs’ book The Death and Life of Great American Cities in 1961, The Rockefeller Foundation has viewed cities as places of ingenuity and innovation. The New York-based foundation has always fought urban poverty and helped shape the emerging fields of urban design throughout the 20th century. Today, it works to make cities around the world more resilient through an innovative initiative called 100 Resilient Cities. Termed 100RC for short, it was launched to celebrate the foundation’s centennial in 2013 with an original commitment of US$100 million. Its objectives are to assist cities worldwide to improve the lives and well-being of an urban population that is expected to reach 75% of humanity by 2050.

100RC supports the adoption and incorporation of a view of resilience that includes not just the shocks — for example, earthquakes, fires and floods — but also the stresses that weaken the fabric of a city on a day to day or cyclical basis. This includes high unemployment, an overtaxed or inefficient public transport system, endemic violence or even chronic food and water shortages. By addressing both the shocks and the stresses, a city becomes more able to respond to adverse events, and is overall better able to deliver basic functions in both good times and bad, to all populations.

100RC’s president, Michael Berkowitz, was in Kuala Lumpur recently for the World Urban Forum, the foremost global arena for interaction among policymakers, local government leaders, non-governmental organisations and expert practitioners in the field of sustainable urban development and human settlements. We managed to squeeze in a quick chat at the 38th floor lobby of Grand Hyatt Kuala Lumpur — the view of the cityscape outside providing an apt backdrop to his work and what 100RC does.

The initiative’s list of 100 cities was announced over three waves — in 2013, 2014 and 2016, which was when the participation of the Malaysian city of Melaka was unveiled — after over 1,000 applications were vetted. “We looked at the applications from a technical standpoint but also in terms of leadership. When we got to the shortlist, we interviewed mayors or governors, depending on who was running the city to see if they were really interested in making this kind of change and being part of this kind of partnership, and that’s ultimately how we chose the cities,” says Berkowitz.

Choosing just 100 from 1,000 was a difficult task, and he says it was less a case of applications being rejected than certain cities being more qualified than others. In deciding the final list, the applications had to go beyond just ticking all the right boxes as the final decision was also based on instinct.

“The judging process was so exciting because we were all like ‘okay, where would it be fun for us to work’”, Berkowitz quips. “No, but seriously, there was a sense of trying to find the coolest or best or most promising cities. In the end, we tried to select for diversity — we have 100 cities across six continents in 48 countries speaking 24 official languages — and size, so we have large as well as mid-size and small cities. Melaka is a mid-size city, for example. We also looked at influential cities — we are not just trying to change 100 cities. We wanted this to be a representative group that other cities can learn from because not all cities can learn from New York or Paris or London.”

Roadmap to resilience

Cities in the 100RC network are provided with the resources necessary to develop a roadmap to resilience along four main pathways, beginning with the hiring of a chief resilience officer — in Melaka, it is Melaka State Youth Council president Mohd Ridhwan Mohd Ali — who will lead the city’s resilience efforts. Next comes the development of a resilience strategy, which involves a top-down and bottom-up look at where the major risks and opportunities are, and then a matching action plan. 100RC will also provide open access to solutions, service providers and partners from the private, public and NGO sectors that can help develop and implement their resilience strategies, and each city is further supported by the kinship shared by all the members of this global network.

Changing cities takes time, however, and Berkowitz is well aware that the payoff may only be enjoyed many years from now. “The reality is, to really change a city and make it more liveable, sustainable and resilient, to diversify its economy and improve its infrastructure, yeah, that’s the work of a generation. Those first cities are on their way with the right kind of policy changes, but the kind of major things that cities need will take more than one generation.”

Although he is hard-pressed to choose a favourite city in the 100RC network — “it’s like picking a favourite child,” he grins — there are a few that stand out in his mind for the kind of transformation that they are set to go through. The megalopolis of Mexico City faces significant danger from natural phenomena — its geographical conditions make it continually susceptible to seismic hazards and being located on land that was once a lake means the city is prone to flooding. Run-off from the nearby mountains is improperly managed, which, in addition to flooding, often leads to mudslides and diseases born from standing water.

The Gujarati city of Surat also sees chronic flooding as it is one of the cities that has been most affected by climate change. In the past 100 years, Surat has experienced 23 floods. Its most pressing urban resilience priorities are learning lessons from past events; building community and social resilience for early response to floods; preventing vector-borne diseases; and improving nutrition, water management and the electric grid. Being part of 100RC has allowed the city to develop a comprehensive approach to flood management that includes reaching out to other states for help.

“So basically, Mexico City is looking for ways to replenish the aquifers and deal with the heat and water shortage and mitigate seismic risk all at once. In Surat, they have started taking a more integrated, big-picture approach to their problems. It’s not going to be easy in such big cities like these, so there are no easy solutions, but they will be interesting ones,” Berkowitz says.

In tourist-friendly Melaka, underinvestment in infrastructure development is causing significant traffic congestion and poorer air quality. It also has to contend with an increased risk of rainfall flooding as a result of inadequate drainage and rising high tides. Apart from the obvious ways this impacts daily life, flooding also causes damage to heritage buildings, disrupts urban services such as waste management, further exacerbates congestion, and even increases the chan­ces of disease outbreaks. Melaka has begun to address these challenges through various initiatives, including a Green Cities Action Plan, supported by the Asian Development Bank, to ensure sustainable development. Through the resilience strategy developed with 100RC, the city is now looking to develop integrated and inclusive plans that address these underlying resilience challenges before they become unmanageable.

Details on all 100 cities and the strategies they have employed — or will employ — are available on www.­100resilientcities.org. The website has detailed information on each city and what they are affected by, which is everything from climate change to coastal flooding, extreme heat and cold, population issues such as decline and displacement, terrorist risks and traffic, and even youth disenfranchisement. It also lists all of 100RC’s partners, information on how to become one and join the 100RC network, and plenty of resources on urban resilience.

Connector role

Apart from providing assistance, 100RC’s major role in urban change is to play connector between cities and partners, which is hugely important because there is a serious need to match resources to who needs them the most.

“One of the things we do see is that there is an extraordinary amount of money that’s looking to build urban infrastructure,” says Berkowitz. “Whether it is institutional money, private sector money or development finance institutions, at least every week we are approached by one sort of partner or another. The problem is finding bankable projects — getting ideas through a development phase to something people actually want to finance has proved difficult. Sometimes, it is a question of political will and sometimes, it’s a technical question, so one of the things we do is to help cities [make] progress [in] those projects that will connect them to the financing options out there.”

As president of 100RC, Berkowitz’s role is to join the dots between the cities, people and partners for a common good. This requires not just hands-on experience in urban development but also in finance and money matters, as well as good instinct. A political science graduate who spent his growing-up years travelling with his academician father, Berkowitz moved to Washington, DC, to become a journalist — “basically what you do when you can’t break into politics,” he laughs — and wrote about disaster management for a trade publication. His next assignment remains a major milestone on his CV — he spent several years with the Office of Emergency Management in New York City as deputy commissioner, during which time he led the team that saw New York through catastrophes like 9/11 and the anthrax attack, both in 2011. He later joined Deutsche Bank in London.

It was over coffee in the British capital that The Rockefeller Foundation’s president, Judith Rodin, broached the idea of 100RC to Berkowitz, who said yes to the job his old friend was offering him, even though it meant moving away from the city he, his wife and then seven-year-old son had grown to love. The timing was right, as Berkowitz was looking to leave the bank for a corporation with more of a social bent to it. Rodin’s ideals to transform the foundation to a less academic and more practitioner-driven one also something that resonated with him.

A native New Yorker, Berkowitz went on to assemble the 100RC global team that is managed from regional offices in London and Singapore as well as from its New York headquarters. As 100RC’s first employee, creating a positive work culture that is comfortable even in constant chaos is his doing. Anything can happen at any time, and with cities in pretty much every single time zone, there is an urgent need for the management of this initiative to be flexible and responsive. There is a lot of travelling involved, but Berkowitz truly loves what he does and never ceases to be inspired by the cities he has seen.

“I get to tour cities in really honest ways, so I can see the best of them and their most intractable problems. It’s been so rewarding, how just a little bit of money and our technical capabilities have been catalytic and helped cities think about these problems and development trajectories in different ways. Bangkok’s strategy that we helped them put together really imagines a different way to do water management in the Chao Phraya river basin. Yes, this is going to take a generation, but they need to start somewhere! If we look back in 20 years and see a water management system that works and that gives communities access to the river they don’t have now, that would be amazing.”

The biggest challenge he and his team face is finding the ability to say ‘no’ and stay focused — the idea of helping cities become better versions of themselves is an incredible one, why wouldn’t you want to spread the word to as many cities as possible? “We can’t think about more cities now, just the 100. We can’t think about national governments, we have to think about the cities. That’s been the hardest thing, which is to use our time in a way that allows us to work with the cities, show results that are tangible and concrete, so we can continue to build this movement.”

This last statement implies, perhaps, that the future of 100RC could mean a different set of cities that can benefit from the input of partners that encourage them to continually evolve, to become better versions of themselves. After all, it is not by standing still that any city can hope to weather the physical, social and economic challenges of the 21st century — it is by being resilient, flexible and adaptive. Sometimes, they just need a little help doing it.


Anandhi Gopinath is an assistant editor with Options at The Edge Malaysia

This article appeared in Issue 830 (May 14) of The Edge Singapore.

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