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Rockefeller Foundation Cites 11 Most Resilient U.S. Cities

Aerial view of the island city of Alameda, California
For the island city of Alameda, California, once the site of the Alameda Naval Air Station and now home to 76,000 residents, sea level rise is an ever-present danger. The city was chosen as one of the most resilient and will receive resources to help it plan a more sustainable future. Wikimedia Commons/ U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer 3rd Class Erik Swanson

The Rockefeller Foundation has announced the first 33 of its list of the 100 most resilient cities in the world. Winners face a range of natural and man-made challenges; what unites them is their determinations to meet these challenges with strategies that will help them not just survive but thrive.

January 7, 2014—Eleven U.S. cities, including five in California, are among the 33 cities worldwide named as the most resilient by the Rockefeller Foundation in the first leg of its 100 Resilient Cities Centennial Challenge. The competition, honoring the foundation’s first century, aims to identify over the course of three years the 100 most resilient cities in the world.

The Rockefeller Foundation defines resilience on its website as “…the capacity of individuals, communities and systems to survive, adapt, and grow in the face of changes, even catastrophic incidents.” Changes can be such natural disasters as a devastating flood or a viral epidemic or such man-made events as an economic meltdown or terrorist bombing.

Each city selected by the foundation will receive financial support to hire a chief resilience officer, technical support to build a citywide resilience strategy, and access to a suite of services that will include innovative technology and support for obtaining private financing for resilience projects. One of the most significant rewards for winners will be the opportunity to network with other winners, says Brett KenCairn, the senior environmental planner for Boulder, Colorado—one of the U.S. cities in the first group of 33.

“Through the network we will be able to expand the discussion in the larger community,” he notes. “As part of that discussion, it’s exciting that the foundation has thought about the challenge of limited resources, and with a cohort of 100 cities they will be able to see need themes.”

As part of their entries into the competition, cities submitted resiliency plans for the future. Among the 11 U.S. winners, 7 of them, located on both coasts, include addressing sea level rise among their top resilience planning action items. In addition to Boulder, the other U.S. cities named so far are New Orleans; New York City; El Paso, Texas; Jacksonville, Florida; Norfolk, Virginia; and the California cities of Berkeley, Los Angeles, Oakland, San Francisco, and Alameda.

For the island city of Alameda, sea level rise is part and parcel of its concerns about earthquakes and tsunamis. The city of 76,000, with a population density of 4,000 people per square mile, is built on an island at the intersection of two major fault zones and has the highest tsunami risk on the West Coast, according to a recent study by the California Department of Conservation. It’s a serious convergence of risks, according to Mike D’Orazie, Alameda’s fire chief, who is participating in the development of the city’s resilience strategy.

“We are built mainly on landfill, and a 7.6 earthquake would create major liquefaction,” he explains. “In the event of a tsunami, we have no high ground to protect us, and most of our downtown [has] old, unreinforced masonry and wooden structures that predate seismic safety standards.”

Alameda’s resilience plan includes reinforcing public and residential structures, engineering changes to the city’s extensive waterfront to prepare for gradual sea level rise as well as flooding caused by a tsunami or earthquake, and developing protective infrastructure at the historic Alameda Naval Air Station, unused since 1997.

In developing policies to prepare the community, buildings, and infrastructure to respond to and recover from a disruption, Alameda plans to engage with the local Regional Resilient Design Studio for expert guidance. Regional Resilient Design Studios were developed as a collaboration between the American Institute of Architects and Architecture for Humanity, and are among the suite of services that the Rockefeller Foundation will offer to the 100 resilient cities. These studios will train local architects to design public and private structures in their communities for resilience before disasters strike.

At an elevation of 5,400 ft, the city of Boulder struggles with flooding concerns that arise not from the threat of tsunamis or sea level rise but from the city’s location at the mouth of Boulder Canyon, from which Boulder Creek flows through town. Although the city has implemented resilience plans to mitigate flood damage, historic flooding in early September last year triggered by four days of unremitting heavy rainfall starkly underlined the need for a more robust resilience strategy. The floods killed at least five people, destroyed portions of the city, and disabled city services for weeks. “Until September we thought we were doing pretty good,” KenCairn says. “We have developed flood passages, identified flood plains. The flood awakened and humbled us.”

The September flood coupled with wildfires in the surrounding wilderness areas that are growing in frequency and intensity point to the need for the city to integrate its resilience efforts with risk management to create a comprehensive system, he explains. “The more resilience you have the more quickly you can respond.”

With the appointment of a chief resilience officer and connection to Rockefeller Foundation resources and the 100-cities network, KenCairn says, Boulder will continue to shift from engineered resistance to ecological resistance through adaptive design. “It no longer makes sense to design for something that will be different than it was before the disruption,” he notes.

The city’s long-term resilience plan includes restoring and enhancing infrastructure, refining and rethinking community design options, and diversifying transportation options. (Read “Colorado Races Winter to Reopen Roads,” on Civil Engineering online.)

The U.S. cities on the Rockefeller list expect to finance their resilience planning and implementation through a combination of federal, state, and local funding. The Rockefeller Foundation’s vision for resilience initiatives involves public-private partnerships with strategic prioritization and integrated project design, according to the 100 Cities website.

The Rockefeller Foundation announced its $100-million worldwide urban resilience initiative May 14, 2013.The competition drew 400 applications from cities on six continents. The first 33 winners were announced December 3 at the foundation’s Innovations Forum in New York City. Among them are such international cities as Bangkok; Rotterdam; Rome; Da Nang, Vietnam; and Dakar, Senegal.



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