A new breed of resilience: 'In the 21st century, crisis may be the new normal'
4 Dec 2014
Source: The Guardian
By: Oliver Milman
This week’s Resilient Cities announcement was accompanied by a warning from Rockefeller Foundation president Judith Rodin about the need for stronger social infrastructure amid growing concerns about civil unrest
Building a stronger, more stable city means getting some fundamental things right – a secure distribution of energy and water, access to healthcare, an efficient transport network. But the ongoing, visceral outrage of protestors throughout the United States at the shooting of Ferguson teenager Michael Brown has thrown cities’ needs for social, as well as physical, betterment into sharp relief.
St Louis has been wracked by protests following the decision not to indict Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot Brown in August. The local NFL team has provoked the ire of the Missouri police union for taking part in the “hands up” protest gesture that has been adopted throughout the country.
On Wednesday, the Rockefeller Foundation unveiled a further 35 cities that will take part in its 100 Resilient Cities programme – among them, St Louis. Judith Rodin, president of the Rockefeller Foundation, said the city’s application was an “articulate and honest” appraisal of the racial and economic divides present in the city.
“The city leaders of St Louis talked about how to re-knit the social fabric,” Rodin said, adding the issue was a common theme among the more than 330 applicant cities from 94 countries. “Many applications mentioned immediate concern of civil unrest, it’s something that’s increasing. We are seeing larger discussion of it this year than last. City officials are recognising this will be a big piece of the 21st-century challenge for them – it’s not physical infrastructure, it’s social infrastructure.
“We have seen social unrest in the streets throughout the US’s history. Los Angeles over a number of years had similar forms of unrest and they are building themselves back, but it’s a long haul. The data shows that no matter what the shock is, it’s hard for a city to recover – it brings them down to a lower baseline going forward.”
Michael Berkowitz, president of the 100 Resilient Cities programme, said that race and inequality “feels like one of the big challenges for resilience thinking over the next few years. We’re seeing it across many different cities: is it going to be a fruit vendor setting himself on fire, or is it the police shooting someone in suspect circumstances? If you don’t have that kind of social cohesion, anything can set things off.”
The Rockefeller Foundation has committed $100m to the resilient cities initiative. Collaborative work on alleviating social ills between some of the first tranche of cities chosen, in 2013, is already underway, with Medellin, the Colombian city previously considered the murder capital of the world, advising New Orleans on crime prevention. Medellin has worked to provide a better way for poor residents of the barrios, in the hills surrounding the city centre, to access the valley where most economic activity occurs.
New Orleans, in turn, is working with Rotterdam on water management, while earthquake-prone cities San Francisco and Christchurch are plotting a better way to deal with seismic activity. Social unrest can hinder all such progress, however; experts at Wednesday’s announcement warned that three “colliding trends” – urbanisation, globalisation and climate change – will increase stresses on cities and risk leaving many people feeling excluded.
The goal of the 100 Resilient Cities programme is to have a series of systematic measures in place to deal with various forms of disadvantage, so that cities can, as Rodin puts it, “bend not break” when disaster strikes and bounce back afterwards. That will require a change in approach from many of those in government, business and the general public, according to Donald Kanak, chairman of Prudential Corporation Asia, who also spoke at the resilient cities’ unveiling in Singapore.
“If people came in here right now and threatened us, we’d all act,” Kanak said. “But if it’s in the future, that’s different. People are told they should save for their retirement, but all the data shows it’s something they want to do but don’t.
“We also live in a ‘distant present’. People are hungry in different parts of the world, but somewhere else from you. Resilience is a double whammy – it’s considered not now and not here. We haven’t put together the institutional architecture to deal with this.”
Nevertheless, Rodin insists that cities are beginning to confront these challenges. Around 70% of the cities putting forward applications come from the developing world, with municipalities keen to deal with issues such as migration, climate change and water – whether that’s too much or too little of it.
“It may be the case that in the 21st century, crisis is the new normal,” Rodin said. “Globally it seems that a week doesn’t go by where a city doesn’t experience some kind of disturbance to the normal flow of things – a cyber attack, a new strain of virus, or a structural failure.
“But there is optimism. The cities that do best will be those that plan and prepare, not just respond. Not every disruption has to become a disaster.”
Some cities, of course, have more problems than others. Giorgos Kaminis, mayor of Athens, pointedly mentioned London, which has cited ‘cybercrime’ as a major worry, when discussing his own city’s ills.
“I heard London talk about cyber attacks,” Kaminis said. “But in our case, resilience is about everything – social, economic, natural disasters. We have 60% youth unemployment, 40 buildings were set on fire during riots in 2012, and now because of the Syrian war there is an immediate threat of more than a million people seeking shelter in countries in southern Europe. Unfortunately, we are not prepared to receive so many people in our country.
“It used to be unusual to be homeless in Athens, but since the outbreak of the crisis, we now have many, many homeless people from the middle class. We have to take care of them somehow. That is resilience to me.”