• 11.01.13

A $100 Million Urban Resilience Effort To Help Cities Survive The Next Superstorm

Hundreds of cities are vying for grants from the Rockefeller Foundation, because they know they aren’t prepared for future disasters.

A $100 Million Urban Resilience Effort To Help Cities Survive The Next Superstorm
[Image: Flickr user John de Guzman]

Superstorm Sandy showed New York’s vulnerability to big weather, and offered a warning to the world. If a moderately severe hurricane could incapacitate a city as great as New York, less wealthy and prepared places could be in for something worse.


Up to 75% of the planet is set to live in cities by 2050, just as climate change threatens to make exceptional weather less exceptional. Urban areas are more at risk than ever, yet have never been more crowded. That’s a frightening combination, as we’ve discussed before.

The Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities Centennial Challenge is a $100 million effort to help cities to face up to Sandy-like events and come out the other side. It looks to catalyze infrastructure investment, improve coordination within governments, open up access to useful software and services, and spread good ideas.

“Sandy really revealed how vulnerable even New York was, and New York had lots of measures to protect itself,” says Judith Rodin, Rockefeller’s president. “Many [cities] are grappling with these issues and they’re fearful of the degree to which they have both the capacity and the plans to respond.”

Rockefeller launched 100 Resilient Cities earlier this year, and more than 1,000 cities have sent in grant proposals so far (Rockefeller is now sorting through them). “They are concerned about infrastructure and the erosion of their coastlines, which make them far more vulnerable. They understand they don’t have the right coordination within city government,” Rodin says.

“Infrastructure” could be anything from ocean defenses to the positioning of power stations and the grid. It could mean how transport systems are protected from flooding, or how building codes encourage or discourage types of construction. It also includes “soft infrastructure”–which could involve the way planners and administrators are trained and the services they have to hand.

In submitting grant applications to Rockefeller, cities agree to appoint a Chief Resilience Officer to conceive and implement a plan, bring in private sector, civic society and the community stakeholders, and share knowledge with the network. In return, they get cash, services, and support. For example, Swiss Re, the giant insurance group, is offering free access to its risk analysis software packages. Palantir, the predictive analytics startup, is opening up its platform. And the American Institute of Architects and Architecture for Humanity is building “resilient design studios,” where professionals can learn about land use analysis and hydrology mapping. Rockefeller hopes this will lead to more cautious planning–for example, so cities avoid building on flood plains.

Rockefeller hopes “its convening authority and credibility with private sector actors” will also help bring funding for infrastructure. Rodin says the issue isn’t necessarily the availability of capital. There are plenty of richly endowed infrastructure funds–but that cities don’t make themselves more attractive to investors. Members of the network will get to attend World Bank workshops aimed at helping them. And Rockefeller is championing ideas like the West Coast Infrastructure Exchange, a joint effort by California, Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia to unlock more private infrastructure capital.


“Public funding is not enough,” Rodin says. “If you look at the United States, we have trillions of dollars of infrastructure needs. Even if we could get Congress to unleash large amounts of money, which they haven’t been willing to do, it still wouldn’t be enough for what cities and states need.”

Rodin says Rockefeller will measure the success of its initiative in lives and property lost, and the level of economic disruption. If the 100 cities are less affected by serious shocks, it will be worth it.

She’s at least encouraged that cities are taking resilience more seriously than they were. “I’m seeing much less short-termism at the local level than I’m seeing at the national level,” she says. “These city leaders can see these are not 1 in 100 year events. Something is happening in a city almost every day around the world that’s taxing them to the limits. There’s already tremendous stress, and they realize they need to be more prepared.”

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.