Founded in 2013, the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities program worked with a network of cities from New Orleans to Dakar, Senegal, helping them prepare for future disasters, by doing things such as launching storm management projects, creating chief resilience officer positions, and generally preparing their communities to handle future stressors that would affect the way residents and businesses thrive. Then, in July 2019, it was suddenly and unceremoniously dissolved.
For Michael Berkowitz, president of 100 Resilient Cities (100RC), the work wasn’t finished. Berkowitz is now a founding principal of Resilient Cities Catalyst, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that officially launched this week. Led by former 100RC executives and with a board that includes former Rockefeller Foundation president Judith Rodin, Resilient Cities Catalyst is ready to pick up where the previous program left off—and take things even further.
“I think we always knew that the business of building urban resilience is a not a two- or three- or five-year enterprise, it’s a generational struggle,” Berkowitz says. “There is still an important city network that has remained out of the 100RC initiative, but as we did that reorganization, a number of the senior leadership from 100RC felt like we still wanted to work in this space to help cities push forward their priorities and initiatives . . . and not to be the only organization that did that but to really be one of a constellation of organizations that help cities take the next step.”
Resilient Cities Catalyst is completely separate from the Rockefeller Foundation—though Berkowitz says the foundation “supports us in spirit”—and unlike 100RC, which acted as a city support network and thus often had to use the city as an entry point to an issue, Resilient Cities Catalyst aims to focus a little less on just the municipalities.
Instead, it hopes to work with other organizations—whether national or state governments as opposed to city governments, or even business associations and universities—that “may be a more effective entry point for building urban resilience,” Berkowitz says. “I still think the chief resilience officer was an amazing municipal invention over the last six or seven years, and I still think we will still help cities figure out how to implement a chief resilience officer,” he adds. “But in the new organization, it will not be the only way we approach it.”
The new nonprofit will raise funds to do more transformational projects, focusing less on just the ideas that could make a city more resilient and more on the actual implementation and follow-through of such efforts. Currently, Resilient Cities Catalyst is working in two areas: with the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, which sponsored work in California after recent wildfires, and Facebook, which supported the nonprofit to do work around social cohesion. Both of those initiatives are domestic, and a large portion of the catalyst’s funding base is in the U.S., but Berkowitz hopes to have a global reach with this nonprofit as well. (The staff itself is quite a bit smaller than 100RC, which had nearly 100 employees: Resilient Cities Catalyst has nine staffers, eight of whom came from 100RC.)
When cities first hear the word “resilience,” community members may think only of how that relates to climate change. That’s a part of this effort, sure, but it’s more complicated than that. Resilient Cities Catalyst will use the same definition of resilience as 100RC did: “the capacity of cities to survive, thrive, and grow no matter what kinds of shocks or stresses they face,” Berkowitz says. Though climate readiness is an important factor for many cities, it can’t be separated from other things cities deal with. Take Hurricane Katrina, he says; the story of that disaster was about how low the city of New Orleans is compared to sea level and how warm the gulf was and how failing infrastructure led to more flooding. But it was also about poverty and endemic racism and broken governance. Berkowitz wants to address everything that could make cities stronger and prepared for the unexpected.
Ideally through Resilient Cities Catalyst, Berkowitz wants to help cities get over what he calls the “valley of death between project ideation—when you say, ‘Oh, this is what you need and this is what it will look like’—and the actual building.” He has, he points out, six years of experience helping cities and mayors think about problems in new ways, and he plans to tap the 100RC network as a partner in this larger ecosystem. “I think that we had always thought that as 100 Resilient Cities evolved, that there would be other efforts that would need to complement the work,” he says. “We didn’t know exactly what that would look like, but for me and many of the founders of Resilient Cities Catalyst, we felt like there was an opportunity to continue to push some of this work forward.”