Interview: Why 'Resilience' Is Crucial for Cities in the 21st Century

After sustaining damage during Hurricane Sandy in 2012, Lower Manhattan adopted a resilient strategy to rebuild and recover, argues Judith Rodin. (Tony Shi Photography/Getty Images)

The global population is urbanizing at a rapid rate, presenting a set of challenges to cities. How can they provide affordable housing? What is the smartest way to replace aging infrastructure? And how can coastal cities withstand the consequences of climate change?

100 Resilient Cities, a new organization developed by the Rockefeller Foundation, is designed to tackle these questions. According to Judith Rodin, president emerita of the foundation as well as the University of Pennsylvania, resilience means more than just recovering from a disaster: It also means constructing cities in order to solve chronic problems.

In advance of Rodin's appearance on Thursday, she spoke to Asia Society about urban resilience, hundred-year storms, and what Rotterdam and Hoboken have in common.

Which cities best embody the principle of resilience?

I’d rather not set any up as "best." The critical thing about becoming resilient is first recognizing the risks and vulnerabilities that different cities have. Those risks and vulnerabilities are not only in their natural and built infrastructure, but also in sea level rise and various economic and social issues because often the response to a catastrophe is worsened if there’s distress. Think of New Orleans after Katrina — which we’re seeing a bit of again in Houston. All of those issues are critical for cities.

I’d say among the furthest along, because they started earliest, are the Dutch. They endured a major disruption in 1953 when a massive storm blew up the North Sea and the dikes weren’t able to withstand it. And so they created a resilience-building effort, an innovative way to manage both sea and freshwater that meet the needs of the Dutch people and the country’s economy going forward. They've implemented a plan which includes dams, weirs, and storm surge mechanisms that divide the region into controllable segments, thus enabling the most populated areas to withstand 10,000-year surge levels.

This is particularly important because we’re now seeing hundred-year storms every year all over the world: Think of not only Hurricanes Harvey and Irma in the U.S. but also the unusually high and disruptive monsoons in India. As we've said many times, this is the new normal. Those cities which are best prepared will be most able to rebound quickly from crises.

What infrastructure should cities around the world prioritize?

It depends on each city's vulnerability. There’s really no prescription. Accurately assessing one’s risks and vulnerabilities is absolutely critical. You can’t say “here’s the infrastructure that you, this city, ought to be thinking about.”

For example, after Hurricane Sandy, New York began thinking much more creatively about how vulnerable lower Manhattan was. As a result of their resilience building planning, there will be a flood-wall, a surge-wall, that goes all around lower Manhattan. And because the flood-wall is being built with resilient strategies in mind, it isn't the ugly thing you’d imagine — high concrete walls up and down the shoreline — but rather something being built to fulfill community needs on a more regular basis. They assessed the vulnerabilities and needs of the area and found that they could put in new bike lanes, community market space, and art walls perfect for community presentations. So resilience building strategies are those that not only address vulnerabilities but also more chronic needs and try to fulfill both at the same time.

A great example is Rotterdam, and — a city modeled after it — Hoboken, New Jersey. Hoboken assessed that they needed many more parking spaces downtown and they also needed much more green space. So they used Dutch-engineered technology, they’re building underground parking which can also serve as flood overflow space in time of heavy rainfall. (They were hit hard during Sandy.) The surface area is green space and there's a new park area which serves a variety of community needs. It’s what I call the resilience dividend: You get multiple benefits for a single investment. Singapore did it for the Marina Barrage, where they solved problems of freshwater capture as well as flood and storm surges while at the same time stimulating economic development and new housing. That’s the right way to think about resilient infrastructure going forward. But it’ll be different from city to city.

What do you see as the greatest challenges facing cities, particularly those that rely on their waterfront, in the coming decades? Is it climate change? Is it a slowdown in global trade? What are the key factors?

We had 1,100 cities apply for the 100 we selected, and 80 percent of them talked about water vulnerability. World Economic Forum risk assessments over the last two years have demonstrated this recognition globally. In some places it’ll be the problem of too much water, in some places too little. But this concentration on water is going to be essential.

Because of the way trade developed over the course of history, most cities that are part of the global trade route are either on rivers or coasts. Sea level rise is particularly threatening to those cities, many of which, New York and Singapore included, have utilized landfill in order to continue to expand. Then there's Miami Beach, which is on a sandbar. These cities are so vulnerable to sea level rise, storms, hurricanes, typhoons, tsunamis — all of which appear to be worsening. How do these cities work on both their natural and built infrastructure in new ways? 

We actually could look at New Orleans, which relies on the Mississippi River as part of its global strategy. Over the years, since the Mississippi was developed all the way down, it got diverted, making much more land vulnerable to sea level rise. Because of New Orleans' vulnerability to storms, they've adopted a combined strategy to restore wetlands and coastal estuaries and to let water flow where it wants to.

Our mantra in the 21st century is learning how to live with water — and so a lot of cities have developed “living with water strategies.” This includes tree planting and, obviously, new dykes and canal structures. But developing a combination of hard and soft infrastructure in order to allow water to flow where it wants to is really critical all over the world.