The Rockefeller Foundation is marking its 100th anniversary with the "100 Resilient Cities Centennial Challenge." Announced in May, the foundation will award $100 million to cities in an effort to help them better prepare to "withstand catastrophic events -- both natural and manmade." The goal is to make cities more sustainable and resilient in the face of disasters, help them cope and recover, limit disruption, and foster greater equality among residents affected by storms that have increased in frequency and intensity due to climate change.
It is a wonderful idea, and if picked, a winning city will receive financial support for creating resilience plans and appointing chief resilience officers (CRO) to oversee all aspects of city resilience and sustainability. But the challenge does raise a couple of questions.
First, what exactly is urban resilience? The term began to crop up a few years ago as a more encompassing term than "sustainability," which has been used to define the way communities can grow economically without so much environmental degradation. Resilient cities aren't just sustainable, they are also less vulnerable by reducing the risk they face when it comes to natural disasters. If a disaster strikes, a city with a resilience strategy would be able to respond, withstand and bounce back far more quickly.
A quick return to normalcy is especially important for poor people in urban areas. They are likely to suffer the most in a disaster, so a strategy that can help them get back on their feet faster reduces the misery and suffering that occurs in the wake of storms, conflicts and other large-scale problems.
Second, should a private foundation require a city to appoint a senior-level official in order to share in the initiative? Actually, it's not the first time an outside organization has funded a new senior-level position. In 2009, Bloomberg Philanthropies created a $2 million grant, along with the Rockefeller Foundation, to finance the hiring of chief service officers in as many as 20 cities around the country. The job of the chief service officer was to marshal groups of volunteers to tackle local government problems, in particular match service programs with volunteers and share best practices. Cities have also received outside grants to fund positions they didn't have a budget for.
The position of a chief resilience officer within local government is also part of a growing trend to add more chiefs to city government. Besides resilience and service chiefs, there has been a proliferation of new officers on the technology side of city operations. In addition to the chief information officer, a growing number of cities have added chief digital officers and chief data officers to help CIOs cope with the complexity and diversity of online software applications and the data that feeds them. Other cities have appointed chief innovation officers, who are tasked with turning innovative ideas and programs into an overarching urban strategy.
So, do cities need another chief for the relatively unknown issue of resilience? One of the reasons why the Rockefeller Foundation is funding the initiative has to do with the size and scale of cities today. Globally, there are a dozen cities with a population of more than 10 million. In the U.S., we now have nine cities with a population that exceeds a million people. Overall, the world is becoming much more urbanized, with more than 75 percent of people expected to live in cities by 2050.
The other reason is that natural and man-made disasters are growing. Last year's Hurricane Sandy is a prime example of what happens when a large-scale disaster strikes a major urban area. Cities have become complex entities requiring more robust strategies to "cope with a broad range of crises," writes Neal Peirce, a columnist with Citiwire.net.
Mayors for America's biggest cities -- New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, for example -- have launched initiatives during their administrations to create resilience that is extended across city departments, but it's not clear those initiatives will last after the mayors finish their terms, according to Peirce. A chief resilience officer might counter any leadership vacuum that could render good projects dormant.
Whether the position of CRO takes root, remains to be seen. What is clear is that we can expect to hear the term "resilient" more frequently as cities strive to overcome the effects of ever-larger disasters.
This column was originally published at Governing.com.