Q&A: 100 Resilient Cities' chief on how cities can tackle climate change

Michael Berkowitz, president of 100 Resilient Cities. Photo by: Boris Baldinger / World Economic Forum / CC BY-NC-SA

Nearly five years after Hurricane Sandy hit New York to devastating effect, America’s most populated city is still rebuilding in some areas — and, with an office of recovery and resiliency and a city-wide strategy — is looking ahead to how best to cope with the next superstorm.

“More and more people around the world are waking up to the fact that something has to be done,” New York Mayor Bill de Blasio told an audience of city officials and urban climate experts on Monday. “There are still denialists, but people get it more and more because of their experiences. Your leadership becomes crucial. We tend to be bolder.”

“There are 10,000 cities in the world, depending on how you count them. If we are going to save the world through cities, we have to concentrate on solutions that scale.”

— Michael Berkowitz, president of 100 Resilient Cities

This was the message at the first day of the 100 Resilient Cities Urban Resilience Summit: Cities across the world need to look ahead, as they have an increasingly important role to play in combatting climate change and becoming more resilient to disaster. Many major coastal cities face various risks and effects of climate change and the global urban population continues to grow, with about 60 percent of all people expected to live in cities by 2050.

100 Resilient Cities, a 4-year-old initiative of the Rockefeller Foundation, connects cities worldwide to share lessons, and also supports them with grants to develop national strategies and back Chief Resilience Officers, or CROs, dedicated to climate resilience. The number of CROs has grown from four in 2014 to 79 in 100 Resilient Cities network of 98 cities this year.  

Devex talked with Michael Berkowitz, president of 100 Resilient Cities, about which solutions he sees transferring best between cities and across borders and why cities matter now more than ever. The conversation is below, edited for length and clarity.

Via Twitter

You put an emphasis on protected bike lanes, and how they could be part of the answer to many questions facing cities when it comes to boosting resilience. What prevents this from becoming a reality? It seems more of a question of political will, rather than money.

The reason why I say bicyclists fix the urban problems is we spend a lot of time helping cities find interventions that build strength across a number of different factors. You don’t know the next thing that is going to happen, but if you make your city stronger, more livable, more economically diverse, with a strong middle class, you will ultimately become more resilient to whatever happens next. When you look at cycling — it is a mobility intervention, it is an environment intervention, and it is a health intervention. It also can be an economic intervention, because what we see often is that the most disadvantaged people live a long commute from the job centers.

I definitely think it is a question of political will. There is a growing body of evidence that suggests that denser living with better cycling infrastructure actually has massive economic benefits. When [New York] Mayor [Michael] Bloomberg ... proposed closing Times Square to cars and enhancing cycling infrastructure and pedestrian access the merchants at first were up in arms. But now they have seen their profits soar, because it is having that slow pace of people, that whole rich street life, which is so important. It is definitely a question of political will, and it is because car owners are often the wealthiest, and are able to control the use of the streets for a few, when it could be used much more efficiently by many.

Do you see this idea being able to be applied in the same way when you go to different cities in Africa, or Southeast Asia, just as easily? Or do you see the role of CROs in cities being tailored in different ways?

I think it is a balance between cities, because they are more similar than they like to believe. When we bring diverse cities together, whether it is mayors or CROs, or other officials, at first you are blown away by the diversity. You have someone from Toronto talking to someone from Durban, and it is like, “How are we going to relate them?” And you get into what the solving of the problem is: How you engage stakeholders, how you design projects, how you finance stuff, how you change policy, what your relationship is to the national government. You start to see a lot of similarities, even amongst developed and developing, big and small countries. That has been really powerful.

There are 10,000 cities in the world, depending on how you count them. If we are going to save the world through cities, we have to concentrate on solutions that scale. And, so, yes, maybe I think that is an end-user perspective. If it works 80-20 you should take the 80 and customize for the 20, and that is something we try to push: How can we do things more efficiently?

Are there certain climate, or other challenges, you are finding there are no good solutions for right now?

The thing that I am still struggling with, and this is a particularly developed world problem at the moment, but it is understanding how cities don’t become gentrified in a way that pushes out the middle class. A strong, diverse middle class is an important part of a resilient city. Cities are experimenting with some levers around affordable housing, around thinking about the public acquisition of lands in the development process in a way that helps preserve the middle class, but I have not seen a good, tried and true [plan]. Certainly in the United States context, cities tend to gentrify and push out the middle class. That is a big issue.

In terms of heat there are really interesting solutions in a bunch of different ways. I spoke about the Melbourne Urban Forest Strategy, which has worked across 32 different city councils to look at species and maintenance. You look at somewhere like Singapore, which has doubled in size over the last three decades, I believe, and yet has increased the green cover by 25 percent since that time. So they both have gotten more populated and more green, and they did that through using incentives and policy levers. They agreed to give land owners more places to build if they built with more green. So now you see lots of interesting green roofs, green terraces. Interesting architecture is coming out of Singapore, with an open, green space in the middle of a high-rise building, partly due to taking advantage of that incentive. It makes the city much, much greener and actually has this cooling impact. There are ways to address the heat. Like any big shock or stress, it can overwhelm even the best of interventions. But certainly there are avenues.

How do you find the general state of U.S. politics, and more specifically the U.S.’ decision to pull out of the Paris Agreement on climate change, is impacting your work? Do you think it adds urgency to how cities address climate change?

It underscores how great it is to work with cities, because they are practical and innovative and not dogmatic in a sort of ideological way. They want to find the solutions that work. They do not care whether those solutions came from Republicans or Democrats. And they are sort of willing to take that risk, because they are closer to the ground and more responsive to their citizens. I do think that cities can take the lead and drive the agenda, but without an enabling environment at the national level we are not going to make as much progress as we could. There is just no question of it.

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About the author

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    Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is the New York Correspondent for Devex. She covers the United Nations and reports on global development and politics. Amy previously worked as a freelance reporter, covering the environment, human rights, immigration, and health across the U.S. and in more than 10 countries, including Colombia, Mexico, Nepal, and Cambodia. Her coverage has appeared in the Guardian, the Atlantic, Slate, and the Los Angeles Times. A native New Yorker, Amy received her master’s degree in politics and government from Columbia’s School of Journalism.