100 Resilient Cities’ Dana Omran on Urban Resilience

by Rebekah Revello

The Issue

With rapid urbanization and mass migration, climate change, and an increasing prevalence of disasters, the needs and issues of cities at the individual level often get caught up in the push for global solutions to urban crises. But as cities become power-players in their own right, it has become more apparent that they are searching for the best urban practices and policies that would work for their specific contexts. The Rockefeller Foundation's 100 Resilient Cities initiative has recognized this need, and is working with cities across the globe to implement resilience strategies needed to face the physical, social, and economic challenges that lie ahead. Their intriguing approach in each city involves hiring a Chief Resilience Officer (CRO) that will work directly with local government, developing a resilience strategy, connecting the urban policymakers to a global network and facilitating global partnerships. Dana Omran, 100 Resilient Cities' Associate Director of City and Practice Management, discussed what the initiative is doing with their cities with IHC Global President and CEO Judith Hermanson at the Society for International Development. Omran explained the initiative's work in response to the wide range of issues in each city, from migration in Athens, to disaster resilience in Addis Ababa and Mexico, to counter-terrorism in Paris. But even if cities face very different issues, 100 Resilient Cities has one overarching goal; to break the vicious cycle of crisis after crisis after crisis by creating viable resilience strategies that allow cities to be prepared for anything and everything.

What We See

The presentation was filled with fascinating information- did you know that the Dutch are some of the best water and sanitation experts out there? Did you know that the CRO of San Juan was integral in evacuating civilians ahead of Hurricane Maria?- but even more intriguing were the questions asked during the dialogue. Many attendees came from urban-focused and development organizations and publications, and their questions reflected the general mood towards urban issues, and centered around the dynamics within and between cities. The majority of the questions concerned the political nature of the initiative's work: how urban resilience strategies will continue to be implemented under changing political regimes, how the strategies will enable informal communities to access local and national political power and services, how 100 Resilient Cities' approach fosters regional cooperation between cities, and how 100 Resilient Cities is going to help nudge urban issues onto national and global agendas. Others focused on the increasingly important issue of data: if there was any data on how the 100 Resilient Cities program has influenced urban policies such as zoning and building regulations, and if data gathered by the initiative is accessible to cities outside of their network. And, given the uncertainty of the future of sustainable urban development, some questioned what the future of the CRO position would look like, and what the main roadblocks were for the 35 (as of yesterday) cities in the network that have rolled out resilience strategies (the answer to this question: finance, finance, finance). But even if some of the questions had complicated or yet-to-be-determined answers, the fact that the queries were so sharp-eyed, and the fact that Omran had an informed response to each one, is a reminder of just how many assiduous urban experts are out there in the world that are committed to finding answers to every urban question, and to making resilience strategies work.

Find the answers to the questions below:

How to you deal with loss of momentum between different political regime's interest in resilience?

It's very difficult, especially when political power changes hands a lot.

Do you envision a future without the CRO needing to be a position?

Yes, absolutely. The goal is for the position to eventually not be necessary, if the resilience strategies serve their purpose.

 In cities with extreme events, what role do the resilience strategies take in rebuilding processes?

Strategies often deal with crisis management, and it's unlikely that something would hit a city that they're not prepared for. By having resilience officers engage with government, just the dialogue helps a city react and respond.

Do you have any metrics about how much the program has influenced zoning and building regulations in cities?

We don't have metrics yet, but we're starting to catalog and monitor implementation of projects that are aimed at reforming and changing building codes and regulations, especially with respect to recent disasters.

Do you have any metrics about how the information that is available to diagnose cities is accessible to non-networked cities? How are you reaching out to on network cities?

Cities have to apply to get into the network and have to show a strong commitment to the work, but we have recently been thinking about tools that could be provided to cities that are not in the network. Neighboring cities of network cities have more and more been asking those cities for help, which is a great sign of "training the trainer".

It took a long time for cities to get a seat at the table, how are you going to help nudge the world cities issue onto the national and global level?

Unfortunately, I don't know enough about that work. But a lot of city leaders in the developing world actually still don't have a seat at the table, and the challenge is to get central governments to give them that platform.

How has 100 Resilient Cities' approach fostered regional cooperation between cities?

To help cities be more resilient, we have to work at the metro then the region level. Now that the organization has clusters of cities near each other, the next step is to build community progress at the regional level. The push now is for African cities to join together for one African voice, and same goes for other specific regions, to represent their goals and identities.

How are these resilient strategies being used for informal communities to access local and national political power and services?

The thesis has always been that poor and marginalized are most affected by disasters. Questions of informality are becoming more frequent. Unless cities start recognizing their informal and marginalized communities and working with them in a productive manner, they won't be able to fix their larger problems. There has always been a push to formalize, but recently there has been talk that there may be another way.

What's going to happen in the future with these CROs? how will the program roll out?

Our grant covers two years. The CROs are employed by the city governments, so the grant really focuses on making sure the positions keep going, by working within the community to make sure the position is significant enough for the city to maintain. Early data says that cities see the value of these positions and are working to either fund or integrate the positions into the government.

As cities move towards implementation what are the main roadblocks?

The biggest one is money. There aren't enough resources to incentivize the implementation. Having a good idea is not as great as having a good project. Almost at the pre-feasibility stage is where the roadblock exists. Political change and transitions also really throw some strategies to the wind. Cities have to realize that the CROs can't do the work themselves, and so actions must come from existing city departments too. Increasingly, cities are learning that resilience is about communities coming together in times of crisis. There are inspiring stories across the network. And even the smallest cities have a huge contribution to make to urban sustainability.