Commentary: Preparing for the Cataclysm

Why Seattle needs a chief resilience officer.
| FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
 
 

For decades, scientists have been warning us about The Big One — the looming magnitude 9.0 earthquake that is expected to cause devastating damage to a substantial portion of the Pacific Northwest coast.  While it’s uncertain exactly when this megaquake will hit, Seattle has recently taken major steps toward getting in front of the threat. Earlier this year, the city joined 100 Resilient Cities pioneered by The Rockefeller Foundation, which aims to prepare cities for the shocks and stresses that threaten economic and social viability.

The original target for the network is 100 cities around the world, but the ultimate goal is to use proven models to help 10,000 cities make effective resilience planning a part of their DNA.

More recently, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray pledged the city’s commitment to collaborate with Vancouver, British Columbia, to advance the cities’ shared sustainability and resilience goals. On both sides of the international border, the cities face similar challenges related to seismic risk and climate change, aging infrastructure and a lack of affordable housing. Together, Seattle and Vancouver plan to learn from one another as they work to develop and implement holistic resilience strategies that lay out tangible approaches to tackling the shocks and stresses facing each city. 

Earthquakes get a lot of attention, but they’re just one of the myriad threats Seattle faces as a large metropolis. Rising sea levels, coastal erosion and risks of flooding are all events we need to plan for. It’s a lot to keep track of, particularly when our cities are run by dozens of departments, each with its own priorities. To solve that issue, the central figure in the 100 Resilient Cities model is the grant-funded position of chief resilience officer (CRO) — a senior-level public official dedicated to developing a defined process and resilience strategy tailored to the needs of the city.

In Seattle’s case, this means not only enormous shocks like earthquakes, but also infrastructure failure, economic inequality and a lack of affordable housing — stresses that add up over time to erode a city’s economic viability and lead to bigger problems. 

 

There are several benefits to having a CRO responsible for integrating resilience into the planning process for different city departments, such as an increase in productivity, a reduction in excess city spending caused by redundancy and the opportunity to apply for grants. In Norfolk, Virginia, for example, the CRO has engaged the engineering firm Amec Foster Wheeler, the urban planning firm Street Plans and the civic crowdfunding platform IOBY (In Our Back Yards) to support a flood-management workshop that aims to reduce flooding, support neighborhood revitalization and drive communication to city stakeholders.

A significant aspect of the CRO’s job centers on connectivity, which includes helping siloed government agencies work and plan together, and scaling up existing disaster planning to meet a city’s actual needs. In addition to institutionalizing resilience into the fabric of city operations, it is also about connecting Seattle to other cities, such as Vancouver, which deal with similar shocks and stresses. 

Cities are extremely complex ecosystems but they are also increasingly the preferred way to organize our societies and drive our economies. By 2020, 70 percent of the global population is expected to live in cities, so it is imperative that we plan today to protect our livelihoods, and ultimately ourselves, in the future. By establishing international networks, like the partnership Seattle has pledged with Vancouver, cities can share best practices, support each other and collaborate.

Ensuring that resilience is taken into consideration at every step and by connecting with like-minded cities, we give ourselves a fighting chance to deal with whatever comes our way. 

PETER HALL is a global sustainability and climate change resiliency lead for London-based Amec Foster Wheeler and director of the firm’s partnership with 100 Resilient Cities. Reach him at peter.j.hall@amecfw.com.

 

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