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More mayors are appointing chief resilience officers

As cities take climate matters into their own hands, all 24 U.S. members of the 100 Resilient Cities Network have added the CRO title.

Three years ago, just four cities affiliated with 100 Resilient Cities employed a "chief resilience officer." As of late July, there were officially 79 within the initiative’s namesake cohort — most of which have survived local political transitions.

"The office and the concept is becoming the norm," said Michael Berkowitz, president of the Rockefeller Foundation offshoot, during its Urban Resilience Summit in New York. Or, to quote one of Berkowitz’s frequently vocalized mantras: "You wouldn’t run a city without a CRO any more than you would a chief of police."

One of 100 Resilient Cities’ missions is to make that more possible, and one perk for member cities is a program that will fund the CRO’s salary for two to three years. "But we expect that the city will get such great value out of the role — far more than the salary — that they will continue funding the position after that time period," the organization noted in the FAQ section of its website.

Given that the effort is four years old, we’ll soon see whether that comes to pass. But the fact is there is more focus than ever on the role of cities in addressing issues of resilience exacerbated by climate change. The meeting last week was the first since the Trump administration’s decision to pull the United States out of the Paris Agreement on mitigating global warming. That move has galvanized hundreds of cities — of all sizes — to pledge action.

The office and the concept is becoming the norm.

Comments from New York Mayor Bill DiBlasio, who spoke during the opening session of the summit, summarized the resolve of summit attendees. "We understand there’s no time for complacency, and we can’t wait on anyone else to save us," he said. "It’s fitting that all of you are gathered here, because I know that you share that understanding. You’re depending on us, we’re depending on you. This is the power of this gathering — cities taking matters into our own hands, because we don’t have the illusion that things will change otherwise. We understand the kind of leadership we have to provide."

In many ways, the CRO — the first person to officially hold that title was San Francisco’s Patrick Otellini — is the civic world’s counterpart to a corporate chief sustainability officer. More often than not, it is a role that relies heavily on coordination and collaboration, working across a city’s maze of agencies and stakeholders to shape policy and action — without necessarily having official authority.

The network’s newest CRO, Kevin Bush in Washington, D.C., was a long-time strategist with the U.S. Housing and Urban Development agency and his background includes extensive insight into urban flood risks. Bush’s job: develop a citywide strategy to prepare both for "shocks" such as earthquakes, fires and super storms as well as for the "stresses" that weaken cities, including aging infrastructure and issues of income and racial inequity.

"This is particularly exciting because with his appointment, all 24 U.S. cities in the 100RC Network now have a chief resilience officer," Berkowitz said in the press release announcing Bush’s appointment. 

So far, 32 of the cities within that network have published comprehensive, official resilience strategies — the number should top 40 by the end of 2017, with the entire cohort scheduled to release their plans by the end of 2019. The most recent city to declare its path to the future was Boston, which in mid-July released its strategy — one focused sharply on addressing systemic racial equity.

"The release of Resilient Boston is the culmination of a collaborative, inclusive city-wide process to identify and root out the causes of inequity across our city," said Boston CRO Atyia Martin, in a statement. It was one that apparently saw members of the planning team take to buses and neighborhoods personally to gather intelligence — an estimated 11,000 citizens and constituents were consulted along the way in ways they’d never been reached before.

You wouldn’t run a city without a CRO any more than you would a chief of police.

Community-level outreach was likewise instrumental in shaping New York’s strategy, the OneNYC Plan, which also links the fight to combat climate change with the quest to address all forms of racial inequity — the goal is to "lift up" more than 800,000 people along the way. That’s the sort of creativity and conviction it will take to get things done, noted DiBlasio, and that will take both formal change and informal "power" within the community. 

"After 3.5 years as the mayor of the largest city in the United States, I am learning all the time — never ignore that informal part of the equation," he said. "Each and every one of you can change the discussion, not only in your city, but in your region, in your country. And that finds, in my view, a willing audience."

Within three years, the work of the 100 Resilient Cities network should be evident in about 5,000 initiatives worldwide, the group figured.

During the interim, Berkowitz said you can expect to see the convening organization offer resources that help prioritize — and finance — these bold ideas. More than $500 million has been committed across the network, and more than 100 partners are poised to help, ranging from technology startups such as Autocase's Impact Infrastructure (which sells an application meant to help analyze investments in the built environment) to consultants such as Earth Economics (focused on assessing natural capital investments). Strategies and policies for supporting distributed energy systems are also a high priority, Berkowitz said.

"We will continue to refine these priorities," he said. "Together, we will reduce the vulnerability and improve the well-being of the 500 million people living in our member cities."

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