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The Olympics contest for cities: Urban resilience

Drawing inspiration from the discipline-driven commitment and friendly global competition at the Olympics to make our cities more resilient.

The 2016 Summer Olympics is underway until Aug. 21 in Rio de Janeiro. Rio’s road to sustainability has had its hurdles, but the megacity’s experiences will inform the sustainability efforts of future host cities.

After all, achieving milestones while identifying potential for growth is one of the Olympics’ great value drivers.

Today’s Olympic achievements also inspire tomorrow’s success, as the radiant picture of 9-year old Katie Ledecky getting Michael Phelps’s autograph demonstrates.

Among the noble sentiments that the games stirs in societies around the world, friendly global competition and discipline-driven inspiration are forces that are also fueling the movement for urban resilience, a term that both transcends and includes sustainability.

The sheer scale of Rio 2016 and its accompanying environmental challenges put sustainability on the public’s agenda as few events can.

Whether for an event or a city, the push toward resilience must come from a catalyst (think the team behind the team). The sheer scale of Rio 2016 and its accompanying environmental challenges put sustainability on the public’s agenda as few events can.

Now the Rockefeller Foundation is catalyzing urban resilience in more than 100 cities around the world. The lessons they’re learning will improve the odds for every city that aspires to go for the green.

From greener games to greener cities

Rio 2016’s strides in sustainability are largely the result of a commitment by the International Olympics Committee (IOC), which supports more than 10,000 athletes from 206 countries, and for the first time a "refugee nation," plus multitudes of stakeholders.

The IOC’s website lists some key achievements, including a mention that Rio 2016, through a partnership with Dow, boasts the most comprehensive carbon program in Olympic Games history (and that’s after the carbon-neutral London Games).

Looking ahead, the IOC’s strategic roadmap Olympic Agenda 2020 addresses the future of the Olympic Games with a new approach to the host city selection process. Cities will be required to identify post-games legacy uses for all permanent venues to ensure that games-related investments deliver positive, long-term benefits for local populations.

"We put a stronger focus on sustainability, legacy and transparency and make it easier for host cities to tailor games that meet their needs rather than trying to fit a template," said IOC President Thomas Bach. He added that sustainability is not a "nice to have," but "an indispensable part of the Olympic philosophy, since the effective transmission of our values depends on a broad concept of sustainability."  

Sustainability is not a 'nice to have,' but 'an indispensable part of the Olympic philosophy.'

While a greener games won’t mitigate Brazil’s severe deforestation and other environmental problems, the event’s achievements can raise the bar for future venues to meet or exceed. Just as Ledecky benefitted from the example of a Phelps, greener cities are the result of commitment, discipline, adaptability and the willingness to learn from others.

The 10-year planning journey and subsequent infrastructure improvements necessary for becoming a host city also make these metropolises more resilient. 

Catalyzing urban resilience worldwide

World-class athletes can come from anywhere and find an opportunity to use their talents in the Olympics. Similarly, cities not known for being conventionally environmentally responsible are strengthening their muscle in the new sport of urban resilience.  

In this contest, "El Paso wants to establish the value of a desert ecosystem," said Nicole Ferrini, chief resilience officer for the city of El Paso at this summer’s North Texas Sustainable Showcase 2016

City Resilience, as Ferrini defines it, is the capacity of individuals, communities, institutions and businesses within a city to survive, adapt and thrive no matter what kind of chronic stresses and acute shocks they may experience. As a desert city, El Paso faces consequences of increasing heat. Four people have died of extreme heat this summer in El Paso.

In Dallas, inequality is one of most critical challenges.

"We have a $52 billion health care industry in North Texas, but we have the highest rate of uninsured people," said Chief Resilience Officer Theresa O’Donnell, who also began her position as part of the Rockefeller 100. Alongside her efforts to bolster the built environment, O’Donnell is emphasizing inclusive economic development in Dallas’ roadmap to resilience. 

Cities in Texas may seem like underdogs compared to sustainability heavyweights such as San Francisco and New York City, but as members of the 100RC network, Ferrini and O’Donnell have a track to run on in their race to resilience.

The City Resilience Framework provides a lens to understand the complexity of cities and the drivers that contribute to their resilience. To further friendly competition, the foundation has launched the 100 Resilient Cities Centennial Challenge, inviting individuals around the world to participate.

Even smaller towns in the Lone Star State are setting new records. Georgetown, the rapidly growing retirement mecca of about 47,000, recently became the third city in the nation to adopt a policy of 100 percent renewable energy use.

As Georgetown Mayor Dale Ross explained: "When you have fossil fuel generation for electricity, it takes a lot more water than wind and solar. We’ve been under drought conditions with half-empty reservoirs in recent years, so switching helps our environment."

Also, "if you have clean energy like solar and wind, then when that power is generated, you’re putting fewer particles in the air, and that’s certainly good for the environment."

As the leader of a largely conservative community, Ross focuses on water conservation and economic development opportunities in supporting renewable energy generation.

"A lot of quality U.S. companies in the high-tech sector have robust green policies and are looking for places either to expand or to relocate their operations in areas where renewable energy is available and affordable," he said. 

Architect Z Smith, principal and director of sustainability and building performance for New Orleans-based design studio Eskew+Dumez+Ripple, said, "Looking at resilience nationally, we see each threat is different but themes are the same." He noted this at Sustainable Showcase 2016.

While cities may pursue resilience for different reasons, those that are proactive can enjoy what Smith calls the "resilience benefit," which encapsulates the health, wellness and financial benefits that accompany efforts toward climate change adaptation, disaster preparedness and economic inclusivity.

World climate competition in a post-Paris Agreement world

Since Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, the city has made some phenomenal green achievements. (Download the Resilient New Orleans Strategy here.) However, for some American cities, resilience is not about achieving recognition so much as survival.

"New Orleans one day may be like Venice, a historic city surrounded by open water," said Smith. "What we’ve done in New Orleans draws on ideas from around the country and around the world."

Recalling that jazz was invented in New Orleans by drawing on ideas from other places and combining them in original ways, Smith added, "Everyone working in resilience has to improvise, but that improvisation can produce beautiful results."

That spirit is also alive in Tuvalu, the sinking nation whose plight I first learned about in reviewing the 2010 documentary "Climate Refugees." In his speech at COP21, Tuvalu Prime Minister Enele Sopoaga urged other heads of state and government to strive for a global temperature goal of below 1.5 degrees Celsius relative to pre-industrial levels.

"Tuvalu’s future at current warming is already bleak. Any further temperature increase will spell the total demise of Tuvalu," said Sopoaga.

The spirit that compelled 195 countries to sign the Paris Agreement and 206 countries to compete in the 2016 Olympics is alive in cities.

He concluded with a plea: "Let’s do it for Tuvalu. For if we save Tuvalu, we save the world." That this chain of densely populated oceanic islands standing a mere 3 meters above sea level is among the first countries to release a climate action plan since the Paris Agreement demonstrates the potential of smaller players to play a substantive role in changing the cultural tide. 

As the Olympics progress, some competitors will emerge as victors. From Team USA's cadre of 555 competitors to Tuvalu’s team of one, all participants will come away from the contest with the distinction of being Olympians, even if they don’t win a medal. But in the contest of climate change, there are no winners; there are simply some that will succumb before others.

The spirit that compelled 195 countries to sign the Paris Agreement and 206 countries to compete in the 2016 Olympics is alive in cities. Such gusto for setting and goals and being accountable to a global community is vital, as cities will be held responsible for much of the implementation of Paris Agreement goals. Fortunately, when cities and their citizens use the spirit of friendly competition to save energy and the environment, everyone wins.

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