On the VERGE

The rising tide of city resilience

A city top view of skyscrapers by drone in Hong Kong.

This article is adapted from GreenBiz's newsletter VERGE Weekly, running Wednesdays. Subscribe here

Remember those 100 resilient cities? We used to hear a lot about them. Turns out, they didn’t go away. Quite the contrary.

Enter the Global Resilient Cities Network (GRCN). Announced last week at the United Nations Habitat Urban World Forum, the city-led initiative is the evolution and expansion of the Rockefeller Foundation-pioneered 100 Resilient Cities network (100RC), which quickly became the global darling of city resilience initiatives. For those who have been keeping tabs on this landscape the last several years, you may remember that 100RC informed the world, somewhat unceremoniously, that it was disbanding last spring. 

Well, the band is back together — and now playing a new, even more strategic tune.

Reuniting under this newly formed network is each of the previous 100RC member cities, along with a team of the organization’s former executives who are supporting the growing community of urban resilience practitioners. Members of the network represent 220 million citizens across 98 cities in 40 countries, which collectively are working to implement 79 endorsed resilience strategies that contain over 4,000 concrete resilience initiatives, the organization says. That’s the what.

As for the why: increasing the capacity of cities, and their inhabitants, to be resilient to shocks and stresses of all kinds has never been more urgent. While climate change’s impact on urban centers is significant — floods, fires and droughts are just the start of it — cities are also needing to adapt, and quickly, to growing migrant populations, frail infrastructure, disease vectors, economic inequality, homelessness and cyberattacks, among other stresses. 

The irony, as I reflected on in a piece in April, is that 100RC disbanded right around the time that the World Economic Forum published its list of top 10 risks facing our world in 2019 — in which the top three were all climate-related, and the next seven were all poised to have profound effects on cities’ residents and economies. According to a GRCN press release, 82 percent of cities globally are in areas that face a high risk of mortality just from natural disasters. 

In this year’s Global Risks Report, climate-related risks assume all top five rankings for the first time in its 15-year history. They include extreme weather, natural disasters and the failure by governments and businesses to adapt to both, as well as human-made environmental damage and biodiversity loss resulting in irreversible ecosystem collapse. 

That’s why there’s an urgent need to expand and fund resilience initiatives that result in safer, healthier, more equitable, climate-smart and prosperous cities.

"Our network's resilience strategies highlight a $35 billion investment gap in resilience in our cities alone," said Lauren Sorkin, acting executive director of the network. "We know there is more work to be done; as global threats rise, there has never been a more important time to invest in the technologies, capacities and projects that deliver urban resilience."

While the GRCN is, in effect, assuming the mantle of the "new" 100RC — including the identity of the leading "vanguard of the urban resilience movement" — it’s taking a different approach.  

The 100RC program was known for having what managing director Eugene Zapata called a one-size-fits-all approach to urban resilience — focusing on broad sweeping strategies and the opportunities for applicability in different regions. The GRCN network instead aims to center on "collaboration, regionally led strategies and a focus on impact." 

While the network will still serve as an association for chief resilience officers (CROs) to learn and collaborate, there will be an increasing emphasis on measuring the impact of their resilience strategies. That’s a critical, albeit less showy, aspect of fostering urban resilience, and a seismic shift in priority since I interviewed the world’s first CRO back in 2014.

For those of you in the private sector, stay tuned for more details later this spring about ways to engage directly with the GRCN. The network is already collaborating with leading nonprofit organizations, including the World Resources Institute and the Ocean Conservancy, to ensure resilience strategies are appropriately established and enforced. But without the steady stream of Rockefeller funding that enabled 100 RC, GRCN will seek corporate partners to finance and implement many technologies and infrastructure solutions at the center of resilient city strategies.

We’ve long said that urban resilience is all about public-private partnerships. This is the moment to prove it.