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Hail to the chief

Floods, riots, market crashes: the risks that cities face grow with every new day. But preparing for their impact, and ensuring the city can get back on its feet quickly, needs one person to bang heads, force decisions and generally take responsibility.

Gregory Scruggs
1 November 2017

Low-lying Miami is, arguably, the US city most at risk from climate change. A series of destructive Atlantic and Caribbean hurricanes have struck in 2017, and a rise in sea levels could put swathes of the beach-front destination underwater.

None of these conditions bode well for the city’s public utility system, especially one whose wastewater treatment facilities are clustered along the coast. In 2013, the US government determined that Miami-Dade County, the jurisdiction home to Florida’s largest city, had violated federal environmental law by not maintaining its water and sewer infrastructure to an adequate standard. Federal and county officials ultimately agreed upon a consent decree whereby the county would invest at least $1.6bn in the second-largest water and sewer system on the US east coast, serving some 2.3 million residents and thousands more visitors in a service area of 400 square miles (1,036 km2).

Faced with the challenge of how best to meet the terms set by the regulators in Washington, Miami’s public officials opted to go far beyond what was required of them under the law. Instead, they outlined a $13.5bn capital improvement programme that emphasises “resilience” – the ability of the water and sewer utility to withstand and bounce back from destructive events, such as a storm surge that subsequently inundates critical infrastructure.

The buzz around resilience

In the last several years, resilience has supplanted “sustainable” as the buzzword of choice in municipal governments worldwide, thanks in large part to the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities initiative. Cities enrolled in the programme receive funding from the foundation to employ a chief resilience officer (CRO), and technical support to help formulate a city-wide resilience strategy. Launched in 2013, the initiative now counts nearly 100 cities from across the globe in its roster, and in July 2017, around 80 CROs met in New York for 100 Resilient Cities’ third global summit.

Miami-Dade County appointed James Murley, a lawyer and urban planner, as CRO last year. He sees his role as “an evolution” from what previously might have been a chief sustainability officer.

“When you get into resilience, then you’re looking with more of a spatial framework. It’s a more interconnected approach than looking at single buildings." - James Murley, CRO, Miami-Dade County

Using the resilience approach, Miami-Dade County will redesign its coastal wastewater treatment facilities to withstand the projected 3ft (0.9m) of sea-level rise expected by 2060, as well as storm surges. “We’re spending more money now at a time when we’re involved with the upgrade, knowing that we’re going to have the added protection and be more resilient in the future,” says Murley.

Preparing for the worst

Chief resilience officers prepare their cities for the worst that the elements, global economy, and political upheaval can throw at them. To that end, they break their task into two types of challenges: shocks and stresses. Shocks are sudden events that stretch a city’s defenses to their limit. Stresses are more chronic issues that grind the city down.

Shocks are the obvious threats that make international news headlines. Barely a week before Miami’s residents started anxiously checking their own hurricane forecasts, they were watching pictures of Houston and Mumbai under water, as the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey and monsoon rains flooded streets, displaced thousands of people, and caused millions of dollars of property damage. And although the death toll from Harvey was low, the same could not be said in India, Bangladesh and Nepal, where at least 1,200 people have died.

Although most cities are well aware of their potential shocks and likely have been preparing for them long before the chief resilience officer came on the scene, the new role does not preclude surprises. Recently, Chilean seismologists discovered that the San Ramón Fault east of Santiago was in fact active, contrary to long-held beliefs, and could cause a subduction zone earthquake – where one tectonic plate pushes up another.

“We’ve never had that type of earthquake before; it’s much more devastating in terms of impact on infrastructure and human lives,” says Gabriela Elgueta, CRO at Santiago Humano y Resiliente, the resilience division of the Chilean capital. Now she is working with the relevant agencies to coordinate the delivery of new warning systems, launch public awareness campaigns, and implement zoning regulations to help prevent further construction near the fault line.

Elgueta’s job is further complicated by the city’s fragmented governance structure, which is comprised of 52 municipalities, each with its own government. There is a municipality of Santiago, but that only covers what is, in effect, the city centre. So although her job is to prepare protocols in the event of, for instance, a subway line shutting down, getting 52 governments to agree to make the local bike-sharing scheme free for the day is harder than it should be.

For her, this piecemeal system of city governance is one of Santiago’s chief stresses. “Without a doubt, the lack of planning is a recurring theme,” she says. “It’s impossible for each one to go it alone. Otherwise we end up with 52 plans for every topic.”

Elgueta, who is a public administrator by training, is based at the Santiago Regional Metropolitan Government, a new department that hopes to solve this problem and strives to offer the same metropolitan-scale coordination that, for example, Miami-Dade County has been doing for decades. But her boss, the regional metropolitan governor, is not directly elected, and has limited powers over the 52 mayors who run the constellation of jurisdictions that are home to some 7 million people – nearly 40% of Chile’s population.

In focus: Surat, India

Another city with an atypical stress is Surat, the economic capital of Gujarat on India’s west coast. For centuries, it served as a port of call for European traders. In the early 20th century, Gujarati diamond cutters made the city their home. It is also India’s textile capital, producing 9 million metres of fabric a year. These bustling industries have thus far proven potent for the city’s economy. A 2011 survey by the City Mayors Foundation declared Surat the fourth fastest-growing city in the world.

But Kamlesh Yagnik is thinking ahead and making a push for diversification. Yagnik, a mechanical engineer who two years ago became 100 Resilient Cities’ first CRO in India, wants to see jobs along the full value chain for the raw materials that have made the city prosperous.

“We manufacture fabric, but we’re not making garments,” he says. “Ninety per cent of the world’s diamonds are cut and polished in Surat, but we are not making jewellery.”

As CRO, Yagnik has been liaising with the city’s universities and polytechnics over new opportunities that would build on Surat’s industrial heritage. Most machines used to cut diamonds or weave fabric, for example, are imported. And the IT jobs that are the bedrock of other Indian cities have yet to materialise, despite what Yagnik sees as obvious connections. “Textile and diamond producers are essentially tech companies,” he says, referring to the advanced techniques at work in both sectors. However, precious little of the computerised components used in those industries are being developed in Surat. “We use IT services but the development here is minimal.”

New Orleans: Preparing for another Katrina

Hurricane Katrina, which hit New Orleans in late August 2005, proved to be the worst natural disaster in the city’s history. The storm surge was responsible for the deaths of almost 1,500 people and caused an estimated $70bn of damage.

The postmortem analysis determined that the city’s levees were woefully inadequate at containing the fury of Katrina. New design standards were set so that future levees would be able to endure a so-called 100-year storm event, although some experts warn even that may not save the city in the future.

Fukushima: Cost of Complacency

The tsunami that crashed into the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in March 2011 caused three meltdowns and has left the surrounding area severely contaminated by radiation. A subsequent investigation revealed there was no plan in place in the event of such a disaster.

Generators that could have saved the reactors from meltdown sat in storage, and helicopters were still on standby after the earthquake that triggered the tsunami had hit. Studies on the probability of a 10m-high tsunami reaching the coast had been carried out, but executives decided there was no risk.

Paris: Keeping cool in a crisis

In August 2003, France found itself at the epicentre of a European heatwave that claimed nearly 15,000 lives, mostly among the elderly. As temperatures in Paris peaked at 39.5ºC, hundreds died alone in their apartments and went undiscovered for days or even weeks.

In response, the French government adopted the Plan Canicule (Heatwave Plan), now considered an international model by the World Health Organization. The plan’s strict guidelines trigger mandatory provision of air-conditioned cooling centres and extensive outreach efforts to make sure the elderly do not whither away in isolation when the mercury gets too high. A 2006 heatwave killed far fewer.

Hurricanes, floods, terrorism

From hurricanes and floods to terrorism and refugee crises, the list of calamities that could befall a city would keep any mayor up at night. While some are new – so much critical infrastructure in a city now depends on vulnerable cyber networks, for instance – others have defined cities for decades if not centuries, from the Great Fire of London in 1666 to the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake.

“The rationale is effectively that every city should have a chief resilience officer, the same way as every bank should have a chief risk officer,” explains Samer Bagaeen FRICS, London-based associate director of city and practice management for 100 Resilient Cities. The analogy is no coincidence: the organisation’s founding president came from the banking sector.

But given that many cities are already addressing the issues that now fall under the resilience purview, why bother hiring a CRO? Simple, says Bagaeen: “It cuts across several government departments, and therefore cuts across silos.”

That has certainly been the experience of Sarah Toy, Bristol City Council’s strategic resilience officer. Toy describes herself as a “grand matchmaker” who has been most effective “synergising lots of actions where we’re at risk of duplication.”

For example, Bristol already has a civil protection manager, but Toy has exploited her office’s connections across the council – as well as the private sector – to consider how Bristol might respond to a terrorist attack. She helped coordinate an hour-by-hour scenario planning exercise that would cover the first two weeks of a potential event on the scale of the recent Manchester attack.

“Terrorism has risen up the agenda massively,” Toy says. Thinking about such a scenario has encouraged those responsible for everything from IT networks to childcare to consider the risks to the services they provide. The exercise also yielded proactive responses, such as the realisation that council helplines could temporarily become public-facing sources of information, or a department’s stash of extra mobile phones could be loaned out to emergency services.

And although that means Toy must be better versed on the threats of a lone wolf versus a sleeper cell, it does not mean she has to become a counter-terrorism specialist.

“The great advantage of being a CRO is the capacity to articulate without being an expert,” explains Elgueta. “I go to the experts for each topic area.”

As a result, chief resilience officers are able to work across the full scope of local government. They can focus on technical details without having to dwell on the political messaging that consumes mayors and elected officials. “I don’t control my own budget, which has given me the freedom to step back and look at the bigger picture,” says Toy. “At a time of austerity in the UK’s public sector, the initiative has raised our sights about what might be possible if we work together and pool our resources.”

CROs come from a variety of professional backgrounds, from town planning to private-sector business management, but one way or another they must gain proficiency in the built environment realm.

“There is a learning curve for those who are not built environment professionals,” explains Bagaeen. “So we make sure they have support from project managers, because they are going to have to deliver on a built environment project.”

Above all, a CRO’s most effective skill is the ability to cut through the layers of bureaucracy and become a one-stop shop for the multifaceted needs of a city. “You’d have to talk to five different people to understand how transportation, housing, and emergency management are connected in the county,” argues Miami-Dade’s Murley. Now, you can just go to him. “I’m the point person in a large government for an integrated response.”

A more equitable future is within reach. First, we must harness the enormous potential of the 21st century’s people, places and spaces. #WBEF