Rockefeller's Ambitious Plan to Make Cities Stronger

The Rockefeller Foundation believes there are some core traits cities can enhance to be prepared for looming disaster, and it’s in the process of investing $100 million directly into city governments to build up those traits. The funder is currently recruiting 33 more cities to join in. 

Rockefeller was early to embrace the concept of resilience, a buzzword bouncing around sustainability and climate funding these days, which refers to a community’s ability to survive and adapt to shocks and stresses thrown its way. One of its biggest initiatives in this realm is the 100 Resilient Cities program, which challenges applicants to take the lead in building strategies to roll with the punches.  

The program is unique in that, rather than funding nonprofits or forming a coalition or backing research, Rockefeller is giving support directly to local governments that apply through periodic invitations for proposals. The most tangible benefit is that Rockefeller will pay the salary of a Chief Resilience Officer in each selected city. In Boulder, for example, the officer’s pay is expected to run $100,000 to $150,000 a year. But they also receive more nebulous support for developing their resilience strategies. 

With $100 million for 100 cities, I can break out my calculator and make a rough estimate of how the support breaks down, but there’s no static check being cut for each participant. 

In fact, as with much of Rockefeller’s work in this arena (and big foundations in general, for that matter) a big part of the added value is attributed to participation in the group effort. Sharing of ideas and exchange of experience is key to the Rockefeller resilience strategy. The idea is creating cookie-cutter tools that can be replicated around the world.  

Because while $100 million sounds like a lot, it’s really not much when we’re talking about 100 cities developing these programs. The foundation is just trying to plant some seeds.  

Back in December, the funder announced the first 32 cities to be chosen to participate. They include Bangkok and Boulder, New Orleans and New York, Ramallah and Rome, so they're pretty all over the place in terms of challenges and populations. While Boulder, Colorado seeks to bounce back after destructive flooding and wildfires in recent years, Quito, Ecuador is constantly tested with seismic activity, forest fires, and landslides, which especially threaten poor, makeshift communities. 

In the first round of proposals, 372 cities applied from 78 countries, and the challenges the applicants cited actually surprised the heads of the program, according to an analysis of the first wave of applications. European cities, for example, most commonly cited drought and water issues as the biggest stresses they’re concerned about. In South America, it was educational infrastructure. Rockefeller’s network has its work cut out for it. 

The foundation is now accepting applications for the second round of 33 cities, running from July through September 10. 

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