When the Floods Come, Rockefeller Wants This Region to be Ready

Hurricane Sandy was the biggest eye-opener since Katrina regarding the mounting impacts of climate change in the United States. A superstorm that caused $65 billion in damages and economic loss to the region spurred New York City to take disaster preparedness more seriously than ever.

But to become resilient, cities need to break the pattern of simply responding to disaster, and instead reimagine infrastructure in advance, so they can be better prepared before disaster strikes. 

That’s the idea behind the Resilient by Design Bay Area Challenge, a Rockefeller-funded competition that takes a groundbreaking program that emerged post-Sandy, and applies it proactively to the San Francisco area’s anticipated flooding problems. Rockefeller is backing the design competition with a $4.6 million grant, inviting teams to design infrastructure solutions that will help the Bay Area adapt for rising sea level, storms, flooding, and even earthquakes. 

In recent years, the Rockefeller Foundation has made resilience, the concept of preparing communities for any number of looming stresses and shocks, a flagship issue. U.S. cities are one focus for the funder, with the global 100 Resilient Cities program also offering support and even paying for chief resilience officers in city governments across the country. 

Related: That Makes 100: Rockefeller's Domination of the Resilience Grantmaking Space

Resilience isn’t just a climate issue, and in fact, one of the more challenging things about the concept is that it seeks to address a nebulous set of potential crises that might emerge in a community, from natural disaster to social turmoil. But the threat to cities as the impacts of climate change worsen is definitely at the top of the heap of resilience concerns.

Is this really a smart focus for philanthropy, given the scope of the infrastructure challenges and the many reasons why government should be the prime player, here? We'll leave that for Rajiv Shah to decide when he takes over the Rockefeller Foundation this year after Judith Rodin departs. 

But Rockefeller has definitely found a strong formula for catalyzing new thinking around resilience. This year, the new Bay Area competition seeks 10 design solutions to make the region more resilient, with rising sea levels and flooding a top concern. While the area hasn’t had the kind of disaster in recent history that we saw in the New York region with Sandy, higher tides threaten the region and an overdue extreme storm could cause billions in damage. 

The preemptive nature of the San Francisco competition is an important distinction from the project’s roots in the aftermath of Sandy. The original, New York-focused Rebuild by Design competition had Rockefeller as a funding partner, but it was actually driven by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, channeling close to a billion dollars in federal disaster recovery grants to winning projects. With guidance from Dutch water management expert Henk Ovink, competitors were pushed to take a holistic approach, spending months working with locals to comprehend communities’ needs and resources. An important goal of resilience planning is to consider the intersections of multiple issues in communities such as equity, housing, and transportation.

The competition was widely cheered as a hit, marking a dramatic shift from typical federal disaster relief efforts. The 10 winning designs—which include artificial barrier islands, absorbent parks, and retractable metal barriers—made headlines and are some are currently being implemented.

That success led to a spinoff nonprofit, with lead funding from Rockefeller and a partnership with 100 Resilient Cities. That group is expanding to five other cities, which includes the new San Francisco competition.

The challenge of rolling out this competition and other efforts like it is very much the same challenge of all resilience planning, and of all climate change work, for that matter. That is, it’s much easier to free up funds, command attention, and move fast in response to a disaster than it is to anticipate for a potential disaster you might avoid. 

Note that this version lacks the massive HUD disaster relief funding of the Sandy program, so a partnership of many agencies is more important. The San Francisco Chronicle noted that before the new Rockefeller grant, the program had been slow to start due to fundraising difficulties. 

There’s a broader issue in the background of this program: How cities are going to fare with their efforts to fight climate change under a new federal government that is hostile even to the mention of the subject. Many cities and foundations have developed tight bonds when it comes to sustainability, resilience and climate work, even under a friendly federal government. As the new administration is already withholding federal funding as a weapon against cities, the strength of those philanthropy-city alliances could be seriously tested.

So Resilient by Design presents an interesting trial—not only as to whether the success of the New York program will translate to addressing impending threats in a new city, but also whether a foundation can be the anchor for that success, drawing new sources of funding where there’s no federal backing.

Related: For Surdna, Infrastructure is Where Sustainability and Justice Cross Paths