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An Earth Day Message on Resilience from MAS

By: Mary Rowe

Since Superstorm Sandy struck the Northeast coast on October 29, 2012, city, state and federal agencies, organizations, and individuals around the region have mobilized to aid impacted communities in their recovery efforts, and consider new ways to make New York and the surrounding region more resilient. What better moment to reflect on our collective progress than Earth Day, when the world pauses to check in on the planetary ecosystem in which we live?

The resilience of urban systems—including their natural, physical, social, and economic infrastructure—is strongly linked to the livability of neighborhoods and the city as a whole. Resilience is not just about emergency preparedness, it is a lens through which communities grow, adapt, and address persistent challenges and capitalize on opportunities. Public agencies and institutions play a critical role in developing and implementing large scale solutions, but an effective urban resilience strategy requires the mobilization of the social, intellectual, and cultural capital of the residents that live and work in vulnerable communities and can improvise hyper-local approaches.

MAS has been at the forefront of the post-Sandy effort to connect civil society leaders, government officials, grassroots community organizers, academics, professional urban planners, and designers, and a host of other community leaders and urban practitioners working at the regional, city-wide, and local levels to develop strategies and initiatives that help build community-based resilience.

New York City neighborhoods are leading the transition from recovery to resilience. To support that, MAS is working with local partners in each borough to network community-based neighborhood organizations, local business, and the nonprofit and faith communities together to develop a shared framework that addresses persistent challenges that Sandy exposed. Are we ready to cope with another hurricane or severe weather event that will overtop our shorelines and inundate our infrastructure? And are we creating the right kinds of opportunities for local entrepreneurs to come up with practical solutions that can be scaled to other neighborhoods? And are current planning decisions reflecting the range of potential climate-change impacts, so that we can quickly adapt and function? Earlier this year MAS questioned the wisdom of proposing a multi-story tower near the South Street Seaport, building so close to an already eroding shore.

MAS resilience work extends beyond New York City through MAS Cities, our program to engage and collaborate with peer organizations and urbanists working in other global cities. In March of this year, upon the tenth anniversary of the Gulf Coast Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, MAS Cities convened 32 urban resilience builders from New Orleans, New York City, Christchurch, Port-Au-Prince, Mexico City, Durban, Jakarta, and Manila at The Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Conference Center on Lake Como, Italy, to strategize on urban resilience challenges we share.

At the awarding of the winners of Rebuild By Design, the HUD-funded initiative which MAS helped lead with our partners Regional Plan Association, the Van Alen Institute, and the Institute for Public Knowledge at NYU, Governor Andrew Cuomo reminded awardees that New York City is America’s most important coastal city. What we are challenged by, and how we address those challenges, makes this city and its lessons of crucial importance to the world. On this Earth Day, amid all of the ongoing recovery and forward-looking resilience-building work, MAS continues to challenge New Yorkers to think comprehensively about the resilience challenges to our neighborhoods—to our housing, civic assets, business and commercial spaces—to create complete neighborhoods that are both more livable and more resilient. A complete neighborhood is by definition resilient. But this may mean some tough conversations about where development should be encouraged, and where not. For instance, how will the imminent changes to property insurance inside the new FEMA 100 year old flood zones affect the futures of those 60,000 property owners facing drastically increased premiums? Should the City be being more proactive in looking for alternatives, especially for more vulnerable residents living in lower income or public housing?

And finally, how well are our local and regional resilience efforts coordinated with larger national and international policy initiatives around sea level rise and climate change? Building resilience is a complicated and messy business, and as MAS Director of Strategy Mary Rowe recently said (Assessing Resilience Planning: Is the City Preparing Smartly for the Rising Risks of Climate Change? Sarah Crean, Gotham Gazette, April 16, 2015), something far too important to be just be left to government. Urban resilience is everybody’s business.

Please attend (or watch later on YouTube) this fantastic panel at The New School at 2pm today for Cities Under Siege: A Climate Change Resilience Panel, part of their Earth Matters: Designing our Future celebration.