What 3 Cities Are Doing to Become More Resilient

A Rockefeller-backed initiative is changing the way cities think about their future.


The new buzzword in sustainability circles is “resilience.”

Not only are mayors and builders looking to make cities and structurers greener, some are now also aiming to make them more resilient to future threats, including disruptive weather events such as floods, earthquakes and wildfires. And the Rockefeller Foundation is lending a hand.

It’s funded a major initiative to give grants to “100 Resilient Cities.” The money pays for a “chief resilience officer” in each of the cities selected. To get the grant, the city must show it’s committed to the effort. In exchange, the foundation backs each CRO by providing financial guidance, online tools and access to service providers and partners in the private, public and nonprofit sectors. The CRO’s charge is ambitious: To create a realistic plan that prepares the city for unique challenges to come.

Here’s how three metros have responded to the 100 Resilient Cities challenge.

New Orleans

The Big Easy is well known for its vulnerabilities: tropical storms, sea level rise, oil spills. The list goes on. All are particularly tough on the city’s disproportionate number of poor people. Technically, more than a third of the city is wetlands; much of it lies below sea level.

Resilience strategy: A three-pronged approach focuses on preparedness, equity and “embracing our changing environment.” Resilience Officer Jeff Hebert is scouring the globe for fresh infrastructure ideas. Among the ideas he’s focused on are standards for stormwater management and resilient design; homeowner incentives for such “resilience retrofits” as storm shutters and floodproofing; and “water boulevards” that make room for wetlands parallel to roadways. New Orleans also aspires to become a “car-optional city.” Improvements to the region’s public transportation system would advance both equity and preparedness. And, as the city’s plan points out, buses could be a key resource to evacuate less-mobile residents in the event of floods or hurricanes.


This city has weathered change before. It emerged from the decline of its steel mills to become a leader in healthcare and technology. But it lost half its population in the process and has been left with a lot of aging, underused infrastructure. The city’s three rivers, its steep terrain and a legacy of dirty industry present plenty of threats from flooding and even landslides. In recent years, blizzards and other large storms have become more frequent.

Resilience strategy: An “eco-innovation district” in two neighborhoods is designed as a model for inclusive, environmentally sound growth. A “Green First Plan” emphasizes sustainable approaches to stormwater. Most exciting of all: Mayor Bill Peduto is searching for ways to finance a network of connected clean energy micro-grids. Some of its neighborhoods have depended on “district energy” networks for years.


Norfolk’s challenges are tied to its economy as well as its environment. Home to the world’s largest naval station, the southwest Virginia city is vulnerable to shifts in Pentagon spending. The region’s military workforce shrank 25 percent from 2001 to 2014. Norfolk also is hemmed in by water: It sits on a peninsula between Chesapeake Bay and the Elizabeth River. That makes the combination of rising seas and sinking land particularly threatening.

Resilience strategy: Norfolk’s Resilience Office is leading the city through a design process to create a “coastal community of the future.” It aims to show “how coastal cities around the world can learn to live, adapt, and thrive along the water.” At the same time, the city, the state and Old Dominion University are launching a Coastal Resilience Laboratory and Acceleration Center that would support existing and new businesses in creating solutions to tomorrow’s problems. Finally, Norfolk aims to use resiliency initiatives, including mobile apps for hyper-local communication and a bank program for low- to moderate-income families, to strengthen and connect communities and even deconcentrate poverty.