August 19, 2019 | By Lille van der Zanden

Social Equity: The Legacy of 100 Resilient Cities


On July 31, 100 Resilient Cities (100RC) officially ceased its operations, marking a turning point in the modern urban resiliency movement to create cities that can bounce back from disaster. In six years, the Rockefeller Foundation-funded initiative brought a standardized urban resilience framework to cities across the globe, facilitating the development of more than 80 resilience plans in the process. As a result of its work, urban resiliency planning has become a common practice for city governments, with many institutionalizing the position of a chief resiliency officer.

100RC defined resilience as a city’s capacity to respond and adapt to sudden shocks, such as an earthquake, as well as persistent stresses, such as a housing shortage. However, its model was flexible, providing room for cities to formulate their own interpretation of urban resilience that fit their unique contexts. As the program matured, many cities chose to position social equity as a guiding principle for approaching all aspects of urban resilience—even though the organization itself made no direct mention of social equity in its official documents. Yet, one of the biggest legacies for the urban resilience movement may ultimately be its incorporation of social equity in resilience planning. 

Applying a social equity lens to address both shocks and stresses acknowledges that their effects are not shared equally among all residents in a city. Rather, different social identifiers such as class, gender, race, and age can render an individual more vulnerable to the impacts than others due to complex systemic and institutionalize inequalities. In doing so, 100RC and its member cities have demonstrated how concepts such as social equity could enhance our understanding of urban resilience moving forward. 

Rotterdam, which has one of 100RC’s first resilience plans, serves as an example of a city that closely adhered to the 100RC’s City Resiliency Framework (CRF), eschewing a social equity approach in favor of broad, agreeable goals. In line with 100RC’s guidelines, Rotterdam’s resilience plan identified social cohesion and education as one of the primary challenges facing the city, and outlined action items that provided skills training, education, and health services as well as tracked social tensions. Although these are the types of services that can help bridge gaps among communities, the plan makes no mention of the particular challenges faced by various vulnerable communities in Rotterdam, and fails to consider that these communities may require more and different resources than others to truly be on equal footing. The plan’s climate adaption measures similarly focus on broad city-wide improvements rather than acknowledging and prioritizing existing gaps in infrastructure and services affecting vulnerable communities, again following the logic that an equal distribution of resources will produce fair outcomes. 

Later resilience plans, by contrast, took a much stronger equity approach. In 2017, Boston redefined resilience by adopting a racial equity lens. Given its history of systemic racial inequality, Boston determined goals and objectives by their ability to both challenge and close the wealth gap that exists along racial lines and to not inadvertently exacerbate existing racial disparities. The city recognized that not accounting for this social and political landscape would produce ineffective solutions, wasting time and energy as social inequity persists as a stress and communities continue to lack the capacity to bounce back from shocks. Boston was not alone in its thinking, as many cities, including Vancouver, Buenos Aires, and Santiago, prioritized social equity in their resilience planning. 

Despite its absence in their official definitions and frameworks, social equity has now become a subject of discussion not only among member cities but also by 100RC staff. 100RC’s former president, Michael Berkowitz, spoke at length about equity on the Power of Nature panel at the 2019 Pritzker Forum on Global Affairs this past June. Additionally, in their final report, “Resilient Cities, Resilient Lives,” 100RC identified it as an “urban sector” alongside categories such as climate change, economic development, and housing, thus becoming an umbrella term under which to group targeted actions by the city government. This, however, risks reinforcing the false impression that, for instance, infrastructure improvements have no relation to equity initiatives when they are in fact closely linked.

During this time of transition within the urban resilience movement, resilience advocates have a chance to incorporate social equity more fully into the definition and framing of urban resiliency planning. If one looks to the ways in which cities interpret and build off the framework as indications of what is important and necessary, social equity arises as a needed addition. Not only are cities independently identifying it as an essential factor in effective resiliency planning, but current conditions such as the growing wealth disparity in the U.S. and other countries also underscore its necessity. Thus, social equity is not just a fad within the philanthropic community but an imperative tool in solving the challenges of this century. Now is the time to build off the work of 100RC and equip urban resilience planning with a more holistic framework.

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