Even as the District’s economy thrives and population booms, looming dangersthreaten to unravel its prosperity.
The possibility of a terrorist strike on the nation’s capital. Heat waves and river flooding in low-lying areas such as Federal Triangle, exacerbated by hotter summers and more frequent storms because of climate change. A cyberattack on the city’s increasingly interconnected services.
That’s why Washington is one of 100 cities that secured grants from a Rockefeller Foundation-backed initiative to prepare urban population centers for a future with more residents and a shifting climate.
The work of the District’s newly hired chief resilience officer, Kevin Bush, had largely been under the radar until recently, when a local lawmaker sparked an uproar by repeating a conspiracy theory suggesting the “Resilient Cities” program was part a malevolent plot.
D.C. Council member Trayon White Sr. (D-Ward 8) apologized for his remarks last month and met with Bush and other city officials on Friday to learn what it means for the District to be a part of the global initiative.
Participating cities receive grants that fund the salary of a designated “resilience officer,” who helps craft a strategy to prepare for catastrophic events, the impact of which can be exacerbated by social problems.
A prime example is the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans — where the danger of flooding collided with racial economic inequality that left black residents especially hard hit,officials say.
“It’s partially a story of water and infrastructure and housing and flooding,” said Michael Berkowitz, president of 100 Resilient Cities. “It’s also a story of how isolated the poorest and most vulnerable communities were there, how little they trusted the institutions that were there to serve them and how poor their economic and development opportunities were.”
The District was selected in 2016 — joining cities that range from global hubs such as Paris and Rio de Janeiro to Byblos, Lebanon.
In its application, the District listed four potential “shocks” for which it must prepare: terrorism, flooding, infrastructure failure and heat waves. And the long-term “stresses” on its residents includedsocioeconomic inequality, lack of affordable housing, a burdened transportation system and an economy overly dependent on the federal government.
The city released a preliminary report in February 2017 and hired Bush from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development in July to craft its resilience strategy. The Rockefeller Foundation will pay Bush’s $130,000 salary for two years.
Nearly 40 other cities have developed strategies with a wide range of goals. For example, New York City aims to create more support for domestic violence victims and wants to send zero waste to landfills by 2030. Dakar, Senegal, wants residents to use energy-efficient technology to curb persistent power outages.
White triggered an outcry by suggesting that the Resilient Cities program was a tool of the Rothschild and Rockefeller families, two wealthy dynasties, by which they would manipulate the city.
After his comments were reported, White apologized and said he confused various theories he had stumbled upon while researching the program.
Bush offered to sit down with the lawmaker and explain what he does as part of his two-year grant. The Rockefeller Foundation expects cities to pick up the cost of resilience planning after the two-year grants expire.
Bush said that he and other officials have interviewed 500 people to understand the city’s challenges and to catalogue what’s already being done in and outside of government. He also talks with his counterparts in other cities, including a recent meeting with representatives of The Hague.
Bush said the next step for the District is to dig deeper on five issues through the end of summer and figure out how to:
• Better coordinate the dozens of existing goals and plans coming out of city government.
• Figure out how to adapt to consequences of technological change, including job loss to automation and the threat of cyberattacks that can cripple cities, such as recent events in Atlanta.
• Accelerate the city’s efforts to slash carbon emissions.
• Ensure that poor residents also benefit from the city’s growing economy.
• Restore the polluted Anacostia River.
All of the city’s resilience work will considerhow to reduce economic and social inequity in a city with yawning gaps between blacks and whites, he said.
“What this process gives us the opportunity to do is think about these kind of big challenges — the big questions we have coming down the pike — and design solutions to them together,” Bush said.
The goal is to “make it easier to thrive in the face of any kind of change in D.C., whether that’s population change, climate change, technological change, whatever,” he said.
The city is also in the middle of a contentious revision to its comprehensive plan for future growth that lays out a vision for housing, transportation and recreational opportunities, among other things. Five years ago, the city drew up a plan for adapting to climate change.
Urban planners say cities must focus on resilience to protect their future.
“The disparities in Washington make us vulnerable to things like climate change,” said Harriet Tregoning, a former D.C. planning director and federal housing official. “If you are not doing things to address those issues and looking at ways to reduce the disparities so people aren’t wiped out when there’s an event, you are going to be much worse off.”
Brent Bolin, a regional director with Clean Water Action, said resilience planning may sound theoretical but it has real-life implications.
“Like a lot of government programs, it is still a little squishy. They are still figuring out what this program is,” he said. “But the forward-looking concern is how do you look at a changing climate and how do you make budget decisions and government decisions?”