The District added a position last week with a trendy name and a wide-ranging goal: chief resilience officer.
Kevin Bush, who was appointed to the position by Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), is charged with developing strategies to address long-term stresses the city faces — including economic inequality and lack of affordable housing — and identifying ways to lessen the impact of one-time events including terrorist attacks and natural disasters. The two-year position is funded as part of the Rockefeller Foundation’s international 100 Resilient Cities initiative.
“Resilience is a bit of a buzzword these days — I’ll admit that,” said Bush, a former U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development policy strategist. “But to me, resilience is about the immune system of a city.”
Disaster exposes a city’s underlying problems, said Bush, who helped lead HUD’s recovery efforts after Hurricane Sandy. His mandate in the District will be to create initiatives — through partnerships involving the city, businesses and communities — that strengthen and improve the city’s infrastructure, making it resilient “in the face of changes we know are coming and in the face of changes we don’t know are coming,” he said.
Four specific “shocks” for which the District must prepare are terrorism, flooding, infrastructure failure and heat waves, according to the city’s grant application to the Rockefeller Foundation. The proposal was written by Harrison Newton, who will be deputy chief resilience officer.
Newton identified four long-term stresses for the city as inequality, lack of affordable housing, a burdened transportation system and an overreliance on a single industry — government.
The District is one of the most racially segregated large U.S. cities, after Chicago and Atlanta, according to the city’s application. It also noted that low-income renters in the District face “an insufficient and rapidly declining supply of available housing.”
The 100 Resilient Cities initiative, which was launched in 2013, is part of a $164 million commitment by the Rockefeller Foundation to strengthen cities as urban populations are projected to continue growing. Census estimates released last year showed the D.C. population was 681,170, its highest level in about four decades.
The District was selected as a participating city in May 2016 from a pool of more than 1,100 worldwide applicants. Twenty-four U.S. cities were selected.
Judges looked for cities that are ready to make changes to improve resilience, and have strong leadership and “a certain gravitas,” said Otis Rolley, director for North America of 100 Resilient Cities.
“We want cities that box above their weight class. If we achieve resilience in these 100 cities, they can be models for the 10,000 cities we have around the world,” Rolley said.
Each city develops a resilience strategy — which typically takes nine months to craft — and then works with public and private partners to implement initiatives laid out in the strategy.
No two cities have identical strategic goals. Boston is addressing racial and economic inequality. Miami is combating the risk of rising sea levels and erosion. Boulder, Colo., is concerned about flooding and wildfires.
The District has prioritized resilience for years, said City Administrator Rashad M. Young, who will oversee Bush’s work. The city wanted to join the global network — which includes cities as diverse as Athens, Bangkok and Luxor, Egypt — to network and learn international best practices, Young said.
“D.C. is prospering tremendously, but there is still too much disparity and unevenness in how that prosperity impacts different individuals and neighborhoods,” Young said.
When people think about resilience, they usually think about being able to bounce back when bad things happen. But 100 Resilient Cities wants to expand that definition to include “survival, adaptation and growth, despite shocks or stress,” Rolley said.
The Rockefeller Foundation will pay Bush’s $130,000 annual salary for two years. After two years, most cities keep their resilience officers because they realize “the return on their investment is a good one,” Rolley said.
Bowser named Newton, a longtime District official, as Bush’s deputy. His current city salary of $110,620 a year will not change.