Holistic Approach

By Jeff Harder

100 Resilient Cities program helps urban areas around the globe meet 21st-century challenges.

Travel just about as far west as you can along Interstate 10 in Texas and you’ll find El Paso, a city of 675,000 hugging the U.S.-Mexico border. Like other urban areas around the world, El Paso strives to provide its citizens with access to healthcare and social services among its most vulnerable residents, replace aging stormwater and electrical infrastructure, plan for drought and flood, create stable, high-quality jobs, and conserve water through alternative sources. Ensuring that El Paso can thrive in the future and bounce back from whatever misfortune comes its way means solving problems that resonate beyond its city limits. “It doesn’t matter where we draw the line on the map,” says Nicole Ferrini, chief resilience officer for the city of El Paso and a founding member of the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) Chihuahuan Desert Chapter. “We have to deal with these things as a regional community.”

Nicole Ferrini is the chief resilience officer for the city of El Paso and founding member of the U.S. Green Building Council Chihuahuan Desert Chapter.Photo: Brian Kanof

That sentiment is at the heart of 100 Resilient Cities, the Rockefeller Foundation’s $100 million effort launched to help El Paso and 99 other urban areas around the globe meet 21st-century challenges—from climate-change-induced disasters to deep-rooted economic and social problems. By making progress within this 100-metropolis nucleus, the rest of the world can share the benefits. “We may be called 100 Resilient Cities, but our work is not just about 100 cities,” says Michael Berkowitz, the president who oversees the program. “It’s about building the tools and frameworks so that all the world’s cities can use them. In other words, we’re trying to build a global practice of resilience, one that can help cities do better for their citizens in both good times and bad.”

The 102-year-old Rockefeller Foundation has spent generations addressing the needs of cities because urban settings are uniquely relevant to us all. They’re hubs of culture, business, and technology. Today, more than half the world calls a city home. “By the middle of this century, two-thirds of the world’s population will live in cities,” Berkowitz adds, “and those urban areas will face greater threats than ever before from factors such as climate change and globalization.”


Michael Berkowitz is the president of 100 Resilient Cities.

The concept of resilience refers to how well a city’s constituent parts—its businesses and institutions, the systems that keep it functioning, its residents—can survive, adapt to, and overcome adversity. That adversity generally comes in two forms: chronic stresses (entrenched problems like food and water shortages, drug addiction and violence, and economic deprivation) and acute shocks (distinct disasters like earthquakes, floods, and severe hurricanes). A city’s resilience boils down to four overarching aspects—leadership and strategy, health and well-being, economy and society, and infrastructure and environment—and draws in disparate fields, from sustainability to disaster risk reduction to economic and social justice.

If the scope of resilience sounds far reaching, that’s by design. “It’s about recognizing the intersection of social, physical, and economic issues,” says Max Young, vice president of global communications and marketing at 100 Resilient Cities. “You can’t think about responding to a storm without thinking about poverty: By and large, the poor and vulnerable are the most impacted by storms, especially when you get weeks and months removed. Similarly, you can’t think about earthquakes without thinking about small businesses, because half of small businesses don’t reopen after a disaster.”

At the same time, one resilience intervention often creates a cascade of positive outcomes. Young mentions Medellin, Colombia, a 100 Resilient Cities designee that was once at the center of the global drug trade. For the population living in poverty on the city’s hillside, narcotics seemed to be the only viable career: They were cut off from Medellin’s public transportation system and, as a result, were several hours removed from jobs in the city’s economic center. But when the city built a system of gondolas into the hillside and linked it into the subway system, things changed. “People went from having a commute of several hours to 20 minutes,” Young says. “All of the sudden, they have access to these jobs in the valley floor.” Community centers appeared at the base of the gondolas, new buildings on the hillsides drew more people to the city’s outskirts, and drug-related crime and violence fell along the way. “By solving an economic problem, they actually solved physical and social problems,” Young says.

In 2013, the Rockefeller Foundation announced 100 Resilient Cities, a program designed to improve the resilience prospects of cities around the world. Since 2013, the program has selected 67 locales, from Bangkok, Thailand, to Lisbon, Portugal, to New York City. (The remaining 33 will be selected next year.) Each selection was based on the cities’ track records for building partnerships, their leaderships’ propensity for innovation, and other criteria. Along with connecting these 100 cities to a network of more than 50 partners from the private, public, academic, and nongovernmental organization sectors to help implement resilience measures, the program funds two to three years’ worth of salary for each city’s chief resilience officer (CRO). These advisors report to mayors and chief executives, garner support for resilience-building projects by working across government departments and the broader community, and create strategies based on efficient, cost-effective solutions that have profound, positive impacts.

“The CRO organizes people, brings initiatives together, breaks down silos, and makes sure we’re all moving in the same direction and with the same vision toward the same goal,” Nicole Ferrini says.

El Paso—Ferrini’s lifelong home—was among the first cities selected by 100 Resilient Cities, and Ferrini took her post as CRO in December 2014. Ferrini holds degrees in architecture and interior design and a wealth of experience in urban planning. “But you know what really prepared me to do this?” says Ferrini. “All my time with USGBC.” In 2006, Ferrini helped found the USGBC Chihuahuan Desert Chapter, spending nearly a decade getting the region familiar with the concepts of green building and sustainability. Resilience and sustainability, as Ferrini sees it, are inextricably linked. “Resilience zooms out from the built environment, organic foods, all those places where sustainability tends to live, into this greater umbrella that includes economic development and social justice. But when I map it out in my mind, it always drills back down to that core foundation that sustainability provides. Is resilience different? Yes. Can you separate the two? In my view, absolutely not.”

Joseph Riccillo, chairman of the board for the Chihuahuan Desert Chapter, who has high praise for Ferrini’s early efforts as El Paso’s CRO, agrees. “To be honest, I think sustainability started the conversation and made people more aware of the need for resilience. Resilience and sustainability go hand in hand.”

For the last six months, Ferrini has been working out of the city’s Office of Resilience and Sustainability, building on her years of experience with the USGBC Chihuahuan Desert Chapter to hash out El Paso’s resilience strategy. While the region has occasional, disastrous flooding—the last such incident occurred in 2006—it’s not as exposed to the same acute shocks as other 100 Resilient Cities locales. Instead, Ferrini expects El Paso’s resilience strategy to address those everyday stressors that affect the city’s long-term stability: economic diversity, access to quality affordable housing, access to water in an arid climate, and, in particular, health and wellness. “Health and wellness has been a huge driver in every single conversation we’ve had,” Ferrini says. “How can we leverage a physical environment within our city that supports wellness for the individual? How do we create an economic system that allows people to be comfortable enough to focus on their own health and wellness? How do we get past some of these preventable disease components? How do we reduce the strain on our local healthcare system?”

The answers to these questions and others transcend borders. Ciudad Juarez—another 100 Resilient Cities designee just over the Rio Grande in Chihuahua, Mexico—and Las Cruces, New Mexico, share many of the same resilience challenges as El Paso, as do other desert locales around the world. “The capacity to survive, adapt, and thrive in the face of 21st-century challenges is critical for any city,” says Kurt Fenstermacher, assistant to the city manager for El Paso. “El Paso, however, is unique in that we are positioned to set the standard for safety, prosperity, diversity, and human health in the context of a growing international metroplex nestled in the arid climate of the desert southwest.”

As part of formulating the city’s resilience strategy, Ferrini has connected with more than 25,000 residents through social media and met face to face with hundreds of community stakeholders through a series of intimate roundtable discussions. And when her audience’s opinions dissent from her own, she opens her ears. “Really, I want to hear what they think resilience means for their community and measure those perceptions against the activities we have going on,” Ferrini says.

Recent strides in green building have helped further the resilience conversation in El Paso. The city is home to Paisano Green, a 73-unit complex that’s the first LEED Platinum-certified senior public housing building in the country. (Within the next half decade, all of El Paso’s public housing will be upgraded to LEED Silver standards or better.)

Joseph Riccillo is the chairman of the board for the Chihuahuan Desert Chapter. Photo: Brian Kanof

Grounds of the Paisano Green Community, a LEED Platinum-certified part of the Housing Authority of the City of El Paso (HACEP). Photo: Brian Kanof

Beyond providing a cost-effective place for its residents to live, Paisano Green has helped galvanize an impoverished elderly population, Ferrini says. And after volunteers helped plant a community garden on the property, it’s become a gateway for a broader resilience conversation. “Now we’re talking about food, community, health, and buildings, and looking at it through a social justice lens,” Ferrini says.

Elsewhere, El Paso has begun moving away from an economy dominated by low-skilled, low-wage jobs into increased emphasis on the healthcare and biotechnology industries—a shift that could lead to healthier residents. An icon of this change is the Medical Center of the Americas, a 440-acre medical campus that’s had more than $400 million worth of infrastructure investments over the last 15 years and is home to institutions like Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center El Paso and University Medical Center of El Paso. “It’s a great economic engine in this new high-tech industry that will bring higher jobs and wages,” says Emma Schwartz, president of the Medical Center of the Americas Foundation. “There’s also a side benefit: We’re a medically underserved area, and increasing our reputation in the medical and biomedical space makes it easier to recruit for positions. We’re producing our own physicians and nurses who will hopefully stay here. And we’re researching topics that are important to Hispanic and border populations. This great industry could also have an impact on healthcare and health status in our region, which also has an impact on economic growth and stability.”

Left: Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center (TTUHSC) El Paso Paul L. Foster School of Medicine. Middle Left: The University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) Lhakhang. Middle Right: The Kay Bailey Hutchison Desalination Plant is the largest inland desalination plant in the world. Also shown is the Carlos M. Ramirez TECH2O Center in El Paso, Texas. Right: The University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) campus focuses on open spaces. Photos: Brian Kanof

Under the auspices of 100 Resilient Cities, one city’s success can set an example for 99 others: Rome and Byblos, Lebanon, are collaborating on cultural heritage preservation, while San Francisco and Medellin are sharing best practices for responding to earthquakes. As El Paso advances toward a resilient future, the lessons it learns along the way can inform how other desert cities can flourish. For now, Ferrini is grinding away, breaking down walls and finding common ground to ensure her hometown can thrive through this century and beyond. She plans to present a final resilience strategy to the El Paso community later this year. “When I do that, I won’t be standing there saying, ‘This is the Nicole Ferrini plan for resilience,’” she says. “I’ll truly be able to say this plan comes from the mind, body, and soul of this city.”