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New York-based urban-resilience expert Michael Berkowitz is a founding principal of Resilient Cities Catalyst, an organisation that helps cities around the world to prepare for major challenges, be they hurricanes, droughts or terrorist attacks. Berkowitz talks to monocle about addressing the tests that lie ahead for urban centres everywhere. 

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How do you define urban resilience?
It’s about a city’s ability to survive and thrive in the face of disaster. It’s not just the sudden shocks, such as earthquakes or pandemics, but also long-term stresses, including food, water and power shortages or high levels of crime and violence. Urban resilience is the city’s ability to survive when faced with both sudden shocks and long-term stresses.

What do our cities need in order to recover from this pandemic?
Once the virus transmission [cycle] has been broken, we should look at what our communities will need more of: good middle-class economies, neighbours checking on neighbours, good governance and an infrastructure that promotes those things. This will allow cities to rebound and make themselves better after this kind of disaster.

What has the pandemic exposed about densely populated cities?
With disease transmission I do think density has its costs. But there are so many great things about density – it’s an incredible asset. When it is done right it makes for sustainable, liveable places that will survive and thrive after this.

What constitutes a good response to the virus?
Where you have leaders and organisation structures working together, you’re going to see better outcomes. In the west of the US, where governors and mayors are working together, we’re starting to see better outcomes already. If we’re going to build a more resilient society, we need to think about how we’re going to build trust in larger institutions.

Should cities help us to keep moving?
We completely misuse our valuable street space, especially in the US. It is almost entirely dedicated to the automobile; we crowd pedestrians and cyclists into small spaces. But as we come out of the pandemic we’ll be faced with communities that will feel emptied. High streets will be less bustling, the economy will be going through a reorganisation – and having people, not cars, is what will create safer, more vibrant ways of recovering.

What can we do on a micro level to help our cities to recover?
A great example is greening vacant lots. Cleaning up rubbish-strewn, overgrown lots has contributed to a massive uptick in the mental health of communities in New York, on top of the wonderful climate benefits of having more green spaces. After any disaster – 9/11, the Australian bushfires, the Paris attacks – we’ve seen a wave of good samaritanism. The question for the private sector and civil society is how we channel that in the right way.

Is this an opportunity to think about a more sustainable way of living?
Promoting more sustainable rail transport and pushing airlines towards carbon neutrality are the big infrastructure projects. There will be a massive economic transition and it’s a real opportunity to think about what our long-term goals are and to build carbon mitigation, for instance, into all of the spending and reinvestment that we’re going to be making.

What can we do on a micro level to help our cities to recover?
A great example is greening vacant lots. Cleaning up rubbish-strewn, overgrown lots has contributed to a massive uptick in the mental health of communities in New York, on top of the wonderful climate benefits of having more green spaces. After any disaster – 9/11, the Australian bushfires, the Paris attacks – we’ve seen a wave of good samaritanism. The question for the private sector and civil society is how we channel that in the right way.

Is this an opportunity to think about a more sustainable way of living?
Promoting more sustainable rail transport and pushing airlines towards carbon neutrality are the big infrastructure projects. There will be a massive economic transition and it’s a real opportunity to think about what our long-term goals are and to build carbon mitigation, for instance, into all of the spending and reinvestment that we’re going to be making.


About the interviewee: Before launching the Resilient Cities Catalyst, Berkowitz was president of 100 Resilient Cities, a body funded by the Rockefeller Foundation.

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