This op-ed, which first appeared on Meeting of the Minds, was written by Ron Harris, Chief Resilience Office of Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA, and Stewart Sarkozy-Banoczy, Managing Director, North America and Global Strategic Partnerships Lead at R-Cities.
Cities who are not equitable will always be in recovery mode.
Medicine was delivered to vulnerable community members. Neighbors developed methods to keep each other safe from armed white men when police officers were unavailable. Churches partnered with minority-owned restaurants to deliver free food to the elderly. In the toughest of times, Minneapolitans have embodied what it means to be resilient. This is a community that bands together in times of pain and hardship. But without equity, the city can never be truly resilient.
Minneapolis has been hailed as a realization of the American dream, an urban center where Fortune 500 companies have rooted themselves, contributing to high employment rates. Homeownership rates are among some of the highest in the US.
When race is part of the equation, however, a different picture emerges.
For decades, Minneapolis has had an underlying current of racial inequity running through its veins. From early 20th Century racial covenants and redlining to divestment aimed at POC to inequity in public parks, the city has propelled practices that harm its residents of color. Betsy Hodges, the former mayor of the city, recently elaborated on the many ways in which she saw white liberals – supposed allies of those residents – prevent meaningful change during her tenure.
We do not dare waste this moment. We can reset the city’s trajectory by supporting and accelerating actions that will build an equitable and resilient city. The city’s “Resilient Minneapolis 1.0” strategy identified the underlying “stress” of systemic racism and the challenges it breeds and cited civil unrest due to police-involved shootings as a major “shock” which was destined to occur. The draft strategy was completed in January 2020 and included a proposed plan to study “reparative justice” as a key action item. Today the strategy seems prescient, but the writing was on the wall long ago. Since May 2020, when the world witnessed the killing of George Floyd, Mayor Frey and City Council declared racism to be a public health emergency. City Council also unanimously approved a proposal to change the city charter to reimagine the role of the Police Department (though the proposal ultimately failed at the City Charter Commission). These actions, along with others proposed in the strategy, are bold steps that will have significant impacts on the lives of Minneapolitans.
Since that time, Minneapolitans have continued to unite, forging networks to keep their fellow community members safe. Private sector companies have stepped forward and asked how they can contribute to the change that is needed. In the middle of trying to redefine their city, Minneapolitans are continuing to re-live the trauma induced by systemic racism as they witness similar events unfolding in other cities at a relentless pace.
Instead of relying on local community members to mobilize independently with their own resources, what if we imagine a world in which they were supported in formalizing these efforts? Instead of private businesses offering a one-time donation in solidarity, what if they actively participated – for the long haul – in revitalizing the city where their enterprises have flourished? The resulting pressure release on city resources would allow City Hall to tackle other issues, ones that are critical in times of austerity. Imagine the potential of a Minneapolis where communities had the agency to create the future they want and deserve. The work has already been started to reset the trajectory of the city toward resilience, but it will require a commitment by everyone to do the long, hard work to reshape the system that brought us to this point.
Minneapolis is all of us
While the heinous, senseless killing of George Floyd took place in the streets of Minneapolis, it could have happened anywhere. As COVID-19 has ravaged Black and minority communities across the world, the killing of George Floyd catalyzed the civil unrest that was bubbling under the surface. It bears repeating – the same communities that are disproportionately brutalized by the police are the same communities who have been the most disproportionately impacted by COVID-19; they are more likely to be essential workers, lost a job, have underlying health issues, and have poorer access to healthcare. Just as is the case in Minneapolis, the uprisings that have reverberated across the globe should not be surprising.
It is critical to pause, reflect, and recognize that cities who are not equitable will always be in recovery mode. Inequity is a noted stress in the language of resilience shocks and stresses. It increases the probability and severity of shocks – like social uprisings and the civil unrest we have seen unfold. This holds true for a vast range of other natural and man-made shocks.
Despite many warnings, cities have been ill-prepared to manage a pandemic combined with an economic downturn, civil unrest, and the demand for an end to anti-Black racism. If history repeats itself, cities will always be reacting to the needs of its vulnerable populations, struggle with competing interests, and remain unable to recover before the next shock hits. In August 2020, we saw wildfires of overwhelming intensity again in California and destruction along the western Gulf Coast due to Hurricane Laura, further illustrating the point.
Pragmatically speaking, the budget required for continued responses to cascading shocks and stresses is unsustainable and cities will face bankruptcies if they continue to follow the same approach. There are costs for barricades, overtime hours for policing, repairs to infrastructure, increases in social services required to support the resulting trauma. The list goes on. Our cities do not operate in silos, they are integrated and connected on many levels. An alarming reality is that the traditional mutual aid that emergency response relies on so heavily is not dependable when a shock in one city triggers a tangential shock in neighboring cities. This is because injustice in any city means injustice in every city. Take the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin and the subsequent civil unrest in Minneapolis, again in August 2020. This is a clear example of how resources can quickly be overwhelmed in cities.
Systemic inequity is not unique to Minneapolis. What does that mean? Cities need to center resilience efforts around their most marginalized communities, providing them with resources to thrive, before (precovery), during (response) and after a shock (recovery). There is evidence to show that this is not a matter of what a city has to “give up”, but rather, it actually adds to the city’s financial bottom line (see this Harvard study). We need to change the trajectory of cities immediately so that we are tracking toward resilience. Where recovery funds are available, cities should be resourceful and align spending with inclusive, resilient initiatives. Today we can begin to build back better and ensure that resilience is part of every discussion, decision, and dollar spent.
The Networked Resilience Approach
This moment points to the importance of having a holistic resilience strategy established and championed by the city and all who live, work, and play within it. Establishing a robust strategy requires months-long, challenging work that cannot be prioritized in times of crisis. It is not a recovery document, but it can change how we recover and maintain a precovery mindset. This has been the work of the Resilient Cities Network (R-Cities) from its earliest days.
R-Cities cities has tackled the hard and often-times grueling work of breaking down silos and building up a resilience strategy. This has positioned them to be more flexible in addressing the cascading shocks and stresses of a global pandemic underpinned by systemic racism. Chief Resilience Officers (CROs) have been able to point to their strategies for solutions in the actions identified for transit, parkland development, environmental justice, affordable housing, and the arts, stemming from nearly every facet of city-building.
CROs can also quickly adapt the lessons learned from strategy development to unforeseen scenarios and provide timely advice to decision makers. The City of Houston released their resilience strategy in February this year, and by March, had cross-walked every proposed action to show how it could support a pandemic response. This enabled City Council to make informed budget allocation decisions that kept them on the path toward resilience. The City of Tulsa’s Equity Dialogues, a series of dinners aimed at normalizing conversations about race and racism among a broad group of Tulsans, proceeded virtually in 2020 because the administration recognized that a resilient pandemic response and recovery required the input of voices from the community.
The strategy is only one component of a resilient city. The City of Oakland has recognized the importance of positioning leadership voices for resilience during the pandemic response. They created a new Community Resilience Unit within the Emergency Operations Center that provided the CRO with a formal mechanism to inform equitable response decisions in real time. CROs in North America are connecting regularly, sharing challenges, and providing solutions to the cascading shocks and stresses that 2020 has revealed. These practices are also being replicated across the global network.
R-Cities has formed an Equity through Resilience Community of Practice (CoP) with Minneapolis and a core group of member cities. Based on the urban resilience framework, the CoP will focus on identifying actions to make real progress on systemic racial inequity. The initial group of CROs will lead the eventual expansion of the CoP to include a range of voices (including academia, private sector, non-member cities, and community advocates, among others).
Over the past few months, private corporations and philanthropy have also wanted to contribute resources to help cities confront racial inequity and the cascading effects of COVID-19. Without a resilience strategy to guide efforts, cities will miss invaluable opportunities to move initiatives forward that create better outcomes and drive co-benefits – what we refer to as resilience dividends. Through R-Cities, the CoP has developed a framework for partners and funders to engage at various entry points and scales (local to global), while ensuring that engagement is impactful, collaborative, and lasting.
Where do we go from here? We cannot afford to repeat history.
A moment of crisis creates the best opportunity to introduce bold solutions and bounce forward. As cities are pressed to prepare and activate recovery plans, they must shift the historical trajectory created by past practices toward a resilient city. This means breaking the cycle of disaster response and recovery that leads to a further decline in the quality of life of the most vulnerable communities. We will be more prepared to survive the next shock if cities can wrap their responses in forward-looking, holistic, and equitable resilience. This requires intentionality and specificity. There is no other viable approach; resilience is the way forward.
We have many examples across the network to learn from, some set by Minneapolitans during this time of extreme grief and ongoing threats. Blanket policies will not do. Instead, we need to intentionally account for specific communities and peoples; if not, they will once again be left out. This will be achieved if cities lead with data-driven, transparent, and inclusive decision-making. Urban challenges are deeply connected, and our solutions must be as well. The resilience approach recognizes that our health and well-being, economy and society, infrastructure and environment, and leadership and governance – the four dimensions of urban resilience – cannot be improved in isolation.
Nor can they be improved by a single leader or party alone; we are in a new world where power is decentralized. Cities must create access points for new leaders who can collectively contribute to building the city they want. For those leaders and policymakers who do still hold a disproportionate amount of power, it is time to use it, share it, and spread it amongst those who have been marginalized.
We are living through a moment where we must be cautious of performative activism, whether we are working locally, regionally, or globally. This is not a time to promote a trend or release empty statements in solidarity. Instead, this is a time to shift from passive non-racism to active anti-racism. This is a time to shift our mindsets to a holistic resilience approach and embrace new ideas, partnerships, and perspectives that will lead to real change. Resilience provides a framework for change that will reduce the impacts of cascading shocks and stresses within cities. The roadmap is tested and ready. The compass is set, and a trajectory toward long-term resilience is available for every city that is ready to take bold steps.