Kate Knuth’s recent departure from the role of chief resilience officer (CRO) in Minneapolis caught many off-guard. Across media platforms, people are asking what this job entails and who is best suited to do it? A Star Tribune article on this topic resulted in hundreds of comments suggesting that Minneapolis is wasting its money on resiliency. As environmental studies professors at Macalester College, our research has partnered with city staff in both Minneapolis and St. Paul to understand why and how resiliency matters for creating a more livable and just Twin Cities. We think residents are well-served when we focus public dollars on resiliency.
Resilience is defined as the capacity of individuals and organizations in a city to “survive, adapt and grow” in the face of acute natural disasters and more chronic stresses such as an aging transportation system, now-routine weather extremes, a vulnerable electricity grid and an increasingly elderly population. Resilience also means creating solutions for many problems with one stroke. For example, programs that improve insulation and energy efficiency not only make homes and buildings more comfortable, they also create jobs, save money on energy bills, reduce stress on energy infrastructure and cut down on the pollution caused by burning fossil fuels.
A dedicated CRO looks across agencies and chooses areas for opportunities. As the above example demonstrates, one targeted action can positively impact many sectors of an urban economy. We might compare a city CRO to a corporate chief sustainability officer, who works companywide to achieve benefits for the company, the employees and the community. Businesses already recognize the value of this type of position; Fortune 500 companies including Dow, AT&T and General Mills have had a chief sustainability officers on staff for years.
The Twin Cities are not alone in focusing on urban resiliency. Louisville’s CRO has worked with Georgia Tech to prepare the city’s most vulnerable populations for a predicted increase in heat waves. New York City’s OneNYC Plan is aimed at fighting climate change by addressing all forms of racial inequity. Pittsburgh’s resiliency strategy aims to create a reliable, modern communications infrastructure that is accessible to all. To our south, El Paso is focused on building healthy, affordable housing in desert environments.
Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey recently stated that his desire is for the city’s new CRO to work on affordable housing, building an inclusive economy and strengthening police-community relations. These are core issues in building urban resiliency, and the city can benefit from the vision of a high-level officer whose job is to find the points of connection among the city’s economic, social and environmental systems.
Building resilience requires close partnerships with residents and local nonprofits. Five years ago, we began a project in St. Paul called Ready & Resilient to help bridge the gaps among city agencies, district councils, nonprofits and residents. We partnered with former St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman’s staff to lead resiliency workshops throughout the city for residents. We collected innovative ideas and ground-level realities. Our major takeaway was that the key to building resilience, especially to extreme weather, lies in increasing the social cohesion of our neighborhoods. We helped this effort along by creating a community resiliency fund that provided microgrants for residents to implement ideas. This resulted in support for after-school education, wildlife conservation and Block Nurse programs.
St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter recently appointed Council Member Russ Stark to serve as the city’s first CRO. The city said Stark would “promote sustainability strategies aimed at protecting St. Paul families from the effects of climate change.” We hope he can continue to invest in ideas that spring from the grass roots.
For those who took the story about Knuth’s resignation as an opportunity to fill the comments page with climate denialism and disdain for welfare programs, we remind you that climate scientists and urban planners are unequivocal that future extreme weather events will result in flooding, and transportation and electrical grid failures. The question isn’t will these things happen, but how quickly will our cities be able to rebound when they do.
Roopali Phadke and Christie Manning are professors in the Environmental Studies Department at Macalester College in St. Paul.