Our cities are growing faster than ever. While 54 percent of the world’s population lives in urban areas today, that population is expected to swell to 66 percent by 2050. At the same time, the number of natural disasters has skyrocketed by more than four times since the 1970s. These colliding trends have put city leaders on alert and many of them — including those in Jersey City, N.J., Boulder, Colo., and Asunción, Paraguay — are exploring ways that data, citizen engagement, and collaboration can help their cities prepare for the unthinkable.
The official elevation of this city of 250,000, which sits directly across the Hudson River from New York City, is 20 feet. But nearly 50,000 of its residents — and its downtown core — are even closer to the water. After Superstorm Sandy flooded 40 percent of Jersey City and caused tens of millions of dollars in damage, city leaders focused on traditional infrastructure upgrades, including new water pumps and retention systems. But Jersey City still faces frequent flooding after even much less-severe storms.
To combat this, the city’s Innovation Team has helped create a campaign around what it’s calling the Year of Water. Throughout 2017, city leaders are taking a number of steps to create a more sustainable foundation for storm-water management. That involves making sure green infrastructure is included in future developments. Cities of Service is also working with Jersey City on a plan to educate and engage residents in the effort.
“We are going into communities and sending a message of preparedness and resilience,” explains Brian Platt, director of the city’s Office of Innovation. That message includes showing residents how to keep large debris out of the sewers and explaining that, by conserving water during storms, they can decrease the strain on the sewer system. “We’ve really staked our claim on communicating with residents,” Platt says. “It starts there. Get the word out and then bring residents on board as partners.”
In early 2016, El Nino-triggered rains caused several South American rivers to swell, including the Paraguay River, which flooded Asunción and caused the evacuation of more than 100,000 residents. After the flood, officials in Asunción, a finalist in the 2016 Mayors Challenge, began canvassing residents in the most affected neighborhoods to learn more about how the flood affected them and how the city might better prepare them in the future. Through these conversations, the city learned that many of the most-at-risk residents were illiterate and, in many cases, weren’t receiving — or couldn’t read — alerts about pending storms and information about city services.
“We learned that we had to improve our services so everyone in the community understood what is available to them and how the city can help them,” says Social Service Planning Coordinator Patricia Lima Pereira. “With this data, we were ready to make interventions in the areas of housing and education to protect flood victims from a similar scenario in the future.”
As the city looks at what to do with this data, Pereira says officials are utilizing strategies they learned by being part of the Mayors Challenge. “Mayors Challenge webinars gave us the space to think differently,” she says. “Where we were used to pitching big ideas that went directly to the larger problem, we’re now taking smaller and more manageable steps to achieve those big results.”
Emergency responders aren’t so helpful when they can’t reach the people who need them. That’s what city leaders in Boulder, Colo., learned in 2013 after the city was hit with floods that were so severe that even emergency-response teams got stuck. In their search for a solution, the city uncovered a program in Wellington, New Zealand, where volunteer residents are trained in emergency response and preparedness. Boulder was connected to Wellington and then designed a similar program with the help of Cities of Service.
“We had to change how we were talking about the issue,” says Greg Guibert, Boulder’s Chief Resilience Officer. While the city has, for years, focused on teaching the public how to prepare for emergencies, officials now see how that effort should include training volunteers to focus on the wellbeing of their neighbors.
“We’re looking to build community,” Guibert says. “Get to know your neighbors. Know that Ms. Johnson is two doors down, and that she has two cats and an oxygen mask. She will likely need your help during an emergency. We’re training our residents to look out for each other. “
In its second year, Boulder’s volunteer program, Better Together, has trained about 100 residents over five separate sessions.