To our next mayor: look to ‘Resilient Chicago’ to bridge the gap between climate change and equity - Metropolitan Planning Council

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To our next mayor: look to ‘Resilient Chicago’ to bridge the gap between climate change and equity

Flickr user Justin Kern (CC)

Extreme weather threatens the health of our community's residents and our aging infrastructure

2019 Polar Vortex. 2015 Super Bowl Blizzard. 2014 Snowmageddon. Each winter, it seems, expands our weather dictionary.

The recent polar vortex reminded us of our grit and resilience. It also cast a spotlight on the vulnerability inherent in our persistent social inequities and our constantly aging infrastructure.

Many Chicagoans focus on these events as clear signs of climate change, while others joke it away as good ol’ winter in Chicago. For the homeless population of the city, they become a matter of life and death, as do heat waves, floods or ice storms.

But for as much as the recent polar vortex reminded us of our grit and resilience, it also cast a spotlight on the vulnerability inherent in our persistent social inequities and our constantly aging infrastructure. Climate change and the weather extremes we increasingly face exacerbate those vulnerabilities, but they did not create them. Structural racism, disinvestment and complacency are to blame.

Simply put, we cannot plan for the realities of climate change without accounting for the fact that it will affect Chicagoans differently based on income, race, and geography. In the language of resilience planning, acute shocks and chronic stresses are intertwined, and solving for one can relieve burden on another. Making Chicago more resilient to climate change, for example, will make it stronger to cope with the growing physical, social, and economic threats of the 21st century.   

Fortunately, for three years the City of Chicago has been collaborating with 100 Resilient Cities, an outgrowth of The Rockefeller Foundation, and a diverse steering committee of neighborhood, civic and philanthropic partners, as well as private utilities, to develop Resilient Chicago. Released on February 14, this resilience strategy lays out an array of actions designed to build stronger and more equitable neighborhoods, more robust infrastructure and communities that are better prepared for any challenge that gets thrown at them.

 With Resilient Chicago, the Emanuel administration has gotten Chicago off to a good start. But this administration is ending, and the stresses and shocks that ail us are not. Candidates Lightfoot and Preckwinkle  have spoken about climate change (or some of its results, like increased flooding), and many more about systemic inequity in our city, but to date, explicit connections between the two have been few and far between. Resilient Chicago and the steering committee that oversaw its development are a foundation that the incoming administration must build upon and make their own. We cannot afford to waste the momentum built over the past three years – but there is much the next administration can do to make it its own.

We cannot plan for the realities of climate change without accounting for the fact that it will affect Chicagoans differently based on income, race, and geography.

Chicago is the 50th resilience strategy to be published with support from 100 Resilient Cities, and its peers offer precedent for the path forward. There is more ground to be covered in future iterations of resilience planning, particularly in regards to environmental justice and urban agriculture, and the steering committee would benefit from adding more community voices, small businesses, and public health specialists. Other cities have gone further, making large structural changes to implement resilience strategies – Boston went so far as to establish a Mayor’s Office of Resilience and Racial Equity. Many of Resilient Chicago’s priority actions are already underway, but there is room for new thinking and on how to ensure comprehensive implementation. But first we need a firm commitment from both candidates to embrace Resilient Chicago.

The polar vortex will come again. So too will heat waves, floods, economic downturns, and other shocks that test our resolve. But our ability to withstand those shocks and come back stronger depends on the true test of our resolve - whether we can collectively commit to eliminating inequity and structural racism. Resilient Chicago is a big step forward, but only if the next Mayoral administration can deliver on the systemic changes needed to make it happen.

Josh Ellis is a Vice President at MPC, and member of the Resilient Chicago Steering Committee. Michael Berkowitz is President of 100 Resilient Cities, Pioneered by The Rockefeller Foundation (100RC).

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