In Conversation: Michael Berkowitz, Resilient Cities Catalyst

By Smart City Expo USA
June 10, 2020


From 100 Resilient Cities (100RC) to Resilient Cities Catalyst (RCC), Michael Berkowitz has set the bar for expanding resiliency beyond climate change to include preparedness and responsiveness to shocks such as cyberattacks, terrorist attacks, earthquakes, and more.

More recently, he briefly returned to New York City Emergency Management (NYCEM) to assist with the COVID-19 crisis, which has significantly impacted the city’s public health and economy and has exacerbated existing inequities. Berkowitz helped establish and run an emergency food delivery program that provides meals to New Yorkers facing food insecurity due to the pandemic. At the program’s peak, NYCEM delivered one million meals every day. The program is still ongoing, but Berkowitz has now returned to Resilient Cities Catalyst.

In an interview with Smart City Expo Atlanta, he discussed how cities can be more resilient and inclusive of all residents. Here is our conversation, edited for context and clarity.

Smart City Expo Atlanta: You’re not new to disaster. Earlier in your career, you served as Deputy Commissioner at the Office of Emergency Management in New York City (now NYC Emergency Management), where you led the creation of Public-Private Emergency Initiative and Ready New York citizen preparedness campaign. During your time there, you responded to the 1999 outbreak of West Nile Fever, Tropical Storm Floyd, the crashes of SwissAir 111 and American Airlines 587, and the World Trade Center disaster. That was a lot to address in a short period. Tell us about that time and the concept of resiliency.

Michael Berkowitz: My experience in New York has helped underscore resilience principles, which is how sudden shocks or chronic stress impact communities depends on how they’re doing before those disasters. The same communities that are food and COVID-19 vulnerable are where you saw the highest death rates, the most incidents of police violence, or the greatest exposure to climate change.

The solution to that often comes in building strength at the community level. It’s the partnerships with local grassroots community-based organizations. It’s good governance at the city level with ways to plug into those communities and hear those community voices. It’s better infrastructure that incentivizes walking, cycling, and greenery. All of those things help make communities stronger and better able to respond and recover to whatever the next thing is.

We saw it on display during the acute phase of COVID-19, but COVID-19’s not over. The impact is going to be felt by communities for years to come. So, the challenge is, how do we help those communities not just recover to what they were, but build back better?

SCATL: You recently returned to NYC Emergency Management to address the coronavirus pandemic. What’s changed since you were last there?

Berkowitz: When I was at NYCEM, we were very much about responding to crises, whether they were September 11, plane crashes, or blackouts. NYCEM now has a broader mission to support different agencies across the spectrum. It’s not just the lights and sirens public services agencies anymore. It’s a better understanding of the holistic response of the city.

My role at NYCEM was supporting the food czar, Kathryn Garcia. Her day job is Sanitation Commissioner, but during the COVID-19 response, she was responsible for the entire value chain of food, from distribution networks to the emergency home delivery program, food pantries, grab and go at schools, and more. That’s usually the perview of social service agencies but it’s a good example of how agencies like the Department of Sanitation and Emergency Management, with operational chops, support human service agencies to take care of our most vulnerable citizens. It represents an evolution from where OEM was in the late 90s and early 2000s to where it is today.

SCATL: You’ve always understood the intersection of resiliency and equity in addressing urban issues. Tell us how you see the pandemic and the protests impacting our cities, and if you’ve had to work on a new type of coalition-building to ensure more voices of color are at the center of these discussions to create transformative impact.

Berkowitz: During my time at 100 Resilient Cities, a significant number of cities all over the world, but particularly in the U.S., made racial equity a key component of their resilience strategies. If you look at Boston’s resilience strategy, it’s entirely dedicated to racial equity as a single entry point. It looks at other things like climate change, but through the lens of racial equity and communities of color who are most impacted by a severe snowstorm, Nor’easter, or heatwave. Racial and economic equity are key pillars of any resilient city or community and should always be front and center.

One of the innovations of the resilience movement over the last six or seven years is seeing that inequity and vulnerability are things that lead to the weakening of a community or city as a whole. Without addressing them, you don’t address resilience. COVID-19 is a clear reminder of the impact of disasters on vulnerable communities. And of course, the death of George Floyd has elevated that discussion in another way. There’s a real opportunity to go further in the ways that we work with communities of color and having more diverse voices in the conversation. This needs to happen for us to progress forward.

SCATL: Smart City Expo Atlanta is committed to redefining “smart” to ensure equity, humanity, and prosperity are at the heart of building smart, resilient, and inclusive cities. How would you define smart cities, and have you seen technologies that provide urban solutions with equity in mind?

Berkowitz: In terms of new technologies, there are some interesting cryptocurrencies — the Israeli company Colu is one that comes to mind — that have allowed cities to experiment with local currencies to help them with their policy goals of integration. So rather than dollars circulating in and out of the community, we’ve seen them use these currencies to promote spending across particular communities that should be better integrated.

We’ve also seen advanced modeling that allows planners and policymakers to better understand the unintended consequences of particular interventions. So, when we’re putting in a road or building a school, is it going to make the community healthier, safer, more cohesive, where neighbors check on neighbors, or is it going to have the opposite impact? Having access to that kind of modeling is important. I think the California start up Urban Footprint does that well. 

Cities are complex systems – people, community-based organizations, government, the private sector, all of the things that make up a city. There’s rich data to glean from all of these entities, but traditionally we’ve worked in silos. Being able to leverage information in new ways is the direction that smart cities need to go in, and to do it for a purpose. When we talk about the term ‘smart cities,’ the question that cities should ask is, ‘Smart for what?’


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