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Beyond earthquakes and inequality, Oakland’s quest for resilience

The following is an excerpt from a piece that originally appeared in GreenBiz on March 31, 2015. It was wirtten by Lauren Hepler. Click the link to read the full piece.

It’s 10 o’clock on a sunny Wednesday morning, and several dozen people representing Oakland businesses, nonprofits, government agencies and community groups have convened to tackle a daunting task: figure out how to brace a city already going through massive amounts of change for looming environmental, social and economic shocks.

“Today really begins a multi-year process,” said Victoria Salinas, who was hired last fall as Oakland’s first chief resilience officer after serving with disaster relief agencies in Sierra Leone, Haiti and post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans. “What should our priorities be? How can we come together?”

The day-long workshop, held last week in a community center nestled on the north side of downtown’s Lake Merritt, marks the city’s participation in both the Rockefeller Foundation’s global 100 Resilient Cities initiative and the hyper-local 2015 Community Resilience Challenge.

These dual efforts — one aiming to harness scaleable public-private partnerships, the other focused on grassroots community action — underscore an inherent challenge facing cities with limited resources and exceedingly long sustainability to-do lists.

“There’s a tension. On the one hand, resilience is broad-based,” said 100 Resilient Cities CEO Michael Berzowitz. “On the other hand, in order to get to anything that’s doable, that can be implemented, we’ve got to get more specific.”

That challenge crystalizes with the broad cross-section of issues that quickly emerge as chief concerns for the city’s future well-being: environmental disasters such as earthquakes; ill-effects of climate change like sea-level rise; or simmering social and economic stresses including urban food insecurity, skyrocketing housing costs, failing schools and entrenched community violence.

The melding of interconnected environmental risks with commercial prosperity and social stability reflects the growing (if not somewhat overwhelming) conversation around local resilience.

As Volans founder John Elkington recently described, cities increasingly relied upon to take concrete action on climate face a challenge in balancing proactive and reactive forces: “Resilience addresses how we best prepare our economies, cities and companies for the downsides of the world we are creating. Sustainability, by contrast, seeks to address the root causes of the Great Acceleration — and to ensure that future growth happens within Planetary Boundaries.”

For Oakland — “the new Brooklyn,” as a few East Coast writers have deemed the other city by the Bay — the difficulty of juggling long-term risks and already apparent conflict is especially pronounced. The 78-square-mile city home to some 400,000 people is quickly becoming a poster child for turmoil linked to gentrification, a workforce adjusting to rapid tech gains and recent protests over racial discrimination.

“This whole initiative is about adversity, diversity and inclusion,” said Margaret Gordon, co-director of the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project — a grassroots environmental group started by local residents in one of Oakland’s most polluted, and poorest, neighborhoods. “If you don’t have a stomach for those things, you shouldn’t be here.”

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