Notes from Brazil – Civic Engagement as Key Resilience Measure

At the Clinton Global Initiative in Rio last week I sat on a plenary panel (Latin American Cities: Revitalization and Economic Transformation) with the mayors of Rio de Janeiro (Eduardo Paes) and Lima (Susanna Villarain) as well as Louise Goeser, the Siemens regional CEO. Jose Maria Figueres, the former president of Costa Rica and current head of the Carbon War Room, moderated the session. Both Mayors are strong supporters of making their cities more resilient. For Mayor Paes, that will be no easy task. Rio has to deliver now to get ready for the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics. Deadlines like these can sometimes force cities to do things ‘fast’ instead of ‘right.’ The Mayor spoke about how to capture that energy to leave Rio in a better place for the long haul. For example, the city is returning a large strip of land back to a park in anticipation of the crowds, but that green space will undoubtedly pay dividends in future heavy rain and flooding events. We look forward to working with Rio as part of the inaugural cohort of 100 Resilient Cities.

Mayor Villaran spoke about resilience in the context of an engaged citizenry, which we see in other cities across Latin and South America. After this year’s riots in Brazil that sentiment is top of mind in Rio, and sending signals to other cities, too. Small shocks and stresses can set off civil unrest in places where citizens do not feel adequately engaged. The Arab spring and resulting fallout may be the most extreme manifestation of this. Addressing civic engagement explicitly is an important part of a resilience strategy, and all the more critical in cities with a widening income gap.

After Rio I went to Porto Alegre, which is also a part of the first cohort of 100 Resilient Cities. A city known for municipal innovation, Porto Alegre was one of the creators of participatory budgeting. The City is organized in 17 districts and undertakes an annual bottoms-up process to determine the spending priorities for a small but significant part of its budget. The practice is gaining traction in Brazil and beginning to spread throughout Latin America and beyond.

We were impressed by this inclusiveness and culture of civic engagement in Porto Alegre, which  we felt throughout our visit. We were received by Mayor Fortunati and senior municipal government officials, who had also invited representatives from local NGOs and academia to participate in the kick-off meeting. Over the following days city officials began considering ways to infuse a resilience lens into their existing participatory budgeting process—potentially asking residents to consider shocks and stresses as they think about their short- and long-term priorities.

Such engagement is not a panacea. Like many cities in Brazil, Porto Alegre experienced widespread protests last summer. It is also is challenged with many of the same resilience issues, such as informal settlements, zoning, flooding, and solid waste, that many cities face. Nevertheless, we left struck by the notion that because of its authentic civic engagement and history of participation, the city is in an excellent place to enhance its resilience—and perhaps teach other cities about social resilience.

Photo: David Berkowitz, Flickr