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Suzanne Wylie, Chief Executive of Belfast City Council, considers the opportunities for Belfast to think differently about its future as it joins the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities programme.
In Washington DC last month Belfast was chosen to become one of only 100 cities across the globe to join the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities programme (100RC). Our city joins London, Bristol, Glasgow, which were already members of the programme, and Greater Manchester, which was also selected last week alongside Belfast.
The $160m programme aims to help urban leaders build resilience into city planning and urban management arrangements. 100RC's definition of 'resilience' refers to the capacity of the city to survive, adapt, and grow no matter what kinds of chronic stresses and acute shocks they might experience. The programme challenges cities to think beyond physical resilience to encompass the whole range of economic, social and environmental factors that are often at play in the urban context.
Membership of the programme will give Belfast access to approximately $1m worth of support. This funding is not intended to directly address any one particular shock or stress. Instead, it is there as a greatly welcomed planning resource that will allow us to embed resilience thinking into our wider planning processes. The money will fund what we are calling a “commissioner for resilience” for two years and provide resources to assist this person to work with our stakeholders to dive deep into the issues and create Belfast's first Resilience strategy.
Speaking to the Guardian in June, the President of 100RC, Michael Berkowitz outlined the purpose of the commissioner (also referred to as a “chief resilience officer”):
“Cities spend their whole day fighting fire. The idea of the CRO is to be the one person or office who has the luxury to think a little bit more strategically. We see the CRO as an integrator, that’s their explicit role.”
Certainly, it is an opportunity that could not have been better timed. Belfast is at a critical juncture in its history. The city looks and feels very different from what it did 20 years ago. Our revitalised city centre with its new bars, restaurants and hotels are all evidence of the changes that have already taken place. In the past few years the city has attracted over £1.7bn of foreign direct investment. Our universities and industries are important contributors to research and development, skills and trade. Belfast, very successfully, is seeking to be a welcoming place for tourists and for private sector investment.
The challenge for the council, for me as its chief executive, and for the city's many capable and willing partners, is to find better ways to build upon and accelerate this positive momentum. This is in recognition of the fact that our city does have a number of serious resilience issues which, if not addressed in an integrated fashion, have the potential to undermine our pathway to success.
For example, while Belfast has had some major investments in its physical infrastructure, there is still some careful thinking to be done, in an era of climate change and decarbonisation, about the future of our energy, transport and water management systems. And of course as a coastal city in an era of rising sea levels we need think carefully about our resilience to flooding.
Our economic legacy also remains problematic – with our economy still too dependent on the public sector and the vitality of local business start-ups and entrepreneurial activity continues to remain underwhelming.
Educational inequalities remain a problem within a fragmented system that, while producing some of the highest levels of attainment in the UK, is not effectively delivering for struggling communities. It is also a system that is not yet agile enough in planning for, and in delivering, precisely the right mix of workforce skills required to meet the changing demands of employers.
And deprivation continues to be a stressor and a major contributor to marginalisation. Our living standards continue to lag behind the rest of the UK – leaving us faced with the challenge of how to ensure broader economic success is translated into success in our most marginalised communities.
Traditionally the city's governance structures have been too fragmented to consider such complex, inter-connected challenges in a holistic manner. Our structures were designed to deliver individuated services and tackle individual challenges in a piecemeal fashion. As a result we have not really had the leadership ‘space’, nor the mechanisms, required to focus properly on such fundamental resilience issues.
My aim, as the chief executive of a reformed and enhanced Belfast City Council, is to work with the elected councillors, our citizens and our businesses to re-invigorate city leadership and encourage people to think differently about our future.
Interestingly, with recent local government reforms here in Northern Ireland, Belfast has been given a number of very useful new leadership tools to support this aim – including Community Planning powers; a stronger economic development role; and, for the first time, responsibility for establishing the city's Local Development Plan (a responsibility which previously sat with the regional government). We have also begun investing in ‘Smarter Cities’ approaches to consider how we can use the power of big data analytics and new technologies to re-imagine city challenges and solutions.
I want to use all of these subtle tools to shape an ambitious narrative of transformation for Belfast. I believe this ambition chimes well with that of the 100 Resilient Cities programme. And I see the support from 100RC and a Belfast commissioner for resilience as a very welcome complement to this work. Together with other cities across the world we have a unique opportunity to think differently about the wicked issues that face our citizens.
Nationally, Michael Berkowitz has noted that there are some interesting opportunities ahead: “In the United Kingdom, we have Greater Manchester and Belfast joining Glasgow, Bristol, London – now that’s a real cohort. And now we’re talking to the prime minister’s office about how we might use the momentum that’s created to spread the programme further.”
Belfast City Council recently spoke at ICE Northern Ireland’s ‘How smart is your city?’ event. Watch the recorded event here, or for more on ICE’s work on the future of our cities go to our new Growing Cities and Building Resilience webpage or tweet #IWantACityThat...