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Resolution seeks help to make Austin more resilient

Thursday, May 7, 2020 by Jo Clifton

Austin has long been recognized as a leader in green energy and environmental sustainability. Now, under a resolution sponsored by Council Member Leslie Pool, Mayor Steve Adler and Council members Kathie Tovo, Natasha Harper-Madison and Alison Alter, Council is asking City Manager Spencer Cronk to find a pathway to make the city more resilient for the whole community – in particular, the economically disadvantaged.

An important part of the resolution directs Cronk to find ways that the city might fund the hiring of a chief resilience officer, and directs him to report back to Council no later than June 1.

Pool and her colleagues discussed the item at Tuesday’s work session over Zoom. Pool said, “We are in the trenches at this moment, but even as we fight those daily battles, we are also planning for recovery and looking forward to the future. As we do that, we need to ensure that Austin’s future is focused where it should be – on building community resilience for the next time and the next crisis, and for the daily crises that are so very real for many families in our city.

“Climate change, both daunting for our community and planet, it’s not the only challenge our communities face. We’ve got floods and wildfires, chronic drought, pandemics, ongoing inequalities. All of these present us with complex shocks and stressors that we must be prepared to respond to. And in just the last six years that I’ve been on the Council I’ve seen all of these things here in Austin. So we have to be ready to bounce forward, maintaining a direction of increased well-being and prosperity for all the residents of our city,” Pool said.

She said she understood that community members and groups must be part of resiliency planning. Pool told the Austin Monitor that a number of community groups had already indicated support for the resolution. Planning Our Communities, the Workers Defense Project, the Sustainable Food Center and the tenants’ rights group BASTA have all expressed an interest in the project, she said. Although the city needs to continue its focus on the environment, the resiliency officer should not be in the city’s Sustainability Office, but perhaps in the Equity Office, she said.

Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza initially seemed opposed to the idea, particularly if it involved creating a new office. In particular, Garza said she would not want to fund any new project, especially in light of a conversation Council had a couple of months ago about the city’s ability to pay for lawyers to represent people at magistration. However, by the end of the conversation, she seemed to step back from her opposition, though she said she wouldn’t promise to support the idea at budget time.

Pool said Houston was able to fund its resilience officer by working with the Rockefeller Foundation and its Global Resilient Cities Network. According to the resolution, the network has expressed “an eagerness to work with the city of Austin in providing technical assistance toward a comprehensive community resilience plan, including the potential to assist in developing private and foundation partnerships for funding the plan.” The foundation has said it plans to add 10 new cities to its network. The resolution states that “Austin is well-poised to earn a position as one of the 10 if the city commits to developing a comprehensive resilience strategy and to hiring a chief resilience officer, two key elements for network admission.”

Adler said in written comments, “We see now, more than ever, how important it is for Austin to be resilient. This initiative will make resiliency part of our everyday lives going forward.”

Harper-Madison also provided a written comment, saying, “In a city as prosperous as ours, there’s no reason any Austinite should experience issues like food insecurity, housing instability, or lack of access to quality education or health care.” She said the current crisis is a wake-up call to address deep-seated inequities.

Deputy City Manager Nuria Rivera-Vandermyde, who came to Austin from Minneapolis, seems most likely to take the lead on this project. She told Council she was supportive and “excited to think about resiliency in a broader fashion.” She praised Lucia Athens, the leader of the city’s Sustainability Office, but said Austin needs to think about resilience in a broader fashion.

She said Minneapolis had two chief resilience officers under two different administrations, and that started with an officer-involved shooting and the impact of economic disparities. She attended a meeting of the Rockefeller Foundation last summer and heard that the Global Resilient Cities network in the U.S. was turning its attention to economic development and job creation.

She concluded, “It is an interesting time to talk about staffing but also an interesting time to broaden the conversation about resiliency. And we will take the foundation of what already exists in Austin and think more broadly about our community needs.”

Council Member Jimmy Flannigan revealed that Katie Coyne, his appointee to the Environmental Commission, had originally come to him with the idea. He said he urged Coyne to find other Council members to carry the resolution. “So I’m glad to see this coming forward and I think we all share the mayor pro tem’s concerns about budget, and we’ll have to cross that bridge when we come to it,” he said.

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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