NJIT's Tom Dallessio Speaks at United Nations to Celebrate World Cities Day 2014

On Oct. 31, 2014, Tom Dallessio, director of NJIT’s Center for Resilient Design, gave an address at the United Nations to celebrate the inaugural World Cities Day 2014, a celebration of global urban transformations led by UN-Habitat. The following is his address:

World Cities Day Address

Salutation Mr. President, Excellencies, distinguished guests: Buon Giorno!  I am Tom Dallessio, Director of the Center for Resilient Design at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, and a Board Member of the Consortium for Sustainable Urbanization. I’m pleased to join you in celebrating World Cities Day 2014.

Introduction As you know, urbanization is occurring all around the world; but to ensure it is sustainable, we must plan and design cities to be economically, environmentally and socially resilient. As you also well know, for the first time in history, over half of the world’s population is living in cities and towns. Constantly on the rise, it is expected to reach almost 5 billion by 2030 and 6.3 billion by 2050. The concentration of peoples with diverse backgrounds, and different cultural and ethnic origins and beliefs provides both challenges and opportunities that leaders throughout the world must recognize and address. Because cities of all sizes struggle to provide resources and apply good practices to respond to the magnitude of this change, the UN correctly recognizes the importance of managing social inclusion in people-centered urbanization. Today’s message, on World Cities Day 2014, is that there is a critical need to lead urban transformations. I thank the United Nations, UN-Habitat, the Permanent Mission of Italy to the United Nations, the Permanent Mission of the People’s Republic of China to the United Nations, and the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations for providing the civic space to raise difficult questions and seek shared answers. The Consortium for Sustainable Urbanization is pleased to contribute to this dialogue. As an urban planner, I know that cities are faced with the end results of transnational and internal migration. The pressures today on infrastructure, housing, social services and other public services are exacerbated by urban growth and providing equitable access. However, international and national migration policies are often implemented without local input or control. Given this, balancing economic growth, environmental conservation and social progress is more critical than ever. And, I’d argue, is absolutely necessary to ensure that cities are sustainable and resilient. We can and must enact policies, propose urban designs and build neighborhoods and cities that meet these objectives. The Rockefeller Foundation has defined 5 characteristics of resilient systems that can provide lessons for cities facing social cohesion challenges. They are: 1. Aware – knowing strengths and assets, liabilities and vulnerabilities, and threats and risks. Constantly assessing the social cohesion of a city can be both responsive and preventative. It requires methods of sensing and information-gathering, including robust feedback loops that could take the form of community meetings or monitoring systems that are accessible to the variety of people living and working in the city. Today’s technology and social media provide a multitude of opportunities as well as challenges for keeping city leaders, residents and visitors aware and actively engaged. Being mindful, tolerant and embracing of differences in language, culture, religion, custom and attitude can enhance urban resiliency. 2. Diverse – Although in this case, the intention is a surplus of capacity, I’d argue that cities can and must draw upon the range of capabilities of its people. Finding locations and vehicles to enhance diversity will provide both short-term and long-term benefits. 3. Self-Regulating – Here, it is critically important that people behave and interact in ways to continue functioning to the city’s purpose, dealing with anomalous situations and interferences without extreme malfunction, collapse or disruptions. True social resilience strives for cities where people can withstand disruptions or crises because there’s a common level of respect as well as a welcoming for diverse populations. 4. Integrated – Having the ability to bring together disparate thoughts and elements into cohesive solutions and actions is key. Sharing information across neighborhoods or social strata, collaboratively developing ideas and solutions, and communicating transparently with involved or affected people are three central tenets of social resiliency, which require feedback loops to be truly effective. And, 5. Adaptive – The capacity to adjust to changing circumstances, especially as a result of transnational or internal migration, by developing plans, taking actions or modifying behaviors will ensure that cities are better able to withstand and recover from a disruption. Flexibility is also key here, with wise city leaders applying existing resources to new purposes. The Rockefeller Foundation holds that humans are not born with resilience – that we learn, adapt and improve upon it. Whether it is nature or nurture, we know that social resilience is both desired and necessary to enhance our economy and environment. It is clear that public debate here in America and around the world has focused on economic and environmental sustainability. However, the cultural and ethnic dimensions must also be taken into consideration, to advance social equity and the future resiliency of cities and towns. Policies and urban designs that manage diversity and promote social cohesion among residents and visitors must be advanced by mayors and others at the local level to make cities more vibrant. Creating a common space for this discussion as well as ensuring that all peoples are represented in the dialogue and are shareholders, not just stakeholders in the conversation, should be the mission of mayors. The 100 Resilient Cities Initiative, led by the Rockefeller Foundation, provides an interesting test for resiliency. Whether it becomes the Agora many hope for remains to be seen. That being the case, it is both informative and encouraging to see this level of exploration. I’m proud that the Consortium for Sustainable Urbanization is working to promote a better understanding of the role of sustainable urbanization and resilient design in the planning of our cities. One year ago, we organized a conference here at the United Nations on resilient design. While most of the conversation focused on responses to natural disasters, we recognize that social resiliency is key to a sustainable future. We look forward to collaborating on initiatives that advance economic, environmental and social sustainability and resiliency, and are committed to making Habitat III a clarion call for these critical goals. We join Dr. Joan Clos and others who advocate changes to our physical environment to advance this sustainability and resiliency. We are committed to bringing together different shareholders for exchanges of innovative policies and best practices applicable to both developed and developing regions of the world. Our objective is to establish a global conversation on sustainable urbanization, embracing all sectors of society. One actionable step worth considering is the creation of a Mayors’ Academy on Resilient and Sustainable Habitats. MARSH would bring urban leaders together with actual case studies from their cities to find ways through physical design and policy revisions to improve their cities. Designing spaces that enhance social resiliency would benefit all, especially those who are often not considered in the planning of infrastructure and communities. And, the establishment of a network of educated and engaged mayors on the benefits of resilient design would have long-lasting effects. On this two year anniversary of Superstorm Sandy, architecture students at the New Jersey Institute of Technology continue to investigate ways to address economic, environmental and social resiliency. Today’s session reminds me that our work continues with renewed purpose. To conclude, I believe that diversity is economically, environmentally and socially resilient. The challenge is for mayors and other local leaders to take ownership and enact policies, programs and designs that address this resiliency. Thank you.