Mayor Tom Bates of Berkeley, California: Building a “resilient city” to cope with climate change

How well can your city bounce back from disaster? Berkeley, California, is leading the way on hazard mitigation, including coping with the impacts of climate change.

Resilience is about prevention as well as recovery. Image credit: iStock by Getty

In 2013, the Rockefeller Foundation launched a $100 million effort to help cities become better prepared to recover from potential catastrophes, including climate change. As part of its “100 Resilient Cities” initiative, the Foundation chose Berkeley, California, as one of 32 first-round cities to participate, along with New York, New Orleans and other U.S. cities, and cities in far-flung parts of the world such as Bangkok, Thailand; Medellin, Colombia; and Dakar, Senegal. The two-year grants will enable each city to hire a “chief resilience officer.” 

 Berkeley sits directly on the Hayward/Rogers Creek Fault, and seismologists predict a better than 60 percent chance of a magnitude 6.7 earthquake or worse by 2038. Berkeley is also uniquely vulnerable to damage from wildfires, which, according to the city, are  “compounded by the area’s mountainous topography, limited water supply, minimal access and egress routes, and location, overlaid upon the Hayward Fault.” 

The Rockefeller Foundation notes that Berkeley already leads the nation for “best practices in hazard mitigation,”  and the city has also won notice for its ambitious plan to combat climate change.  We spoke to Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates about the grant and his efforts to prepare his city.

R3.0: What does it mean for a city to be “resilient”?

Bates: What it means is that you’re prepared for a whole range of emergencies – everything from climate destruction to potential violence that could endanger the public, from damage to the water supply or losing electricity. It’s about being ready and then being smart about recovery so we can recover as fast as possible. It’s also about doing systematic thinking about things, not just worrying about one thing at a time. You’re thinking about things in totality.

R3.0: Why do you think Berkeley would benefit from having a “chief resilience officer”?

Bates: We have good ideas but don’t have the wherewithal to implement them all – we don’t want to have all these great ideas that just go sit on a shelf. Having somebody who’s dedicated to working on the issues [of concern to us] will enable us to make real progress.

R3.0: What are the particular worries you have in Berkeley?

[One of] the major concerns we have here are earthquakes and making seismic upgrades. We’ve already had some major quakes in 1989, and we know that there’s another coming.

We’d also like to figure out an alternative power source in case the power lines go down because of an earthquake or other problems. A lot of our power lines are currently aboveground, not underground, and if an earthquake occurs, which unfortunately the odds are very high is going to happen in the next 30 years, it’s conceivable that large parts of the city would have no power at all.

We’re also potentially at risk for fire. The Berkeley Hills are beautiful but there are a lot of trees – particularly eucalyptus trees. One of the things that might happen in an earthquake is that the pipelines that bring us water will be severed or not be available for us. We want to have a good understanding of how to cope, and to the extent that we can put things in place that will alleviate the problem, we want to do so.

R3.0: The city’s hazard mitigation plan also mentions climate disruption as a major concern. Can you talk about the city’s “climate action plan”?

Bates: We have a very robust plan on climate action that we adopted four years ago. We were named by the United Nations as having the best climate action plan in North America, so we’re proud of that fact.

One of our biggest concerns is making sure our buildings are as energy efficient as possible. We think that’s important from a climate action standpoint but also in making buildings more efficient. We’re hoping we can use this grant to help figure out ways that we can outreach to our business community and residents so that it makes sense for them to move in that direction.

What happens now is that people do not need to make upgrades when a home or structure in Berkeley sells. Most of the [building upgrades] are insignificant – like putting a blanket around a water heater, caulking or putting in a low-flow showerhead – that are pretty obvious but pretty important.

We are trying to look at that and trying to figure out the issue of transportation. Almost 50 percent of all of our greenhouse gas emissions come from the transportation sector. We already have more Prius vehicles per capita in Berkeley, but we have to go to the next step. We have to go electric. So we’re interested in getting more charging stations for electrical vehicles. We also want to continue to look at how we can upgrade our pedestrian paths so people feel comfortable walking and biking in our city. We are now fourth in the nation in the number of people who have bikes, but we’d like to move up the ladder. We’re looking to put in some bikesharing programs that hopefully will start in the latter part of this year or early next year.

R3.0: Berkeley is unique in some ways because of where it’s situated. What’s your argument to other mayors that they should make “resilience” a priority too?

Bates: Climate disruption doesn’t just happen here. For example, water is a very vital issue for us. Most of the rain we get occurs in northern California, but a lot of the water is used in the central valley and also in southern California.

What normally occurs is that when it snows up in the Sierra Mountains, the snow stays intact. In the summer it starts to melt, and as it melts it becomes a kind of storage facility for us. But what we’re finding now is that with the rain late and it being warm, we’re not getting a lot of snow pack. A lot of drainage is happening right now. It potentially means we’re going to have a major problem later in the summer because we can’t count on that snowpack in a logical way.

And in the central valley of California, people are converting to water-intensive crops, which doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense. But as a consequence they need water all year round, and the water may or may not be available for them. They can use groundwater, but the groundwater keeps going lower and lower and more and more difficult to pull up. Pretty soon it’s not going to be economically viable.

These problems are coming – we need to think about it and be prepared.

R3.0: Will you be sharing the lessons learned from this grant?  

Bates: That’s part of the requirements. We’re planning to share good ideas and best practices with other cities and discuss implementation. We’re also open to sharing those good ideas and best practices with anyone in the United States or anywhere in the world.