Based on her work experience in post-Katrina New Orleans and post-Sandy New York City, the Municipal Art Society of New York's Director of Urban Resilience and Livability, Mary Rowe, discusses the role of self-organization and granular innovation in urban resilience-building.  Highlighting examples from New Orleans, New York City, and cities around the globe, Ms. Rowe focuses on the need for a collaborative process to build resilience that takes advantage of the systems and features already in place in the urban ecosystem.
mp3 iconFostering Resilience through Community Based Innovation - Mary Rowe


Mary W Rowe is currently Vice President & Managing Director of the Municipal Art Society of New York City, a century-old advocacy organization working to promote the livability and resilience of New York City through effective urban planning, land use, and design.  Mary directs resilience work at MAS, including convening and community engagement to build local resilience-building strategies; MAS’ support of Rebuild by Design, an initiative of President Obama’s Sandy Task Force to stimulate innovative design solutions to make the region more resilient; and the MAS’ global City-Builder Network, a peer-to-peer learning platform connecting urban practitioners contributing to the livability and resilience of cities around the world.  Previously she spent five years learning about granular approaches to urban innovation while supporting the New Orleans Institute for Resilience and Innovation, a loose alliance of initiatives that emerged in response to the systemic collapses of 2005, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. She has a particular interest in self-organization in cities, as the underpinning of urban social, economic, cultural and environmental resilience.


People who live and work in neighborhoods know best the opportunities and constraints that are present there. While government, institutions and the private sector may seek and promote large-scale solutions, often local artists, entrepreneurs and activists are better equipped to respond nimbly and imaginatively, developing innovations quickly that can later be ‘scaled up’. What are the enabling conditions that foster community-based resilience? What are the examples of granular initiatives that deliver both a livability and a resilience benefit? Are there approaches of local approaches that can be applied to cities around the world?

In 2010 the Municipal Art Society of New York began focusing on integrating resilience outcomes with its long-time focus on livability. Urban advocacy, much like city departments, had become strictly siloed, leaving resilience to the purviews of engineers and scientists, and livability to advocates for culture and economic development. The need for shared approaches than benefit both has become an imperative for a diverse city-building movement that increasingly includes urbanists from every profession and walk of life. But granular efforts are often over-looked by public bureaucrats and institutional investors, looking for simple, one-size-fits-all solutions. Large-scale, unitary approaches are costly, very slow to approve, are not fool-proof, and may often crowd out more modest but equally effective hyper-local approaches that can be easily adapted to local conditions, designed and adjusted quickly, engage local communities directly, spawn spin off innovations and local economic, social and environmental benefits.

Propositions for addressing the issue:

Creating ‘networks of practice’ that connect local innovators – ‘urban practitioners’ working to boost the livability and resilience of their cities.

Creating peer-to-peer learning platforms encourages experimentation and tinkering – reducing the ‘stakes’ so failure can be easily and quickly risked, and approaches adapted until effective. Successful approaches can be broadly communicated, and then adapted to other cities/communities/scales

Resilience is a capacity that must be cultivated at all scales. Policies and funding must find ways to enable and support this capacity being developed.

Pilots demonstrating the effectiveness of granular approaches to building resilience and livability provide opportunities for bridging the challenges and opportunities in cities around the world.


Municipal Art Society of New York webpage

The New Orleans Institute


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