Returning to México City: Context for the Resilience Conversation

It’s rare when multiple areas of your life collide; it’s a privilege when this collision allows for pursuit of your interests and passions. I recently experienced this with an opportunity to return to México City (CDMX) and participate in workshops to study the city’s efforts to improve their seismic resilience. Let me give you some context:

México City Reconnaissance Effort

As you may know, last fall Reid Middleton fielded two earthquake reconnaissance teams to study the impacts of the September 19, 2017 M7.1 Puebla Earthquake in México. Over the course of two weeks, we partnered with several other organizations to research the impacts on the building and lifeline infrastructure and assist with post-earthquake building safety evaluations. Since returning, we have worked to document and disseminate our observations and lessons learned as they apply to a U.S. context. You can read more from our daily blog posts and observation report.

EERI Housner Program

2017 Housner Fellows in CDMX, March 2018

Simultaneously, over the last half-year, I have also had the honor of participating in the 2017 Earthquake Engineering Research Institute (EERI) Housner Fellows Program. As part of this two-year leadership development program, our team of six is tasked with defining and designing our group project with a general theme of supporting public policy and seismic risk reduction. Through our evolving project, our class was invited to participate in a 100 Resilient Cities Network Exchange entitled “Building Seismic Resilience: Preparedness, Response, Recovery.”

100 Resilient Cities Network Exchange

100 Resilient Cities (100RC), pioneered by the Rockefeller Foundation, is dedicated to helping cities around the world become more resilient to the physical, social, and economic challenges that are a growing part of the 21st century.

While México City has been a member of the 100 Resilient Cities network of cities since 2013, the formal creation of the CDMX Resilience Office was not until September 18, 2017. Yeah, you read that right. The México City Resilience Office was created the day before the earthquake. You thought you had a tough first day on the job.

In order to explore a broad mix of interventions and approaches that build seismic resilience in México City, the municipal government, in partnership with 100 Resilient Cities and CDMX Resilience Office, invited municipal leaders, private sector partners, academic experts, and international organizations to participate in a collaborative workshop to share experiences and ideas with earthquake preparedness, response, and recovery. On March 13-15, 2018, Chief Resilience Officers (CROs) and city representatives from across nine of 100RC member cities (Cali, Christchurch, Colima, Kyoto, Los Angeles, Quito, San Francisco, Vancouver, Wellington) had the opportunity to collaborate with México City officials and 100RC partners from the non-profit, academic, and public sectors to inform the development CDMX initiatives being advanced by the city in the wake of the September 19th earthquake.

2017 Housner Fellows with CDMX Chief Resilience Officer, Dr. Arnoldo Matus Kramer

Workshop Experiences

It was an honor to hear Chief Resilience Officers (CROs), engineers, and emergency managers from cities around the world share ideas and lessons learned from their first-hand experiences dealing with earthquakes in their respective cities. To quote Hamilton, it was a privilege just to be “in the room where it happened.”

Participants in the CDMX Network Exchange shared models, tools, and best practices relevant to three initiatives identified as priorities by CDMX following the 2017 earthquake:

  1. Seismic Risk Resilience Plan for Critical Water Infrastructure
  2. Resilient Housing Program Targeting Vulnerable Communities
  3. Organized Citizen Response Protocols and Engagement Strategy
Community Meeting with Local Leaders in the El Molino Neighborhood of Iztapalap

We also had the opportunity to spend an afternoon meeting community leaders and citizens in the El Molino neighborhood of Iztapalapa, the most densely populated delegación in México City with approximately 1.8 million inhabitants. An informal settlement severely impacted by the earthquake, El Molino continues to deal with water and housing shortages due to damage from the September 19, 2017 earthquake. However, the organic community organization and local leadership in this community was remarkable and an encouraging example of proactive, local-led resilience.



The Workshop Outcomes

As workshop participants from literally all around the world shared perspectives and experiences, it became clear that the challenges in México City are not unique to México City; the challenge of making our communities more prepared and resilient is universal. Many of the participating cities identified similar challenges and dynamics, both before and after earthquakes. Three broad themes also emerged from discussions, with relevance to México City and the rest of the globe:

  1. Data-Sharing: in our modern world, a seemingly infinite amount of data is collected through a variety of public/private organizations, governmental institutions, and technology platforms. This data has tremendous power to inform decisions and improve resilience. However, this data is often considered proprietary and gets “silo’d.” In order to leverage, this data need to be shared for the benefit of all.
  2. Community Engagement: because of their collective memory and training, México City has an especially informed, engaged populace ready and willing to participate in both seismic resilience and response activities. This was illustrated after the 2017 earthquake. However, in order to optimize this community engagement, mechanisms are needed to allow community-led activities to be run in an organized, collaborative manner alongside the government. The more these relationships and mechanisms are created in advance of a disaster, the more resilient the city will be.
  3. Step By Step: The TGIF Friday night line-up was more insightful than we give it credit for. It’s easy to be discouraged and immobilized by the magnitude of the problem. However, bite-sized, scalable, targeted pilot projects can build momentum and enable broader solutions. This is particularly true in a complex metropolitan city like CDMX. At the end of the Network Exchange, it was encouraging to hear the now former CDMX Mayor Miguel Ángel Mancera Espinosa support the three initiatives and pilot projects defined during the workshop (see photo below). Also, family matters.

Despite these universalities in cross-globe resilience discussions, the one thing I came home with is this: Context, Context, Context.

With the opportunity to hear the back-stories and meet the impacted communities in Ixtapalapa as well as to learn more about the history and systemic drivers in México City, our initial observations from the earthquake in September have more context. They fit into a broader story. In order to draw lessons from an event, it is critical to understand the historic, social, political, economic, etc. gravitational forces that shape the impacted community. This is applicable to any context or discipline, but particularly critical in studying and pursuing this broad, multifaceted, intangible idea of “resilience.” For us engineers, as we engage in the resilience conversation, we need to put the literal gravitational forces in context.

Community Meeting with Local Leaders in the El Molino neighborhood of Iztapalapa. Note: some of these community leaders are depicted on the mural behind (also the good-looking, tall, bald guy in the back).
Photo credit: CDMX Resilience Office