Reimagining the future in a tumultuous year

by Laurie Mazur

It was a year like no other: 2020 brought a deadly pandemic, crippling recession, protests against racial injustice, and bitter political division — all against a backdrop of unprecedented climate change impacts. As wildfires metastasized and meteorologists ran out of names for the unceasing hurricanes, 2020 tied with 2016 for the hottest year on record.

At the same time, we saw the skies clear over cities that are usually shrouded in pollution, along with a record-breaking (if temporary) drop in carbon emissions. We saw a long-overdue reckoning with systemic racism, including its ghastly toll in human life and its grotesque distortion of democracy.

However disturbing the reasons, 2020 was a year that ruptured expectations and forced us to step outside the rhythms of daily life. From this unfamiliar vantage point, we could imagine a different future. You could say 2020 was a “teachable moment” — a time to expose what is unsustainable and unjust, and to offer alternative visions. Contributors to the Urban Resilience Project, showcased in the new (and free!) e-book Resilience Matters: Reimagining the Future in a Tumultuous Year, did just that.

As the pandemic gathered momentum, our contributors connected the dots among COVID-19, climate change and inequality. For example, Mustafa Santiago Ali showed how those who are most vulnerable to COVID are also hit hardest by climate change (page 149). Katherine Egland and Rev. Lennox Yearwood warned that supercharged hurricanes would compound the ravages of COVID in Black communities (page 14). And Cate Mingoya observed that green space is even more important in a pandemic, while exploring the racist history behind its absence in some neighborhoods (page 155).

By making these connections, our authors drew back the curtain on exploitative systems that threaten both people and the planet. But, while the problems are connected, the solutions are, too. That’s why Cassandra Breeze-Ceballos and Elizabeth Sawin call for a “multisolving” approach that uses pandemic recovery funds to catalyze a “just transition” away from fossil fuels (page 193). Calvin Gladney takes a similar tack, seeing the recovery as an opportunity to rethink our car-centric way of life (page 166).

In these pages, you’ll find plenty of alternatives to the unsustainable, inequitable status quo. Dan Parolek shows how “missing middle” housing can make our cities more livable and affordable (page 152). Dan Imhoff proposes turning the Midwest corn belt into a “carbon belt,” with plantings that preserve soil and sequester carbon dioxide (page 59). And Bruce Rich offers up the Basque country of Spain — “one of the most internationally competitive, socially inclusive, environmentally progressive economies in the world” — as a model for capitalism 2.0 (page 72).

Here, too, you’ll find real-life strategies for tackling climate change and inequality together. One comes from Miami, a climate-vulnerable city where more than half of residents are one disaster away from insolvency. Tiffany Ganthier tells the story of Catalyst Miami, a community group that is helping vulnerable families boost their financial resilience with matched savings accounts and lending circles (page 106).

What will it take to spur the transformative changes we need? The mainstream environmental movement must first reckon with its racist past — and present. That means doing more than simply “checking the box” on diversity, explains Andrés Jimenez (page 52). Transformation requires antiracist and feminist leadership at all levels, writes Jennie Stephens (page 48). And, as Shamar Bibbins observes, it requires philanthropy to trust — and invest in — frontline groups led by people of color (page 20).

Fundamentally, this moment calls us to rethink “resilience,” writes Jalonne White-Newsome (page 175): “Resilience must mean more than enduring the unendurable, or bouncing back to “normal,” she writes. We must instead bounce forward to a fairer, greener future.

Today, there is hope. As 2020 drew to a close, voters turned out in record numbers to oust a president who denied climate change and called white supremacists “very fine people.” The Biden-Harris administration has put climate change and racial justice at the top of the agenda — and early actions and appointments bear that out.

As we turn the page on a traumatic year, there is much we might want to forget: George Floyd’s last words; hospitals and morgues filled to capacity; snaking lines of cars at food banks; the orange, smoke-filled skies over San Francisco. But the lessons of 2020 are too important to be forgotten. The year’s colliding crises revealed the interconnections among the great social, health and environmental challenges of our time, and illuminated a path forward.

On the eve of his inauguration, President Biden said, “To heal, we must remember.” Let us hope for a year of remembrance, healing, and transformative change.

Laurie Mazur is the editor of the Island Press Urban Resilience Project, which is supported by The Kresge Foundation and The JPB Foundation.

Download your free copy of the e-book Resilience Matters here:




A changing climate means a changing society. The Island Press Urban Resilience Project (URP) is committed to a greener, fairer future.

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Urban Resilience Project

Urban Resilience Project

A changing climate means a changing society. The Island Press Urban Resilience Project (URP) is committed to a greener, fairer future.

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