Building resilience - lessons from New York City

Resilience and Building Back Better Series II

New York has been the world’s hardest-hit city for Coronavirus infections, but finally, the rate of hospitalisations and the death toll are dropping to the lowest level since mid-March, when the shutdown began. New York’s rate of testing for COVID-19 is the second-highest in the country, but Covid-19 has already claimed a huge toll on the citizens of this great city.

Our special guest knows all too well the devastating effects of the pandemic on her native city. Amy Chester was raised and lived in Brooklyn, witnessing first-hand the daily deaths and disruption to life. 

Amy has spent more than 20 years in municipal policy, community engagement, real estate development and communications advocating for the urban environment. She is now the Managing Director of Rebuild by Design - an organisation that brings together government, business, non-profit, and community organisations to enable communities to be better prepared to withstand and overcome challenges and become more resilient.

She has experienced and helped her city recover and rebuild from a series of significant disasters from 9/11 to Hurricane Sandy. It was from the wreckage of Super Storm Sandy that she was inspired to form the mom-profit organisation ‘Rebuild by Design’.

Amy believes although governments must take the lead during disasters, it’s the people, the individual person who will ultimately control the spread and effects of this pandemic – each person has to decide to do what’s necessary, to decide to do the right thing.

Amy likens Sydney to NYC as being a city made up of very different neighbourhoods, and it’s at the local level she’s noticed how people had come together, being more co-operative, collaborative and friendly than before the COVID crisis began. She sees this as one of the good changes they can build on and maintain to build the city back better than before.

Her organisation has received proposals for hundreds of projects that various groups and businesses and individuals submitted, along with their social benefits and sound business case and achievable funding plans.

These have been for both big infrastructure projects along with smaller ones like giving certain streets back to the people and building better parks and open spaces. She sees now as a time to explore and adopt the change to make the city’s infrastructure and social life more resilient, readier to meet the next challenges.

Through this crisis, as with those before it, including 9/11 and Sandy, she believes the people of NYC have had to become more resilient and accept Government decisions – to an extent. Rebuild by Design facilitates these many projects and brings stakeholders, community and all levels of Government together to fund them in partnership with private companies, taking into account greater social benefits in the planning stage.

Amy believes in, and advocates on climate change are the next big threat – an ongoing threat to life in NYC and right across the country. She says there are no experts when it comes to handling pandemics like COVID as it’s all-new, the first one for over 100 years. Still, there are plenty when it comes to mitigating and adapting to climate change, and Government must show leadership in this and treat it as an urgent crisis, not some distant problem to deal with later on.

Once again, Amy says it starts at a local level, listening to and getting feedback from communities, especially via social media, to find out what and how to build better social resilience. She has found that little things like businesses working together and adapting to COVID like the upstate brewery now making hand sanitiser maker, as examples of the entrepreneurship, adaptability and resilience to come out of this latest crisis.

She admires the swift and effective approach Australia has taken and hopes the curve in NYC will soon flatten and fall like ours. However, she says Government can lift restrictions on things like restaurants re-opening, but it is the people who will ultimately decide if it’s safe to return. The closing down of many businesses has forced them to think outside the square and come up with new operating models, products and services.

Amy has a firm commitment to providing more open and welcoming social gathering places, especially libraries, where people of all ages can socialise as well as study, read, work and play. This builds social resilience in times of trouble, glueing the neighbourhood together. 

Building infrastructure to be more resilient to climate change projects like seawalls to combat sea level rises, but build them to be around for many decades, not just looking at the next 20-30 years ahead. This infrastructure can and must have social benefits too, like integrating shops, entertainment venues and play spaces to bring people together. 

Amy is convinced there will eventually be many social and economic benefits to stem from the Covid-19 disaster if we listen and learn the lessons it’s produced and work together to improve every citizen’s life – especially taking into account the needs of the growing homeless and poor.



Katherine O'Regan

Executive Director
Sydney Business Chamber

Media contact: David Peters 0472 678 535

Sydney Business Chamber is dedicated to creating, advocating and promoting Sydney as a City of Opportunity – a global city to Invest, Work, Live and Visit. Our program is based around the key issues of city building, business transformation and innovation. Please share this article and visit us here to find out about becoming a Member. 


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