Making Dallas Stronger

Cities, like people, need strategies to bounce back from difficulties. Here’s how one professional is making a difference in Dallas.Theresa Odonell

A self-professed “city geek,” Theresa O’Donnell has devoted her career to helping her native Dallas thrive amid monumental challenges. After having a variety of roles focused on economic growth, slashing bureaucratic red tape and tackling poverty and health concerns, O’Donnell was named the city’s first Chief Resilience Officer, or CRO. She’s one of many such officials nationwide, as part of the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities (100RC) initiative. We sat down with O’Donnell to learn about how cities can be resilient and what it means to be a resilience officer.

Different Cities, Different Concerns

Cities build resilience by preparing for acute shocks such as natural disasters and addressing long-term social and economic problems. Different cities have different needs. San Francisco is focusing on earthquakes, New Orleans on rising sea levels. In Dallas, it’s about targeting the struggles of the working poor. We have the highest child poverty rate among the 10 largest U.S. cities, and the working poor have a much harder time recovering from disasters.

Breaking Down the Silos

Cities are complicated organisms with many departments—fire, police, water, waste management, etc.—that don’t always communicate. As CRO, I’m taking a fresh look at the city’s challenges and finding ways for departments to collaborate more and improve these main areas: health care, economics, transportation and neighborhood quality of life.

Toward a Healthier Dallas

Most people wouldn’t think of a fire department as a health-care provider, but 957 of 1,400 department employees are paramedics, and the department’s 40 ambulances made more than 200,000 EMS runs last year. It’s a frontline health provider for the poor and uninsured, and we’re working to be more cost-effective with these services. And because fire departments already teach fire safety and prevention, they could also be effective in teaching communities about public health.

Better Mobility

Our downtown hotels have hundreds of night jobs that go unfilled because shifts end at 2 a.m., while city buses stop running at 11 p.m. Steady employment is key to resilience, for families and cities alike. So we’re examining the bus system to help make it more efficient for commuters.

Building Support

Though we’re in the early stages of our efforts, we’ve had an outpouring of support from the philanthropic community, service providers and businesses. We all want the same thing—to take care of families. Recently I spoke with a group of young leaders from the Dallas Regional Chamber of Commerce. They’ve made poverty their focus and asked: How can we help the city tackle this issue? What can our service project be? The collective efforts of this community make me very proud of my hometown.


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