Building Resilience in Boulder, Colorado: Creating Networks to Be Better Together

March 4, 2017

The Cities of Service Resilience AmeriCorps program trains and supports AmeriCorps VISTA members to help communities prepare for catastrophic events and ongoing challenges. Serving in city halls, members engage citizens and community partners to build and sustain resilience in vulnerable neighborhoods.


ater was seeping into the window wells, and started rising up from the ground, too. My landlord lived in Denver, and roads to Boulder were closed, so it was impossible for him to help. We had to go it on our own.” Helen Zhang, resident of Boulder, CO, describes the devastating flood of 2013.

In September of that year, an unusual weather pattern set in and unleashed 16 inches of rain in just four days — nine times the average monthly rainfall. The “thousand-year storm” caused extensive flooding along Boulder Creek and widespread damage throughout the community.

Boulder Develops Resilience Strategy in Face of Disaster

Unfortunately, Boulder is no stranger to natural disasters — its location makes it susceptible to drought and flash floods. While these events are devastating on their own, unprepared communities are especially affected.

“This was a glaring hole in our response to the 2013 floods: the ability to self-organize during crisis,” says Greg Guibert, Boulder’s Chief Resilience Officer. Boulder hired Guibert through the 100 Resilient Cities network to develop and implement the city’s Resilience Strategy, which aims to engage and connect citizens to make them better prepared in the future.

To acquire the resources necessary to execute the strategy, Boulder joined the Cities of Service Resilience AmeriCorps program and received two AmeriCorps members as well as financial and technical support. Cities of Service leveraged its convening power to bring stakeholders together and work toward a common goal: a resilient Boulder.

Flood of 2013 causes extensive damage in Boulder community. Photo Credit: City of Boulder

Boulder is One of 10 US Cities Selected to Participate in the Cities of Service Resilience AmeriCorps Program

When Mackenzie Boli and Maddie Steen came on board as AmeriCorps members, Guibert knew he would have the dedicated resilience capacity to strive for that goal. “If we hadn’t had Maddie and Mackenzie leading the charge, we probably would have held off on projects. Getting to action can be hard because it represents new work for somebody,” says Guibert.

Boli was embedded in the city’s Office of Emergency Management to find ways to improve communication between first responders and citizens during an emergency as well as clarify how citizens can take responsible action that actually helps when disaster strikes. Inspired by fellow resilient city Wellington, New Zealand’s best-in-class community preparedness program, Boli and Steen launched Better Together.

Workshop Strengthens Residents’ Emergency Preparedness

The three-class workshop focuses on personal resilience, emergency management, and community resilience — but more specifically, Better Together identifies what makes Boulder unique, defines resilience, explores potential environmental disasters present in Boulder, and creates emergency management plans.

“The course appealed to me because I realized how woefully unprepared I was to handle the flood of 2013. No one taught me how to respond in school, nor did I have any readiness training from other sources,” says Zhang.

During the workshops, residents are encouraged to work with their neighbors to become familiar with resources available in their neighborhood so they can coordinate with city departments during emergencies and become better together.

Boulder residents participate in Better Together Workshop.

Helen Zhang, Better Together participant, meets her neighbors. Photo Credit: Cities of Service

Residents Build a Community Around Resilience

Community resilience starts with the individual. As a part of the course, participants were encouraged to brainstorm effective ways to cope with a distressing event. When individuals develop healthy habits, they are much more likely to have a resilient mindset able to cope with their external environment.

“Being personally resilient starts with being aware of your surroundings: Do you know which direction you should travel in the event of a flash flood? You can’t always wait until an evacuation order comes through, you need to be proactive in recognizing the signs of danger,” says Boli.

Many residents, like Zhang, didn’t have the answer before the flood occurred, so the course facilitated a series of activities, like mock-disaster scenarios, to create emergency management plans. The workshops not only helped citizens plan ahead, but allowed citizens to foster relationships with their neighbors.

“The most important piece of building resilience is developing relationships with your neighbors. People who confide in, reflect with, and rely on others in their community are much more likely to recover quickly,” says Boli.

“The most important piece of building resilience is developing relationships with your neighbors. People who confide in, reflect with, and rely on others in their community are much more likely to recover quickly.”
— Mackenzie Boli, Resilience AmeriCorps Member

Plus, Boli adds, “You might need your neighbor to rescue your puppy or grab your medications for you.” The pilot course has been well received by residents across the Boulder community.

“I’m new to this neighborhood, so before this workshop I didn’t really know very many people. Now I feel more connected and better prepared. One of my neighbors even asked, ‘How do we continue this discussion and build a community around resilience?’ I’m really excited to engage with her,” says Zhang.

Better Together will be offered again this year with clearer pathways for graduates to build resilience in their communities.

“These are the individuals who will inspire change in their communities. It’s their passion that will inspire a culture of resiliency in Boulder that allows us to adapt and thrive in a changing climate, economy, and society,” says Boli.

 . . .

Cities of Service’s work is made possible with generous funding from Bloomberg Philanthropies. Resilience AmeriCorps is supported by The Rockefeller Foundation, the Corporation for National and Community Service, and Walmart Foundation.