USC Price alumna Marissa Aho on being Los Angeles’ first Chief Resilience Officer

October 24, 2018
Alumna Marissa Aho

Disruptions such as earthquakes, wildfires and even water shortages are an inevitable part of Los Angeles’ future. Keeping the city safe — and planning for hazard reduction and response — is a daunting job.

That’s where Marissa Aho comes in. A 2006 graduate of the USC Price School’s Master of Planning program, Aho is L.A.’s first Chief Resilience Officer; she was appointed by Mayor Eric Garcetti.

She is charged with spearheading resiliency efforts across a city of four million residents. Her primary role is to enhance Los Angeles’ ability to survive, adapt and grow following the unpredictable shocks and stresses that can bring destructive impacts to the most vulnerable populations.

Aho defines resiliency as not just building up durable infrastructure, but thinking more critically about integrating future challenges to our everyday practices.

She explained that her job “is trying to work with all of our partners to keep Angelenos in their homes and in their businesses unfazed by whatever comes next.”

Rooted in Planning

Aho began her studies at American University, where she earned an interdisciplinary degree in Communications, Legal Institutions, Economics and Government — nicknamed CLEG — on top of a B.A. in government. She describes CLEG as a pre-planning degree, because planners must have a strong grasp of those areas as a basis for their work.

She began to explore urban planning more directly while participating in a Semester at Sea program. During an excursion to an informal settlement in India, Aho witnessed families being displaced at the hands of a government that opted to bring in new developments in place of the preexisting community. Seeing communities in different parts of the world helped her imagine how she could bring change back home.

After completing her undergraduate degree, Aho worked in Washington, D.C., for the National Crime Prevention Council, where she helped to run a youth development group called the Center for Youth as Resources. She then worked with the National Human Services Assembly, which convened major nonprofit organizations, including Boys & Girls Clubs of America, YMCA and the United Way.

Aho returned to graduate school at USC, drawn to the program because of its strong focus on moving students from theory to practice. Upon graduating, she became involved in the Los Angeles section of the American Planning Association (APA) and worked for two local planning and land use consulting firms for nine years. In May 2015, Aho joined Mayor Garcetti’s administration to lead resiliency planning efforts.

Plan Into Action

One of the defining milestones of Aho’s term thus far has been the creation of Resilient Los Angeles (click to download details), a comprehensive framework designed to guide the city’s resilience efforts at every scale — from individuals, families and businesses to broader partnerships across multiple jurisdictions. This plan chronicles L.A.’s history of resilience and presents 96 action steps to shape the city’s direction around five themes: Leadership and Engagement, Disaster Preparedness and Recovery, Economic Security, Climate Adaptation, and Infrastructure Modernization.

Through guidelines set by 100 Resilient Cities, an initiative pioneered by The Rockefeller Foundation, Aho carried Los Angeles through nearly two years of stakeholder engagement to develop Resilient Los Angeles. This work built momentum for further measures to institutionalize resilience within the city.

“The Mayor has an executive directive that deals with resilience, called Executive Directive 22,” Aho said. “It directs General Managers in the city to integrate resilience into their strategic plans and budgets. So now we have 30 Departmental Chief Resilience Officers that I meet with regularly to advance the city’s resiliency.”

Distinguishing itself from other strategies, L.A.’s plan includes a special focus on cybersecurity and equipping government with technology and data to increase situational awareness. One of the tools Aho and her team are piloting is Seismic Concern, a predictive modeling platform developed by a Palo Alto–based startup that will provide critical information on where resources should be dispatched in the moments following an earthquake. Innovations like this are helping to keep Aho and her team on the forefront of emergency management and urban policy.

L.A. is due for another major disaster akin to the 1992 Northridge earthquake, so Aho plays a crucial role in mitigating the massive disruption that could occur. With an unprecedented level of investment coming to the city’s infrastructure through recently approved ballot measures, the city must consider innovative ways to incorporate resilience into its design.

“We know that investments we make in advance of a disruption will be less expensive than recovery,” Aho said. “With the frequency and intensity of disruptions increasing globally, we need to be very strategic and smart about our investments for the future.”

Placing Resiliency at the Forefront

Focusing discussions on resilience is a challenging venture, especially when people’s present-day needs often overshadow future concerns.

Aho continues to push conversations on resiliency efforts, beyond her role in the Mayor’s Office. She has been heavily involved with the American Planning Association; she served as Section Director for the Los Angeles APA for four years and is now in her fifth year as the region’s American Institute of Certified Planners Commissioner.

Through the various conferences and opportunities afforded by this role, Aho facilitates talks and workshops to share her insights and expertise.

As an Adjunct Professor at USC Price, she is also giving back to the school that was instrumental in preparing her to take this leadership position in the city.

“I’ve really appreciated the education I got at USC,” said Aho. “When we were graduating, Professor Tridib Banerjee told us that USC wasn’t necessarily preparing us for our next job, but for the leadership position we were going to have in 10 years. I’m not sure how I felt about that statement then, but now I would say he was totally right.”

This semester, Aho is leading a planning studio for current MPL students in her mission to cultivate the next generation of resilience-minded civic leaders.

“Being able to teach resilience made me a better Chief Resilience Officer,” Aho said. “I’ve appreciated the perspectives that I’ve gained from current students in making sure that the resilience work that we do reflects the best planning practices for today.”