A $100 million plan to save our cities from the next Sandy

May 14, 2013, 7:06 PM UTC
Flooded subways in New York after Superstorm Sandy.

Fortune — On Tuesday the Rockefeller Foundation turns 100 years old, and to celebrate the venerable non-profit is launching an ambitious program to help 100 cities around the world combat the damage that climate change is bringing — floods, droughts, blackouts, and hurricanes such as last year’s devastating Superstorm Sandy.

Called the “100 Resilient Cities Centennial Challenge,” the project will award $100 million over the next three years to cities that can present a clear description of how they are planning to build greater resilience to climate change-induced disasters and do so in a way that addresses the needs of the poor.

The Rockefeller Foundation, established with gifts from oil baron John D. Rockefeller, Sr., has had a long tradition of combating large-scale threats to humanity. In 1913, the foundation made its first grant to the American Red Cross, and it later did seminal research work in combating yellow fever and malaria.

Now one of its top concerns is the effect that climate change will have on our urban centers. Evidence of global warming continues to mount: The amount of carbon in the atmosphere hit 400 parts per million this month — the highest level since man has inhabited the earth. At the same time, our cities are growing rapidly, concentrating a larger and larger share of people in confined areas, often along the coast. It is estimated that by 2050, some 75% of the world’s population will be living in cities compared to half now. In Asia that number is likely to reach 85% to 90%. Compare that to 100 years ago when just one in 10 people lived in cities.

MORE: A Republican senator on climate change: It’s real, we need to fight it

Judith Rodin, the president of the Rockefeller Foundation, believes that the Resilient Cities Challenge can make a big impact by encouraging city governments around the world to share best practices and ideas. Says she: “We think this will be an opportunity to create a global network of 100 resilient cities that can share expertise. And our goal is not to stop at 100.”

While Rodin, who will speak on the challenges of urbanization at Fortune’s upcoming Global Forum in Chengdu, China, believes that we should do everything possible to mitigate climate change, she says the reality is that cities will need to learn to adapt. “One way to think about this,” she says, “is that the goal of our resilience strategy is to avoid the unmanageable and manage the unavoidable.”

What help will the winners get to manage the unavoidable? Each city will be granted the funds to hire a “chief resiliency officer” who will help coordinate a city’s efforts to cope with a disaster. The winners will also be able to tap into the Rockefeller Foundation’s network of experts in urban engineering and infrastructure financing who will help each city set up their own network of experts.

One example: Many cities today are cash-strapped. Rockefeller would like to help them establish private-public partnerships that would form multibillion-dollar infrastructure funds. The money could be applied, among other things, to building seawalls and making public transportation and electrical grid systems safe from storms.

“We can’t prevent some natural disasters from occurring,” says Rodin, “but we can prevent their serious impact.” She’s betting a $100 million that she’s right.