Can a city become resilient? If so, to what and how?

By |2023-12-19T15:00:34+01:00May 10th 2017|Resilient Cities and Climate|

In the process of developing an urban resilience strategy – one that answers these questions, one that addresses the concerns of planners, developers, mayors, local government personnel, investors and concerned citizens – inevitably more questions arise. The most important one is arguably the question of ‘resilience to what and why?’ This was also discussed during the recent Resilient Cities Conference 2017 in Bonn.

Can a city become resilient? How do you know if it is or isn’t? Can you measure it? How do you track improvements or progression? Is it all about reducing risk? It’s expensive, isn’t it? And so on, until reaching the question of ‘resilient to what and how?’

Today, there are hundreds of options ranging from simply starting the discussion, sometimes framed within a set of norms such as those defined in the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, to more scientific approaches framed within the commitments of states to the climate agendas set by the United Nations, to even more complex specialised approaches focusing on infrastructure, mobility, public space, housing, public buildings, finance and insurance, etc. Or to a variety of threat sectors ranging from earthquakes to climate extremes, economic vulnerability to traffic accidents, political and social crises to cyber-security; all contributing to this plethora of options tabled with leaders in national and local government, business and public sector organisations, civil society and local communities.

So yes, answering these questions is clearly complex, and also complicated.

UN Habitat’s Urban Resilience Programme was developed to answer these questions; and even goes a little further. Programme development started in 2012, with the inception of the City Resilience Profiling Programme (CRPP), involving the creation of the means to measure and monitor the resilience of urban systems. Its purposes are to provide national and local governments with reliable tools for assessing and improving the resilience of cities to multi-hazard impacts, including those related to climate change, and improving the basis upon which decision making in urban planning, development and governance are made. In 2016, it became one of the five flagship programmes under the agency-wide Urban Resilience Programme (URP).

The founding principles of UN Habitat’s urban resilience agenda are:

  • Cities succeed or fail systemically under various, often cascading, hazard impacts;
  • Urban risk reduction programming in the past has been (largely) a remedial development process, focusing on piecemeal adaptation to discovered vulnerabilities, not absolute resilience of the urban system;
  • Urbanisation in the past century is no longer sustainable and has resulted in accumulated and intensified risk. It thus requires significant transformation in the way urban development is shaped and designed to ensure inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable urban settlements in the next century.

Adapted to ensure alignment with the Post-2015 Development Framework and recognising resilience and sustainability as two complementary paradigms of urban development, the URP goes beyond conventional approaches to ‘risk reduction’ and delivers a forward-looking, long term development approach to cities, encompassing the spatial, physical, functional and organisational dimensions of all human settlements. It recognises the complexities and unique values in cities, the inherent interdependencies of each part of the urban system, the potential impacts of hazards, and the role of stakeholder engagement. In short, the URP supports local governments to ‘plan out risk and build in resilience’ by transforming urban planning and design as well as the development and management functions of local government.

From ambiguity to certainty

UN Habitat’s pending publication entitled “Trends in Urban Resilience” (2017) details approaches, methodology and practice of 32 organisations drawn from communities of practice, donors, NGOs and the private sector that have emerged in the past 8-10 years.

The trends are perhaps obvious when an understanding of the source is revealed. For example, donor policies and funding practice, insurance industry, and infrastructure development companies adapt and modify to protect investment; NGO’s to leverage funding for longer term gain; UN agencies to link to the extensive post-2015 sustainable development agendas. However, it is also clear that there is significant value in the advocacy outcomes of less rigorous and subjective methodologies that drive political commitment to increasing resilience of countries and cities at risk – and ALL countries and cities face risk at some level.

The UNISDR ‘10 Essentials,’ that helps implement the Sendai Framework at local level, is an example of a voluntary ‘diagnostic’ of conditions considered necessary to build risk reduction measures and increase resilience. These Essentials also form the foundation for UNISDR’s global ‘Making Cities Resilient Campaign,’ now numbering city partners at well over 3,500 and thus illustrating the value of a focused urban advocacy initiative and the increasing demand for solutions. Several private sector organisations have adapted this tool to their work as well.

From a completely different perspective, humanitarian organisations such as the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) look at resilience from the perspective of ‘communities’. Nearly a decade ago, in 2008, the IFRC published its first Framework for Community Safety and Resilience, which was updated in 2014. The Framework provides the foundation for the creation, development and sustenance of all IFRC programmes, projects, interventions and actions which contribute to the strengthening of resilient communities.

Another approach is pursued by the 100 Resilient Cities Initiative. Although the methodology is not necessarily fixed, a clear strategy to undertake a diagnostic to inform action planning, leverage investment, and generate direct and co-benefits of resilience based on urban development is well integrated in all 100 partner city strategies. Working with Arup’s City Resilience Index, which builds upon a framework of four dimensions of resilience – people, organisation, place and knowledge – as well as twelve resilience goals and 52 detailed indicators, the 100 Resilient Cities programme is in its third year of implementation.

These are but a few of the dozens of new initiatives that have emerged in the past few years; all of which focus on outcomes that are intended in some manner to increase resilience in cities, towns and other human settlements.

However, considering the timelines for urban transformation, the capital investments required to finance sustainable change, the nature and pace of urbanisation patterns as well as the politics and practice at all levels of urban organisation, critical decision making demands the absence of ambiguity and the commitment of decades. For example: large scale urban transformation in Barcelona, Spain, following Ildefonso Cerda’s l’Eixample extension of the city took almost 100 years to fully implement. Similarly, Manhattan’s ‘Commissioners Plan of 1811’, took almost 60 years to establish, and New York City continues to evolve today over 200 years later. Similarly, but more complex: the process of planning out risk and building in resilience in existing cities requires the same clarity of purpose, lack of ambiguity and commitment of time.

Where to start?

To address calls from local government partners UN Habitat’s starting point was the recognition that human settlements are ‘systems’, and that the universal elements of all urban systems are:

  • Functional: All human settlements are developed to provide certain functions. These range from the simple presence of a market in a small village to the multiple interweaved functions of larger towns and cities;
  • Organisational: All human settlements are composed of and ‘governed’ by associations of human beings. From informal community groups to formal corporate and government structures, all stakeholders and decision making bodies existing in human settlements contain organisational elements;
  • Physical: All human settlements contain a built environment, from housing and public buildings to infrastructure and public space.
  • Spatial: All human settlements are located somewhere on the planet – with spatial characteristics generally unique to that town, city or village. In general, these characteristics follow form; and
  • Dynamic: All urban systems are continually evolving. Driven by multiple factors and often reactive rather than responsive, villages, towns and cities change with time.

But what really defines urban resilience? Debated, compared, deconstructed and reconstructed, designed to meet the conditions of clarity as opposed to ambiguity, the definition that guides UN Habitat’s Urban Resilience Programme reads as follows:

“Urban Resilience is the ability of any urban system to withstand and recover quickly from the impact of all plausible hazards, and maintain continuity of functions.”

This definition provides the starting point for developing metrics and diagnostic modelling, for identifying primary and secondary elements of (all) urban systems, as well as for designing indicators, analytics and sourcing validated data. It finally answers the question ‘Resilient to what’. Thus, including the term “all plausible hazards,” is meant to infer that an urban system is either resilient or not. This principle helps ensure that sector-, hazard-, or theme-based resilience does not drive the kind of asymmetric investment in urban development that prioritises one prurient interest at the expense of another (often higher risk) requirement. An example would be the almost obsessive focus on climate change mitigation and adaptation driving urban development in hundreds of cities highly exposed to seismic, social, political and/or economic hazards.

The urban system itself contains multiple sub-systems such as water or utility distribution systems; health care or education; mobility or even ‘governance’ systems that can be both malleable and absorptive, or hardened and resistant. Therefore, both principles to “withstand and recover quickly” as well as to “maintain continuity of functions” in the face of hazards are not automatically mutually exclusive.

So when we arrived at this definition, the next query was how to measure resilience in human settlements, and how to actually implement this. To address these questions, the challenge is to address the characteristics of resilience in urban systems, and then to find ways to achieve them. Through the process of designing indicators of urban transformation and the measures and weights factoring data that inform these indicators, six primary and measurable characteristics emerged. The first three represent outcomes of an ideal resilient system that is: persistent, adaptable and inclusive; the second three describe the process that is: integrated, reflexive and transformative.

A resilient urban system is:

PERSISTENT: A persistent city anticipates impacts in order to prepare itself for current and future shocks and stresses. It builds robustness by incorporating coping mechanisms to withstand disturbances and protect people and assets. It encourages redundancy in its networks by generating spare capacity and back-ups to maintain and restore basic services, ensuring reliability during and after disruption.

ADAPTABLE: An adaptable city considers not only foreseeable risks, but also accepts current and future uncertainty. Going beyond redundancy, it diversifies its services, functions and processes by establishing alternatives. It is resourceful in its capacity to repurpose human, financial and physical capital. It pursues a flexibility that encourages it to absorb, adjust and evolve in the face of changing circumstances, dynamically responding by turning change into opportunity.

INCLUSIVE: An inclusive city centres on people by understanding that being resilient entails protecting each person from any negative impact. Recognising that vulnerable groups are among the most affected by hazards, it actively strives towards social equity and impartial human rights. It fosters social cohesion and empowers comprehensive and meaningful participation in all governance processes in order to develop resilience.

The process of building a resilient urban system is:

INTEGRATED: An integrated city appreciates that it is composed of and influenced by indivisible, interdependent and interacting systems. It combines and aligns many lenses to ensure input is holistic, coherent and mutually supportive towards a common cause. It enables a transdisciplinary collaboration that encourages open communication and facilitates strategic coordination. It supports the collective functioning of the city and guarantees far-reaching, positive and durable change.

REFLEXIVE: A reflexive city understands that its system and surroundings are continuously changing. It is aware that past trends have shaped current urban processes yet appreciates its potential to transform through shocks and stresses over time. It is reflective, conveying the capacity to learn from knowledge, past experiences and new information. It also learns by doing and installs mechanisms to iteratively examine progress as well as systematically update and improve structures.

TRANSFORMATIVE: A transformative city adopts a proactive approach to building resilience in order to generate positive change. It actively strives to alleviate and ultimately eradicate untenable circumstances. It fosters ingenuity and pursues forward-looking, innovative solutions that over time create a system that is no longer prone to risk. A transformative city is focused and goal-oriented towards a shared vision of the resilient city.

These characteristics can be measured. Additionally, their value can be adjusted against any stress or shock; and weighed against compound or cascading impacts. Much (if not all) can be determined with data, removing uncertainty in results and leading to better informed decision making in urban planning, development and governance terms.

Increasingly our local government partners are asking for more robust tools, guidelines, training, and technical support to better understand the urban systems they govern and reside in. The response from UN Habitat’s Urban Resilience Programme facilitates transformative processes that plan out risk and build in resilience and make their cities more inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable, while recognising that it will take time to ensure a better and safer future for their citizens.

Dan Lewis
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