Building Safe and Equitable Climate-Resilient Cities for All

In the face of escalating climate-related disasters, Ron Harris and Jordana Vasquez from the Resilient Cities Network discuss strategies and tools for building resilient cities.

In today’s world, with the increasing frequency of unpredictable challenges such as pandemics and climate change, embedding resilience into the very fabric of our cities has never been more important. In 2021, the world experienced 432 disastrous climate-related events, marking a significant increase from the 357 events recorded on average between 2001-2020. Moreover, half the world’s population currently calls a city their home, and by 2050 this figure is projected to reach nearly 70 per cent. While cities generate much of the world’s wealth, contributing over 80 per cent of the world’s GDP. However, this growth is accompanied by rising inequality.

Urban resilience is the ability of a city to survive, adapt, and ultimately thrive in the face of a variety of shocks and stresses, including socioeconomic inequalities, natural disasters, and climate change. This comprehensive approach also encompasses physical infrastructure, social cohesion, environmental sustainability, and economic stability. By enhancing their resilience, cities can better withstand shocks and stresses, bounce back quicker, and emerge stronger than before.

Resilient Cities Network: Empowering Stakeholders for Urban Resilience

At the Resilient Cities Network (R-Cities), the focus is on creating inclusive, equitable societies that can recover from shocks and stresses and grow stronger. It goes beyond engineering or urban planning,  involving the understanding and active participation of all stakeholders, from policymakers to the most vulnerable communities.

To ensure the long-term well-being of urban communities, R-Cities promotes collaboration among cities, communities, and partners. This collaborative culture empowers local actors, accelerates the adoption of novel resilience-building strategies, and supports sustainable development. Central to this approach are Chief Resilience Officers (CRO), senior-level city positions institutionalised in member city governments around the world. CROs work across government departments and city stakeholders to identify critical vulnerabilities and develop targeted solutions. CROs and R-Cities team up in this collaborative effort to improve urban resilience across the globe.

Resilience for Communities (R4C): Empowering Vulnerable Populations for a Resilient Future

One notable example of a solution in action is the Resilience for Communities (R4C) programme. Developed in partnership between the Z Zurich Foundation, Zurich North America, and R-Cities, R4C operates within select US neighbourhoods, concentrating particularly on vulnerable populations. This programme addresses challenges head-on, by providing comprehensive resilience solutions while also examining the effects of cascading shocks and stresses, such as floods and extreme heat. Equity and community engagement lie at the core of R4C’s solutions.
This is where the Climate Resilience Measurement for Communities (CRMC) tool is crucial. It enables communities to assess their resilience to extreme weather events and learn how interventions can mitigate their effects. The tool actively engages community members who are directly impacted by these extreme weather events and amplifies their voices to policymakers. It aims to answer the question: What do people need to ensure that floods and heat waves do not cause lasting harm to their lives and livelihoods?

Building a Stronger Future: Alief and Trinity Houston Gardens Take Steps to Enhance Resilience

Alief and Trinity Houston Gardens are two quintessential neighbourhoods in Houston, Texas, that have consistently been exposed to flooding and heatwaves. Built on a flood-prone prairie, Alief remains susceptible to ponding, so much so that during Hurricane Harvey 25 per cent of homes flooded.

Trinity Houston Gardens, with its high poverty and disability rates and food deserts, ranks in the top 10 per cent of most socially vulnerable neighbourhoods in the country. Environmental vulnerability is particularly high: the community was devastated when Hurricane Harvey, the most severe in a series of destructive floods, flooded 54 per cent of all homes.

The CRMC measures five key aspects that a community is constantly navigating: human, social, financial, physical, and natural. Each aspect has specific indicators that measure resilience during normal times and that are revisited after a climate event, or when an intervention is put in place. Trained evaluators review the data and assign a “resilience grade” from A to D. These results help the team and the community members to identify areas for improvement and guide the development of resilience projects.

The first phase of community engagement in Houston is now complete with surveys and interviews revealing local resilience perceptions and identifying gaps. R4C is moving forward with the analysis of the data collected across both Alief and Trinity Houston Gardens. During the program’s next phase, this data will be presented to community members and used to shape interventions that can strengthen the two neighbourhoods’ resilience to future flood and extreme heat events.

R-Cities: Driving Global Progress Towards Resilient and Equitable Cities

Climate resilience refers to cities’ and communities’ ability to anticipate, prepare for, and adapt to the effects of climate change. With rising global temperatures, the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events are expected to rise, posing significant risks to urban areas, which frequently bear the brunt of these hazards. Moreover, climate change disproportionately affects vulnerable populations such as low-income households, minority communities, and the elderly due to factors such as inadequate housing, limited access to resources, and pre-existing socioeconomic disparities. These groups are more likely to be affected by the negative consequences of extreme weather events, such as displacement, loss of livelihood, and increased health risks. That is why cities must incorporate climate resilience that is built on social equity and community into their overall urban resilience strategies to protect themselves from the immediate effects of climate change and lay the groundwork for a more sustainable, equitable, and resilient future. Of the many sources of social equity and community resilience, some examples include mutual aid infrastructure, household income continuity strategies, risk awareness, or community-led representation in government.

While this work began in North America, valuable lessons and experiences will now be scaled up in cities in Europe and Asia Pacific this year. Indeed, cities must adopt an equity-driven approach that prioritises the needs of vulnerable communities to achieve truly inclusive climate resilience. This includes not only investing in physical infrastructure improvements like resilient housing and flood defences but also encouraging social cohesion and empowering local residents to take charge of their own resilience. R-Cities is pivotal in facilitating collaboration and knowledge-sharing among cities and resilience practitioners, ultimately driving global progress towards a more resilient and sustainable future. Cities can not only withstand the challenges posed by climate change but also emerge stronger, more equitable, and better able to thrive in the face of adversity by adopting an inclusive, equity-driven approach to resilience-building.

Ron Harris
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    Jordana Vasquez
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