Designing Urban Resilience to Confront a Risky World

Building-in the ability for city institutions and infrastructure to anticipate, respond to, bounce back, and learn from shocks and stresses is more essential than ever. By Robert Muggah, Co-Founder of one of the world’s leading social policy think tanks.

Global systemic risks—from armed conflict and cyber-attacks to devastating climate shocks and stresses—disproportionately impact cities. One reason for this is the unstoppable movement of people to urban areas. An estimated 56 per cent of the world’s population currently lives in an urban setting. By 2050 the share will rise to 68 per cent and reach over 85 per cent by 2100. To put these numbers in perspective, the urban population will have grown from under 1 billion in 1950 to over 9 billion by 2100. Given the staggering growth in the number and size of cities, the need for designing green, inclusive, and digitally resilient urban spaces is more urgent than ever.

Our Built Environment was Designed for an Earlier Climate

Amid all the challenges facing cities, arguably the most critical risk is climate change. Cities face a host of increasingly frequent and intense climate-related shocks and stresses – from sea-level rise and flooding to heat island effects and storms. Cities and their supply chains are increasingly vulnerable to weather-related disruption. And while awareness of these challenges is growing, most cities have yet to quantify their assets at risk and few are adequately investing in mitigation and adaptation or measures to strengthen resilience.

A recent study of 800 cities found that while 90 per cent of cities faced significant threats of shocks and stresses, including extreme weather events, and at least 60 per cent are facing substantial water security threats, less than half have any kind of plan in place to meet these rising challenges. Another assessment of 500 cities found that urban centres in Asia, in particular, are on the front line, with cities in India and China facing extreme air pollution. And research carried out by the C40 found that at least 570 coastal cities with as many as 800 million residents are facing a dangerous sea-level rise in the coming decades.

One reason why cities are exposed is that much of their built environment was designed for an earlier climate. Buildings, bridges, and roads were installed using design standards and materials to withstand the last century’s atmospheric, geological, and hydrological conditions. Climate change is changing average air temperature, humidity, and rainfall patterns, which means that buildings and roads are overheating, and entire cities are being abandoned due to flooding. And as building materials like steel and bitumen get hotter, they may generate structural risks to sky-scrapers and highways. Our weather can also corrode concrete, especially in coastal areas.

Building Urban Resilience to Climate Threats

The green lining is that public, private, and non-profit leaders and citizens are waking up to the growing array of climate-related risks facing cities. Notwithstanding some holdouts, roughly three-quarters of the world’s population currently believes climate change is real and accelerated by human activity. Rising protests and declarations of climate emergency are a signal of public concern. What is more, networks of cities are also ramping-up action. One prominent example is the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy, a movement of over 11,000 cities representing more than 1 billion people, that has committed to taking urgent steps to accelerate net-zero and renewable energy commitments.

Even before the energy crisis prompted by the war between Russia and Ukraine, cities were taking direct action to accelerate their climate resilience. First mover cities are speeding-up decarbonisation efforts, including Oslo, Singapore, and Vancouver achieving net-zero targets before 2030. Tens of thousands of interventions are underway in upper, middle, and lower-income cities alike, from large-scale tree planting schemes and shifting energy grids to renewables to ramping-up public transport and micro-mobility solutions such as bike and scooter-sharing programs. Many of these strategies have multiple benefits, not just reducing emissions but also addressing congestion, improving health, and increasing public safety.

As cities work to mitigate risks and maximise resilience, several priorities stand out. First, cities must decarbonise energy systems (grid) and convert rapidly to renewable sources (e.g. solar, wind, biomass, green hydrogen and other sources). Second, cities should work to decarbonise mobility, including through electric vehicles and increasing multi-modal alternatives. Third, cities can design more efficient buildings and residential homes. Fourth, and related, cities can encourage more compact and dense design and capture the economies of scale from infrastructure. Finally, cities must strive to be nature-positive by protecting and strengthening flood plains and waterways, rewilding, and improving biodiversity and biophilia in real estate and design.

Rethinking Cities in the Twenty-First Century

Given multiple convergent systemic risks on the global horizon, cities are facing a defining moment. What local, national, regional, and global decision-makers do next matters fundamentally. There are extraordinary opportunities to redesign greener, more sustainable and people-centred cities with new thinking from procurement and governance to real estate, construction, and urban services. For instance, an estimated 65 per cent of the urban infrastructure required for emerging market cities has yet to be built. The smart city market alone is estimated to be worth as much as 2.5 trillion US Dollars by 2025.

But tomorrow’s cities cannot be designed or constructed in the same way as yesterday’s urban centres. If China, India, and Nigeria urbanise in this century in the same way as North America and Western Europe did over the past century, emissions will double by 2050. If the design model is closer to Hong Kong or Singapore, emissions may rise by less than a tenth. The planning and physical layout, construction materials, operating systems and management of cities must be reimagined. Concepts such as distributed density, multi- and micro-mobility, smart building and block design, and circular and nature-based solutions are fundamental. Decisions taken in the next decade will have profound consequences on urban climate and resilience trajectories.

Robert Muggah
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