In the face of the recurrence and evolution of global shocks – in turn compounded by long-term, slow-onset stressors such as climate change, population growth and economic inequality – ‘resilience’ is rapidly emerging as a central characteristic for assessing the development and growth of cities. Although difficult to define, the need for an overarching strategy for coping with, adapting to and transitioning through these shocks and stressors has led to urban decision-makers and communities converging around the application of a growing suite of resilience assessment tools, mechanisms and processes.
Globally, resilience is recognised in a number of intergovernmental frameworks. Goal 11 of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), for example, explicitly aims to make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable, with targets including funding of resilient buildings for Least Developed Countries and reducing the number of deaths and economic losses caused by natural disasters. A number of other goals also include resilience-specific targets. Goal 13 for instance sets out to ‘strengthen resilience and adaptive capacity to climate-related hazards and natural disasters’. Beyond the SDGs, the draft UN New Urban Agenda, to be finalised at Habitat III in October 2016, also contains ‘Environmentally Sustainable and Resilient Urban Development’ as one of the three transformative commitment areas outlined within the Agenda’s Quito Implementation Plan.
Scaling resilience to the city
Beyond the UN, civil society and philanthropic organisations have also widely embraced the resilience paradigm. The 100 Resilient Cities initiative – a US$100 million fund established by the Rockefeller Foundation – is developing city-wide Resilience Strategies for its network in partnership with local municipal governments. 100RC is not alone; a recent critical review of Community Resilience Assessment toolkits found over 510 individual resilience assessment schemes (ranging from specific tools, to models, frameworks, guidebooks and indices). City leaders from settings as diverse as Port Vila (capital of the Pacific small island developing state Vanuatu) and New York have embraced the term following recent disaster events as part of the process of ‘bouncing back’, as their citizens, infrastructure, economy and institutions recover from shock events.
Figure 1: Interactive map of the cities engaged in development of Resilience Strategies as part of the Rockefeller Foundation funded 100 Resilient Cities initiative[/caption]
Resilience of what to where for whom?
The technical definition of resilience is contested, and varies depending on the field or discipline that is applying it, what the definition is being applied to, and the form of the shocks and stressors being considered. These three scoping issues is a critical starting point in applying resilience thinking, and are summarised in the question: Resilience of What, to What, for Whom?
Within cities the full range of resilience thinking ‘sub-disciplines’ operate at a number of different levels, and cannot therefore be considered in isolation when looking at the city as a whole. Engineering-based structural resilience models – used, for instance, in the measurement of a building’s ability to absorb earthquake shockwaves and ‘bounce back’ to its original form – co-exist within urban Socio-Ecological Systems (SES), in which the transformative capacity to learn from, anticipate, and adapt to shocks and stressors is also considered as core attributes of resilience. At a micro-scale, psychological resilience – a highly individualised measure of a person’s mental capacity to deal with adverse conditions – has an accumulative link to community resilience, which is in turn more focused on the ability to mobilise resources during post-disaster recovery.
The latest “buzz word” or something more?
Urban Resilience has only emerged over the last decade as a concept in its own right, however its application to cities as both as a unit of measurement and a driver for institutional, structural and social action contains a number of ‘conceptual tensions’. These stem from the different disciplinary origins discussed above, the scope and temporal features of the shocks and stressors being considered, and also the extent, limits and dynamics of the ‘urban’ system under consideration.
Critically, the nature of cities means that urban resilience must be value-based, as resilience is not inherently a positive concept. Transformational decisions impact communities and individuals within cities in different ways, both positively and negatively, depending on the scale, scope and agency of the city’s component parts that are being considered. Negative urban resilience can also characterise a city or its component parts if ethics, equity, and long-term sustainability are not explicitly defined. For instance, established patterns of fossil fuel consumption that have persisted – despite growing awareness of climate change – in almost every city in the world can be argued to meet many of the criteria of ‘resilience’ if long-term impacts, environmental externalities and intergenerational equity are not properly accounted for.
The Cities Programme understands urban resilience to be determined by a city’s capacity to cope with, adjust to, or bounce back from possible, probable and even unknowable shocks and stressors in an equitable, ethical and sustainable way.
Actions and Responses
In practice, enhancing urban resilience requires balanced consideration of seemingly contradictory attributes (a product of the conceptual tensions mentioned above), in order to cope with probable impacts, at the same time as maintaining generalised resilience qualities to manage long-term structural shifts and unknowns. For instance, an exclusive focus on resourcing mechanisms to cope with a regular extreme weather impact such as flooding might divert the capacity to deal with the unexpected structural decline of a key employment sector, which, although difficult to anticipate, could have been managed through a diversified workforce, or financial redundancy for retrenchment.
Pillars of a resilient city
A recent review of urban resilience assessment led by Cities Programme Research Associates Niina Kautto and Alexei Trundle, as well as Director Ralph Horne, identified the core principles used to measure urban resilience in a global compilation of urban resilience applications. Diversity, redundancy, and flexibility were strongly recurring positive attributes identified for measurement, each of which represent – to varying degrees – new ways of conceptualising the purpose and function of cities in the 21st century.
New mechanisms and assessment frameworks are continuing to emerge and evolve. Notably, of the three mechanisms considered ‘most developed’ in the review (listed below), two have undergone significant revision since 2015:
- Climate Resilience Framework by ISET;
- City Resilience Framework by Arup (revised for use in the 100RC initiative); and
- Disaster Resilience Scorecard for Cities by UNISDR (two-track approach currently under development).
A fourth comprehensive resilience framework that is also noteworthy is currently being developed by UN-Habitat’s City Resilience Profiling Programme.
So how do we create a resilient city?
Although cities are aspiring to become more resilient, how this is achieved or acted upon is up for debate. Measurement of attributes and agreement on principles is an important first step, however more general attributes of resilience – particularly those that deal with unknown or unknowable shocks and stressors – are often hard to quantify. Equally language that implies that a city can be 100% resilient, although aspirational, can also be misleading, and work against the ‘messy’ reality of the evolving social, institutional and structural components of the city system.
Ultimately, the ability of cities to respond to the shocks and stressors that they face will hinge upon mobilising not just institutional, but also social, cultural and community-based resources and networks, and therefore ‘downscaling’ city resilience strategies within the urban domain. The limited loss of life in Port Vila, Vanuatu, following Tropical Cyclone Pam, for example, is widely attributed to the strength of community connections, kinship networks, and the application of traditional knowledge resources and coping mechanisms.
Finally, developing an understanding of urban hinterlands and dependencies beyond the city boundary (through, for example, consumption Life-Cycle Assessments, or forward-thinking carbon budgets), is critical to ensuring the sustainability of urban liveability over time and for future urban citizens. Developing the knowledge base around how our cities work underpins these abilities. As summarised – and widely quoted – by former New York Mayor and C40 Chair Mike Bloomberg, “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it”.
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