Resilience matters. How can it be nurtured?

Hardly a week goes by without shocking news of a disaster in a city with implications for its future development and, often, for other cities as well. Think of the recent Grenfell Tower fire in London, raising questions about high-rise living elsewhere in London, but also in the Gulf, in Asia and in North America. Density demands that we build up because there are too many pressures on space in the neighbourhoods where people want to live. Human settlement patterns in the 20th century have favored coastal zones. Meanwhile, floods in Thailand and hurricanes in the United States show how difficult the coast can be to manage sustainably.

Disasters are no longer compared only by the number of fatalities, but also by their direct and indirect economic costs, including the cost of adapting existing cities, redesigning them to reduce vulnerability. Economists, working backwards over the 20th century, argue that modern societies can cope with the losses from disasters. The future, however, looks different. Since the early 1990s, the frequency and the cost of very large disasters have increased dramatically. Governments are often overwhelmed by their scale, which make a mockery of tidy administrative arrangements and plans drawn up by experts. The spillover across borders adds a further complication: whether supply chains are disrupted or epidemics are carried across borders, sovereignty is a weak defense.

At the NewCities Summit in Songdo, Korea, leaders from cities and international agencies discussed resilience, or how people cope with a disaster, and how society copes with the lessons for the future. Is resilience the result of good community development, as Lianne Dalziel, Mayor of Christchurch, argued? People come to Christchurch, where a deadly earthquake hit in February 2011, to see what a positive difference strong social capital makes. But Dalziel noted that the citizens of Christchurch are tired of being considered exceptional. Unfortunately, given the current attention to widening disparities, a high level of social capital cannot be taken for granted. Some governments – as Joseph Runzo-Inada of the City of Toyoma, Japan explained – are helping community associations enhance the factors that make a society more resilient – including ties across generations and neighborhoods, local leaders, etc. – and there is an enormous appetite on the part of public servants for training.

Inequality translates into greater vulnerability for some, and less risk for others. Many things that promote community development, reduce disparities and lifestyle related health problems, improve lifelong learning, alleviate congestion and build links across neighborhoods are central to making a city a better place to live. Resilience, in other words, is a “win-win”. A city does not need a disaster to benefit from investing in resilience. Nevertheless, resilience may be a tough sell to a public with a short-term perspective on risk.

Resilience combines social and physical capital, but this simple statement masks a larger problem: it is easier to focus political attention on cost effective measures to protect buildings and infrastructure, work undertaken by engineers and checked off the list. Building resilience through enriching social capital is a long-term strategy and is difficult to evaluate. For example, news reports on major floods and climate change look at what should be built – and where – while skipping questions about how communities can organise to make better decisions or cope with a disaster if one should occur. Without public participation, efforts to prepare simply “build in” a technocratic bias; people who think the experts have solved the problem may still find themselves carrying children and precious possessions across flooded streets.

Who should do what? Most of the factors that make a difference – education, healthcare, local transport, community development as well as building codes and their enforcement, environmental management – are the responsibility of local authorities, whose capacity for innovation and whose priorities may be fixed within national policy frameworks. National governments may be reluctant to help finance and promote local initiatives to improve resilience. Ede Ijjasz-Vasquez, the World Bank’s Senior Director of Social, Urban, Rural and Resilience Global Practice, told the roundtable how the World Bank is finding ways to help finance projects at the sub-national level. The challenges are different in Africa, with a high proportion of young people and a high rate of urbanization, than in Asia or Europe, where ageing is having a significant effect on rural and urban areas that are already built up.

When a disaster happens, people become resolved to make deep and lasting changes. By the time evidence is gathered and plans are made, the will to do things differently has often dissipated. Climate change could break this cycle as today’s resilience could become tomorrow’s challenge for competitiveness. We can start with the coastal zones, home to many of those people most affected by climate change (as well as by earthquakes and tsunamis). When and where will the creation of new cities be a solution?

We need three kinds of innovation to take us from the lofty realm of principles and commitments to the necessary nitty-gritty of action on the ground:

  • Technological innovations that can help reduce risk in cities and provide people greater confidence on their own;
  • Innovations in city design to inspire people with a vision of a more inclusive and sustainable social environment;
  • Innovations in governance to break down the barriers between stakeholders.

The NewCities Foundation is uniquely well-placed to address this new agenda.