Building Resilience for Better, Stronger Cities

Resilience is the bedrock of our communities. The numerous challenges our communities are grappling with underscores the importance of implementing comprehensive resilience measures across multiple policy areas. Total greenhouse gas emissions attained a historic record of 53.5 CO2-equivalent gigatonnes in 2017,[1] and up to 1 million species are at risk of extinction within the coming decades. These shocking developments have the potential to impose enormous costs on the global economy, and jeopardise our health and well-being[2]. This is particularly worrying, given we are still feeling the economic, institutional and social repercussions of the worst global economic crisis in recent history[3].

It was thus only natural that resilience featured prominently in this year’s OECD Forum and OECD Ministerial Council Meeting, which highlighted the crucial role played by local and national governments in reinforcing resilience to shocks, as well as in championing an inclusive approach that accounts for the most marginalised, under-represented, and vulnerable groups such as the elderly, women, and children. The OECD views resilience as encompassing policy action across four interconnected dimensions – social, economic, environmental, and institutional – which can collectively enhance the well-being of society[4]. For example, risk-sensitive land-use policies can both guide urban development away from risk-prone areas and also increase connectivity between homes, business, schools and hospitals, and reduce traffic congestion, and air pollution.

“Cities aggregate numerous risks and hazards but they also concentrate significant resources and opportunities to strengthen resilience.”

Resilience must be pursued at all scales – from the national and regional level to the city, community, and individual level. Cities in particular aggregate numerous risks and hazards but they also concentrate significant resources and opportunities to strengthen resilience. Cities play a prominent role in resilience planning through investment and spending decisions, accounting – along with regions – for nearly 60% of total public investment in the OECD. Broadly defined, urban resilience comprises a city’s capacity to prepare for, respond to, and adapt to dangerous and disruptive events. These events include natural disasters, economic crises, demographic changes, and health epidemics which are exacerbated by chronic stresses such as unemployment, political instability, and climate change.

Climate resilience is a particular area in which cities can significantly reinforce social, economic, and environmental systems. Climate adaptation and mitigation measures are central to resilience planning since climate change poses a well-founded threat to economic and societal well-being and is poised to act as a risk multiplier for natural and anthropogenic hazards, potentially escalating them to disasters. To this end, cities and regions are particularly engaged in diminishing exposure to natural hazards by preserving a stable environment. London, for example, launched a high-profile campaign to become the first “National Park City” in July 2019, reimagining the urban relationship to green and blue infrastructure –nearly half of the city’s land area is “green”. The initiative is a key goal of London’s Environment Strategy, which aims to value natural capital as an economic asset, to boost well-being and to channel investment in resilient infrastructure. OECD research has found that cities and regions were responsible for 55% of total climate and environment-related spending and 64% of such investment, illustrating the weight of decisions taken by cities and regions[5].

Maximising cities’ potential to bolster resilience measures requires a whole-of-government and inclusive approach. Building Resilient Cities (2018) performed a comprehensive assessment of disaster risk management policies in Southeast Asian cities, finding that several innovative measures are already in place to strengthen resilience planning. In the Philippines, for instance, a dedicated disaster risk management agency was established at the national level that has a mandate to ensure coherence between the eighty-plus regional and city-level disaster risk management offices. Following the 2011 mega-floods that hit Thailand, the city of Bangkok revised its disaster response strategy, working closely with local communities to incorporate knowledge of local contexts and encourage a culture of resilience planning.

Building Resilient Cities also underscores that developing diversified disaster risk financing mechanisms can drastically reduce risk exposure. Mexico’s natural disaster fund (FONDEN) effectively integrates a related reinsurance and catastrophe bond programme as well as a cost-sharing system between central and local levels of government. These measures have served to significantly reduce the exposure of public finances and to boost ex ante co-ordination. Building on this theme, the latest OECD-World Bank report, Fiscal Resilience to Natural Disasters, provides guidance for cities to put in place cost-sharing mechanisms with their respective regional and national governments.

Crucially, cities must also implement locally-tailored policy indicators in order to monitor and adapt their resilience strategies. To this end, “Indicators for Resilient Cities” (2018) provides detailed policy guidance as well as a list of urban resilience indicators divided according to key social, economic, environmental, and institutional dimensions. These indicators allow urban policymakers to assess their vulnerabilities and monitor the effectiveness of their policies, in turn strengthening their urban resilience strategies and informing their long-term vision.

Attuned to the unique position of cities to address the prevalence of challenges and opportunities tied to resilience planning, the OECD will continue to support the development of comprehensive urban resilience strategies. In March 2019, OECD Mayors and Ministers welcomed the OECD Principles on Urban Policy, consolidating the lessons from more than twenty years of OECD work on cities. The Principles reaffirm the need for all levels of government to jointly design and implement coherent and coordinated policies that strive for resilient communities.

The scope of work required to effectively protect our cities against formidable shocks is sizable, but equally numerous are the opportunities. The OECD will maintain its engagement on urban resilience in order to continue helping policymakers develop better urban policies for better lives.


1. IEA (2018), World Energy Outlook 2018, available at https://doi.org/10.1787/weo-2018-en; UNEP (2018), The Emissions Gap Report 2018, available at https://www.unenvironment.org/resources/emissions-gap-report-2018.

2. IPBES (2019, draft), Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, available at https://www.ipbes.net/global-assessment-report-biodiversity-ecosystem-services.

3. For further information, consult the 2019 Strategic Orientations of the Secretary-General, available at http://www.oecd.org/mcm/documents/SOs%20SG%20-%20CMIN(2019)1%20-%20EN.pdf.

4. OECD (2014), “Overview paper on resilient economies and societies”, Meeting of the OECD Council at Ministerial Level, available at www.oecd.org/mcm/CMIN(2014)7-ENG.pdf.

5. Data for 30 OECD countries between 2000-2016