Flickr: Sippanont Samchai
Photo credit: Sippanont Samchai

Bangkok is one of many appropriate locations in the world to talk about urban resilience. It has gone through a series of environmental, economic, and political shocks: the mega-flood two years ago, the financial crises in the late 1990s, a series of coup d’états and political conflicts, to name but a few.

To some extent, the city has bounced back. If our cities are normally able to bounce back as history may suggest, then why do we need to talk about urban resilience and to have a global challenge that addresses this issue? The answer is because it is becoming more difficult to prepare for shocks and to recover from them quickly by just ourselves.

Individually, humans are inherently resilient. For every stumble and fall, we learn how to rise up and move forward. We adapt and improve ourselves so we are better prepared, ready to rebound more quickly, and even to grow stronger each time. Collective resilience, however, is perhaps not natural to us. We normally help ourselves first before helping others. Even though we might have social institutions that contribute to collective resilience, such as local customs and trust, it is more difficult to do so in the city.

Increasing urbanization means that more strangers have to live with one another in locations where services and resources are never enough. Due to globalization, no single companies and governments can by themselves manage the rapid and large flows of goods and services, and of people and money. Climate change is real, and sooner than later, everyone will have to deal with the consequences.

When building resilience, we cannot ignore the reality of existing economic and social inequities.

Certainly, this can never be done alone; only when different stakeholders plan together, can the city be better prepared. Moreover, doing it the same way we have done in the past is not enough. We used to rely on technical planners and politicians to come up with a single set of visions for our city plans. However, futures are more complicated and uncertain than what a handful of technocrats can predict. There are many alternative futures that the society as a whole has to think, learn, decide and act together.

The Rockefeller Foundation and others have a set of core features of a resilient system. For example, the capacity for robust feedback loops, the flexibility to change and evolve, the options for “safe” failure, and the ability for rapid rebound. All of these are important, though one feature that I want to add for an ideal resilient city is social equity and justice. It is essentially a question of “resilience for whom”? When building resilience for a city as a whole, we cannot ignore the reality of existing economic and social inequities. Such equities are usually translated into resilience inequity, and they often undermine the ability and efforts to build collective resilience.

During the times of shocks and recovery, the poor and vulnerable are susceptible to negligence and exploitation.

By building resilience of cities without thinking about the implications for social equities, we could make it even worse for the poor and vulnerable to cope with shocks. Hysteric responses to natural and man-made disasters all too often lead to solutions that undermine the ability for the poor and disadvantaged to cope with future shocks. During the times of shocks and recovery, the poor and vulnerable are susceptible to negligence and exploitation. As the rich and middle-class are generally able to take better advantage of scarce resources, it is therefore imperative that there is a set of safeguards and governance systems that allow the disadvantaged to protect themselves and enhance their ability to recover from shocks.

We have to make sure that increasing resilience for someone does not lead to increasing vulnerability for others. I sincerely hope that social equity and justice will be a core and underlying principle of any initiative that aims to build urban resilience.

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