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Building Resilience for the New Urban Agenda


As urban leaders meet in Quito this week for Habitat III, the gathering marks the 20-year anniversary of the second Habitat conference, and the 40-year anniversary of the first. In between each of these historic events, we haven’t simply turned the pages of the calendar. An entire generation has come of age. A technological revolution has unlocked the possibilities of a connected, interdependent world. And our urban population has rapidly increased, from 38 percent in 1976, to 45 percent in 1996, to 55 percent this year.

“Our urban population has rapidly increased, from 38 percent in 1976, to 45 percent in 1996, to 55 percent this year.”

In some ways, our cities today face the same challenges they always have—from short-term shocks, like floods, fires, conflict, and disease—to long-term stresses, like poverty, inequality, strains on infrastructure, and scarcity of natural resources. But today—amid the intersecting forces of urbanization, globalization, and climate change—these disruptions come faster, stay longer, and have the potential to become full-blown crises at a moment’s notice.

To meet these threats head-on, our cities must build resilience: the capacity not just to survive when a disaster strikes, but to adapt and thrive. Just as vaccines are more effective than last-minute treatments, and fortifying a home is cheaper than repairing damages caused by an earthquake or a flood, investing in resilience can generate a return of much greater value.

A US federal agency estimates that every dollar spent on preparing for a disaster saves four dollars down the road. Building resilience is the smart—indeed, the only—way for the world’s cities to confront the challenges of the 21st century.

We need only look at the sheer scale of these challenges to understand that investing in our future will require working together, across borders and across sectors. All of the philanthropy, development, and aid budgets in the world total billions of dollars—but addressing the challenges of the 21st century will cost trillions. To bridge this gap, governments, businesses, and NGOs must form new partnerships, and think creatively about the future.


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The Rockefeller Foundation has invested more than half a billion dollars over the past 11 years in resilience. This funding has leveraged $25 billion in known investments and commitments for building resilience from government, the private sector, and NGOs. And through our Zero Gap initiative, we have supported innovative financing mechanisms to leverage private-sector partnerships for resilience-building efforts—from micro-levy-based models, to new insurance mechanisms, to social impact bonds. What we’ve seen is that innovative financing for urban resilience pays off. Not just for the city in question—but also for its businesses, its communities, and its citizens.

In our work with multiple actors, across sectors, we have shown that foundations are especially well suited to identify partnerships, make connections, foster innovation, and scale up approaches that work. The 100 Resilient Cities initiative aims to do just that. We are working with 100 member cities around the world, including Quito, to create and execute resilience-building strategies. To do so we are forging innovative partnerships and creating new financial tools that bring in private capital to pay for promising solutions. As the market for resilience tools and products has grown, we’ve found many private-sector partners ready to respond to the demand.

Innovation and partnership on this scale is not only possible, it’s the best way to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and realize what we call the “resilience dividend”—an investment that pays off both in times of crisis and in times of calm. Our cities have always been centers of innovation—laboratories of progress—where ideas are conceived, tested, and modeled for the rest of the world. We can’t prevent hurricanes, or many of the other threats our cities will face in the coming decades—but we can prepare for them.

And, indeed, we must, if we are to ensure success for the cities of tomorrow and realize the promise of the New Urban Agenda.

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