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Ecosystems and the Resilience Dividend

Photo credit: Gurmeet Sapal

As a city’s ability prepare for, withstand, and bounce back from acute shocks and chronic stresses, urban resilience depends strongly on a healthy ecosystem. In fact, one of the many resilience dividends comes from revaluing the role that nature plays in promoting economic and social well-being.

As outlined in the City Resilience Framework, a resilient city “values ecosystem services and has in place robust environmental policies to protect ecosystems in situ.” The conservation of environmental assets not only reduces the physical exposure and vulnerability to shocks and stresses, and it can also help to avoid injury, damage or loss.

For this reason, nearly all of the core cities in the Asian Cities Climate Change Resilience Network (ACCCRN) have implemented ecosystem-related projects to boost the resilience of the city. Below are just a few examples.

Indore, India

A drought-prone city, Indore has restored two urban lakes that had been contaminated as a way of creating redundant water supply systems, and providing residents with access to clean and secure water, especially in times of emergency. The lakes have also had the benefit of restoring fishing livelihoods in the city, and building community pride in the lakes, which were no longer an eyesore filled with trash.

Quy Nhon, Vietnam

The Vietnamese city of Quy Nhon chose to restore mangroves as a way of reducing the vulnerability for poor coastal communities living on the outskirts of Quy Nhon’s expanding city limits. The mangroves have helped to buffer storm surges. Maintaining or restoring the mangroves has also generated local jobs while driving housing and urban development away from the highly vulnerable coastal lands. A similar dividend has come from projects in Semarang, Indonesia.

Gorakhpur, India

In eight peri-urban villages of flood prone Gorakhpur, ACCCRN partners have developed innovative techniques for low-input, climate-resilient agriculture for smallholder farmers. The project has demonstrated how maintaining peri-urban agricultural ecosystems (as opposed to building in the peri-urban zone) has  lessened the effects of flooding in the city and reduced waterlogging in the city core. These farming techniques were also coupled with advocacy efforts aimed at institutionalizing sustainable agriculture management models. This increased farmer incomes by 25% from the baseline and reduced the amount of land sold for development in the peri-urban zone.

Chang Rai, Thailand

Finally, to increase their resilience, residents of Chang Rai chose to restore a portion of the riverbanks of Kok Noi River. The river, which had been the lifeline for the city and various communities along its banks, ran dry 20 years ago due to a large scale water diversion and dredging by a major hotel. What was once the river soon became overgrown with vegetation and turned into a site for waste disposal and pests. With a quarter of the 2-kilometer river now cleared of vegetation and waste, it can serve as a partial flood control channel to absorb excess water during the rainy season. This portion of the river is no longer a danger for households along the riverbank, and is now a safe and green space used for small-scale agriculture.

We were somewhat surprised that so many cities would prioritize nature-based interventions in an explicitly urban –oriented program. Yet, the surfacing of so many nature-based approaches in the ACCCRN work, demonstrates the deep but often invisible connection between ecosystems, cities and resilience.

Protecting ecosystems not only reduces risks facing city residents and infrastructure (such as flooding, heat wave, storm surge), it also helps to reduce the fragility and brittleness of urban systems (such as over dependence on a single water source, or overdependence on a piece of built infrastructure such as levees, or hardening of watersheds so flood waters have nowhere to go).

Moreover, nature based solutions are sometimes the most cost effective, robust, and even equitable ways that cities have to manage shocks and stresses. The benefits often go well beyond building resilience. Nature based solutions often have added benefits such as developing more livable urban areas, with more multifunctional park and recreation spaces, and can create new jobs and revenue streams for city governments and city residents. They foster greater civic pride and build new social connections, and create a healthier environment for all, truly fulfilling the promise of a resilience dividend.

The City Resilience Framework is a unique framework developed by Arup with support from the Rockefeller Foundation, based on extensive research in cities. It provides a lens to understand the complexity of cities and the drivers that contribute to their resilience. View the full report.

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