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How Urban Resilience Can Make Cities and Nations Safer from Disasters

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Hat Yai city
Photo credit: Nic Dunlop

“While catastrophe is not always preventable, the degree of destruction and devastation can be reduced.”

Over 55 percent of the population in Asia will live in cities by 2030. From sea level rise, rising average temperatures to violence, cities face a new normal of chronic stresses and acute shocks. While catastrophe is not always preventable, the degree of destruction and devastation can be reduced. Incorporating resilience into urban planning will help cities—especially medium-sized cities that tend to be largely unprepared and rapidly growing—learn from crisis and bounce back more quickly.

With the Hyogo Framework for Action (HFA)—a 10-year plan to make the world more resilient to disasters—completing in 2015, the following recommendations were made at a special session on urban resilience at the 6th Asian Ministerial Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction in Bangkok to inform the next set of consultations leading up to the post-2015 goals:

Urban Risks are Different and Require a Unique Approach
Urban areas are complex with highly interdependent systems. With these interdependencies, failing systems can result in cascading impacts that can disrupt the availability of clean water, electricity, and communications. Furthermore, urban systems extend beyond the administrative bounds of a given city to the surrounding areas that also depend on those systems for survival. The complexities of urban risks demand special focus within the new framework of actio—whether on land-use planning to improving governance—so that failure of any single element will not cause cascading collapse of other components.

Local Governments are Key
Since a large part of resilience-building depends on local actions to be more equipped to manage shocks and stresses, it is imperative that local city governments have the right sets of capacities and tools to support appropriate planning and action. This includes basic technical competencies, as well as the ability to make timely decisions. Having enabling policies that allow local governments to more directly access finance and to empower timely response to priorities of the cities is needed.

Urban Resilience Prompts a Different Way of Working Together
Cities across Asia face a whole range of challenges, but new risks, like the impacts from climate change, will increasingly strain current systems and governance structures. These risks pay no attention to departmental units within the city. Likewise, no single actor or institution can work alone. An urban resilience framework calls for a process that brings together diverse departments and sectors to identify appropriate measures for preparedness, response, and recovery.

Through the Asian Cities Climate Change Resilience Network (ACCCRN), strong evidence has emerged on how collaborations among government, business, and civil society can collectively bring about results that reduce risk and vulnerability—the government through public investments, policies and regulations; businesses that help ensure the functioning of the economy; and civil society that puts the interests of marginalized groups first in decision-making processes. Together, these actors can be champions calling for stronger policies and incentives, for example to incentivize safer building codes.

Rethinking Urban
Although “urban” is often described in a manner suggesting a fixed state, we need to rethink urban as a process. Cities are continuously changing—physically, socially, and politically. This means that the profile of risk in a city, too, is ever changing and evolving. The recognition of the importance of cities is also changing. While the immediate concerns of shocks and stresses may trouble municipal government officers and mayors, they should equally alarm Ministers of Finance as cities are the economic engines and centers of innovation for national economies.

Resilience… But for Whom?
With rapid urbanization comes the deepening of socioeconomic inequalities and urban poverty. Marginalized and poor populations in cities may lack access to land, political voice, legal recourse, and a sense of safety, much less basic infrastructure and services. Explicit attention needs to be paid to promoting gender and inclusive development within resilience-building efforts.

“There is no finish line. Resilience is an ongoing process.”

We’re just beginning. A strong base of practical experience exists from Asia on how cities are striving to strengthen their resilience to impacts from climate change and disasters, but this body of work is limited to few geographies. In these places, insights have emerged around how the process of building urban resilience can create a dialogue across a range of stakeholders, public and private, that have an interest in a vibrant, thriving city. More experimentation and practice is needed to continue to test collaborations across sectors and scales, and ensure that measures that build capacity, promote knowledge-sharing, and support peer-to-peer learning scale up much more widely.

As the vice mayor of Sendai, Yukimoto Ito, shared in reference to the earthquake and tsunami in 2011, “There is no finish line. Resilience is an ongoing process.” Local and national governments in all countries need to embrace this attitude as the field of urban resilience continues to be defined.

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