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The Transformation of Medellín Provides a Model for Cities Worldwide

A version of this post also appeared on 100 Resilient Cities and The Guardian.

Several weeks ago, a mudslide devastated the community of Oso in Washington. Days later, down the coast, a 5.1-magnitude earthquake hit Los Angeles. Neither of these events was entirely unpredictable, nor completely preventable. But both represent the new normal that cities everywhere must increasingly face from the combined impact of globalisation and urbanisation.

Photocredit: Raul Arboleda/AFP/Getty Images
Photo credit: Raul Arboleda/AFP/Getty Images
This sense of urgency has been exacerbated by the United Nations’ climate report forecasting more widespread extreme weather and greater associated potential to slow economic growth, increase violent conflict over resources and erode food security. For the many cities located in fragile ecosystems and along coasts, the impacts can be catastrophic. Coastal flooding could produce damages costing $1 trillion a year by 2050. In the United States alone, 23 of the 25 most densely populated countries are along the coast.

These events take both a human and an economic toll. Twenty-five percent of small businesses that fail due to a shock never recover. And thanks to globalisation, the shutdown of production in one part of the world—such as we saw after the earthquake and tsunami in Japan—can devastate manufacturing in others, as economic losses to ripple across the world. It’s no wonder that earthquake resistance is ranked as the most important criteria for choosing new offices for 92% of businesses in Japan.

While we cannot prevent shocks from happening, we can affect the degree to which these events disrupt a city’s ability to provide essential services and the time it takes to rebound. Resilience, which was on the agenda at this year’s World Urban Forum in Medellín, Colombia, provides a framework for strategies that will build the capacity of individuals, communities, institutions, businesses and systems within a city to survive, adapt, and grow no matter what kinds of chronic stresses and acute shocks they experience.

Resilience is more than just disaster response—it equips cities to deal with a range of challenges before they happen, saving cities potentially billions of dollars. For example, a recent study shows that making all the necessary repairs to New York City’s power grid after it is damaged by natural disasters could add up to $3bn over the next 20 years. The study also calculated that the same investment in protective measures, including smart-grid technology, could reduce the damage by $2bn—while contributing to economic gains of about $4bn.

Photocredit: Raul Arboleda/AFP/Getty Images
People search for survivors following a landslide in La Gabriela neighbourhood, north of Medellín, in December 2010. (Photo credit: Raul Arboleda/AFP/Getty Images)

This is just one example of the “resilience dividend”; another is manifested by the World Urban Forum itself. That this year’s conference happened in the city of Medellín speaks volumes for the transformative power of resilience strategies. At the height of Colombia’s drug wars in the 1990s, Medellín was one of the most violent cities in the world. But over the last decade, the city has worked hard to recover from years of violence, not only with law-enforcement initiatives but by making a series of innovative, public investments—such as urban gondolas and a hillside escalator, designed to integrate the city’s low-income residents and communities with its wealthier commercial centre.

Now, when violence or crime happens in Medellín—and it still does—the city doesn’t fall back against the ropes; it has the tools to rebound much more quickly from these disruptions, enabling it to play host to hundreds of global leaders.

To help more cities realise the resilience dividend, the Rockefeller Foundation launched the 100 Resilient Cities Challenge, a $100m effort to build urban resilience in each city, establish resilience as a key economic development and competitive advantage lever, and provide a two-way distribution channel for innovations in products and services, technology and financing.

Meet the World’s First Chief Resilience Officer

Each city selected will hire a full-time chief resilience officer (CRO) to co-ordinate planning, mobilise stakeholders and design a resilience strategy. This week, Medellín announced its first CRO, Santiago Uribe Rocha. He and his counterparts in cities around the world will co-ordinate all aspects of resilience—from building codes to public infrastructure to disaster response systems. Additionally, CROs will share their knowledge and best practices, and cities will be able to access special financing mechanisms and technical expertise to help implement their resilience plans.

We can’t know where or when the next crisis will come. But we know it will. Cities that invest in resilience today will reap a resilience dividend—stronger economies, better infrastructure, more access to opportunity—in addition to their capacity to recover from shocks more effectively. Medellín is already benefiting from its investment in ways small and large: hosting a global conference that would have been unthinkable a decade ago, and building a more dynamic, prosperous and liveable city. A model for cities worldwide.

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