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We must build back better: urban resilience can show us how

Carlos Martín — Senior Fellow, Urban Institute
Kirsten Eiler — Former Director, Power & Climate, The Rockefeller Foundation
Veronica Olazabal — Former Managing Director, Measurement, Evaluation & Organizational Performance, The Rockefeller Foundation

A recent New York Times article chronicled how Elmhurst Hospital in Queens was besieged by Covid-19 patients, while nearby hospitals had capacity[1]. The article referenced an earlier tragedy on September 11, 2001, when the Police, Fire, and Emergency Response departments communicated on different radio frequencies leading to hundreds of firefighters trapped in the towers while their police counterparts evacuated safety.

Much changed between 2001 and 2020, but one important fact remains: cities, with their growing populations, are exposed to systemic shocks.  The chronic stressors of racism and income inequality only make segments of urban populations even more vulnerable.

These tragic examples highlight why busting siloes through resilience building is so critical for cities on the frontlines of responding to shocks, be they infectious disease, terrorism, or civil unrest. Today’s Covid-19 crisis only underscores the need for cities to build resilience into their response and recovery. The Urban Institute (Urban) has been monitoring The Rockefeller Foundation’s urban resilience work for many years and has focused its assessment on the transformation of cities over the long-term, particularly how cities institutionalize resilience-building in their planning and operations. Recent findings identified three key learnings for city officials that are worth noting in this time of turmoil: 1) Removing siloes is critical for successful disaster response, 2) cities are experiencing more frequent shocks, and 3) resilience projects must have measurable impact that reflects the effects of de-siloing.

Busting siloes through resilience building is so critical for cities on the frontlines of responding to shocks, be they infectious disease, terrorism, or civil unrest.

Removing Siloes

Restructuring siloes and internalizing comprehensive planning are hallmarks of urban resilience building. Despite different and challenging contexts, the latest monitoring data show that Belfast and Lagos, through the recent release of their strategies, increased alignment across city agencies and developed shared agendas across previously siloed bureaucracies. A year past strategy release, Chennai continues to experience improved collaboration across its water agencies. However, the data indicate that these gains can be difficult to maintain, with other cities reverting to subject-specific authority and re-creating silos.

These findings are consistent with the literature, which has identified a significant gap between the resilience discourse that promotes connectivity and collaboration and the practice of how municipal governments operate. In a recent paper analyzing Christchurch’s response to several devastating earthquakes, A. Huck, J. Monstadt, and P. Dreissen note that while achieving connectivity and cooperative governance is potentially resource-intensive for cities, the effects can pay dividends for effective government response during disaster events. [2] It will be worth watching whether cities that have made these investments will see the benefits in their response and recovery to Covid.

More City Shocks

These findings hold particular weight as cities experience more frequent shocks – whether as hot zones of disease or flashpoints for social unrest.  In Urban’s sample population, 38% of cities had experienced a shock and at least one city had experienced multiple shocks in the six months prior to the pandemic. The most common shocks were civil unrest/violent clash, flooding/landslide, fire/wildfires, and the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic. Every city is experiencing the impacts of Covid-19 and now many are also confronting violent social unrest.  As cities emerge from the immediate public health crisis, they will face the challenges of unemployment, inequality, racism, gender discrimination, food insecurity, and climate vulnerability – all slow-burning stresses magnified by the pandemic. To confront these challenges, they will need coordinated and robust responses based on strong partnerships between government, the private sector, and the public health and scientific communities. Resilience-building, with its emphasis on bringing together multiple perspectives, offers a model for building that muscle.

Impact Oriented from the Start

Lastly, the data collected by Urban indicates that the field of urban resilience continues to evolve. There is a new emphasis on poverty and justice as underlying stressors, with both new and existing programs pivoting to more directly address these issues. Finally, new initiatives are focusing on accelerating implementation. These new initiatives seek to connect cities to finance and emphasize the need to build parallel capacity in cities to design bankable projects that can deliver on the global development agenda with measurable impact.

As the Covid-19 crisis evolves, the ability of cities to respond and recover will be the true measure of their resilience.

To learn more, visit the links and related content below.

Cities for a Resilient Recovery

Unlocking The Potential For Transformative Adaptation In Cities

Data Speak Louder Than Words

Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery 

[1] Dwyer, J. (May 14, 2020). “One Hospital Was besieged by the virus. Nearby was ‘plenty of space.’ New York Times “One Hospital Was besieged by the virus. Nearby was ‘plenty of space.’ 

[2] Huck, A., Monstadt, J., and Driessen, P. (2020). Building urban and infrastructure resilience through connectivity: An institutional perspective on disaster risk management in Christchurch, New Zealand. Cities, 98

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