Why Urban Resilience?

Three converging trends have come to characterize the 21st century: urbanization, globalization, and climate change. The world has grown more urban, more integrated, and with a greater number of people at risk than ever before. These conditions require new models of governance. From extreme weather events to refugee crises, from disease pandemics to cyber-attacks — business as-usual models of reactive planning and siloed decision-making will not engender the fundamental strength and flexibility essential for us to thrive in the 21st century.

Building urban resilience, defined as “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,” will allow cities to prosper in the face of these challenges, helping them to prepare for both the expected and the as-yet unimagined. Acute shocks are sudden, sharp events that threaten a city, such as earthquakes, disease outbreaks, or terrorist attacks. Chronic stresses, such as high unemployment, overtaxed or inefficient public transportation systems, or chronic recurrent flooding, weaken the fabric of a city over time and exacerbate shocks when they inevitably occur.

Of course, the challenges cities face are rarely just one discrete shock or a lone stress, but rather interconnected combinations of both. A well-known example is Hurricane Katrina, which hit the southeastern U.S. in 2005 with devastating consequences. It wasn’t the force of the wind or the rain alone that caused such a crisis in the city of New Orleans, where nearly 1,000 people were killed and US$135 billion-worth of damage was suffered. The storm’s impact was greatly exacerbated by stresses like institutional racism, violence, aging infrastructure, poverty, poor macroeconomic conditions, environmental degradation, and other chronic challenges. The compounding pressure of these unaddressed stresses undermined the city’s resilience. When a terrible shock hit, it exposed and exacerbated structural weaknesses, ultimately making it far more difficult for the city to bounce back.

Paris, France

Paris offers another example of the need to plan holistically, so that a city is prepared for whatever shocks and stresses may arise. When Paris sought to join the 100 Resilient Cities network in 2014, it focused on its vulnerabilities to flooding and heat waves. Given the risk posed by the Seine overrunning its banks, as well as the legacy of the tragic 2003 heat waves, in which over 700 people died, these priorities were appropriate for Paris at the time, and remain important risks faced by the city.

However, since 2015, Paris has seen a dramatic increase in migration — 50 to 60 migrants arrive in the city daily, most of them asylum seekers, fleeing conflicts in Africa and the Middle East. As a result of this unforeseen population shift, migrants now compose a majority of the unsheltered homeless population in Paris, complicating the city’s ongoing struggles to accommodate and integrate its most vulnerable residents. That same year, the world watched as the horrific events of Charlie Hebdo and the November attacks unfolded amidst this confluence of stressors. Recovering from those coordinated terrorist attacks, which claimed over 130 lives, Paris realized it had to reorient its concerns toward more holistic strategies for strengthening the city, ones that would build inclusive, cohesive, and prepared communities. Furthermore, it saw that the solutions that could help it solve for heat waves and flooding could also be designed in a way that responds to its social challenges.

Resilience thinking demands that cities look holistically at their capacities and their risks. This isn’t easy work. The current approach to urban development is a siloed one, with one team designing disaster recovery plans, another team exploring sustainability issues, another focused on livelihoods and wellbeing, and yet another on land-use planning and infrastructure. That may be an efficient way to structure the work of a city, but it is not the most effective way. Cities are systems, not silos. As the examples of Paris and New Orleans illustrate, planning for a resilient future necessitates tackling challenges and creating solutions in an integrated, inclusive, risk-aware, and forward-looking manner. Doing so will allow cities to enjoy the multiple benefits, or “resilience dividend,” that such solutions offer.