The painful path to more resilient cities


A year ago, superstorm Sandy struck the Atlantic coast, knocking out power to over 8 million people in just a matter of hours and causing widespread devastation. As a painful reminder of how frequent these extreme events now are, the world is now watching horrifying images of devastated communities in the Philippines in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan—with entire communities devastated and many thousands of lives lost.

But these devastating events are also driving change—and new thinking. In the US, city leaders have gone into overdrive to create more resilient cities. Infrastructure is often a core focus, doing things like strengthening the power grid and improving building design. However the idea of resilience encompasses both the resilience of cities (the natural and built environment and infrastructure) as well as the resilience of individuals and communities. It is often local people who end up dealing first hand with the realities of a disaster—not least when relief struggles to arrive, as in Tacloban city right now. They are the ones who have to come up with solutions and practical responses, driven by survival and necessity.

Community power

While horrifying in many respects, these times of community-powered disaster response produces some of the most unique and useful innovation. One example of community powered disaster recovery was shared in a TEDx talk by two sisters, Caitra and Morgan O’Neil, who had to step up when a freak tornado hit their hometown in Massachusetts. From trial and error they created an emergency preparedness toolkit called “Recovery in a Box” that they are now sharing with towns and cities around the world.

That is the nature of resilience. The perfect scenario is a balance of city emergency preparedness and community response that is empowered by toolkits and guidance that are in place before an unexpected weather disaster or other emergency arises.  Jo da Silva is the Director of Arup’s International Development team. In her talk for the ICE Brunel International lecture series called Shifting Agendas: Response to Resilience, she calls for a new approach to disasters that as she says “prioritizes creating resilient communities which are able to respond and adapt to changing circumstances and catastrophes.  The need is real: as she highlights, 300 million people were affected by disasters in 2010, while the number of people living in cities that are vulnerable to earthquakes and cyclones will reach 1.5 billion by 2050.

The attributes of resilience 

So what does a resilient community look like? What are the qualities that can be developed by governments and social groups to complement the work running in parallel by city planners, engineers and architects.  A resilient community is first of all smart and healthy. It can assess risks, think strategically and be willing and able to develop new skills. Second, it is organised, can identify problems, establish priorities and then most importantly take action.  A resilient community also has to be connected. They have to be community members who know where to go to get things done. It is ideal for them to have a checklist of things to be completed in an emergency and who can help.

There are many technology and telecommunications companies who always want to help in disaster situations, but someone at street level needs to know how to activate their help. A good example of this partnership in action happened in New York during Sandy.  Verizon stepped up to install cell phone charging stations but a small startup called Brightbox also moved in fast to help. This was combined with citizens who just put power strips on their front steps for anyone to charge their phones. It goes without saying that a community that is resilient has to have a great infrastructure and services. They need housing, transport, power, water and sanitation systems and the ability to keep them working.  Finally, people in a community have to have jobs and economic opportunities to manage short term responses to a disaster. New Orleans is a perfect example of what happens when this economic resilience is missing in a community.

It is the job of government and social organisations to make sure that its communities are empowered in all these ways—ensuring a powerful, connected team when the need arises. Today, however, much of this happens in isolation: city resilience seems to be is based on silos with each group creating their individual plans.  Businesses, public sector and utilities all have their individual plans and it might be that city administrators have to start rethinking their approach with a more integrated strategy.  They should recognise the weaknesses in their cities location and vulnerabilities and have a plan that includes an interaction of the spectrum of players—from local community, to social and political leaders, business and public sector. Arup for one, has developed a climate change preparedness toolkit to help identify which systems within the city will be affected by climate change and what the key interdependencies are. The Rockefeller Foundation has launched a campaign to build urban resilience worldwide and the UN launched the Making Cities Resilient campaign, working to encourage an integrated approach saying that “national and local government associations, international, regional and civil society organisations, donors, the private sector, academia and professional associations as well as every citizen need to be engaged in reducing their risk to disasters.”  A further example of this kind of partnership is being displayed by C40‘s partnership with Siemens and their City Climate Leadership Awards program, launched in September 2013.

The leaders of the world’s cities know that they cannot do this alone. What makes a city resilient is a combination of strong city emergency preparedness and resilient communities. Related to this, BetterCitiesNow is proud to be moderating a panel discussion on urban resilience strategies at Smart City Expo 2013 later this month.

One Comment

  1. Al Manning says:

    There is one area that you overlooked, churches. The church has been providing support to those in need for thousands of years. It has not only provided spiritual support, but quite often food and shelter. The power of prayer should not be overlooked.


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