29 May 2019 | Reading 9 mins.

Who is responsible for making urban areas resilient?

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Esteban León
Head of the City Resilience Profiling Programme, UN-Habitat.

Esteban León, Head of the City Resilience Profiling Programme, UN-Habitat.

Increasing urban resilience means addressing the major issues of our time, from climate change to water & food security, while saving millions of lives and reducing financial loss, But who is leading the charge?

Over the last few decades, resilience has become a trending concept used in many fields, from ecology and psychology to engineering. Its application in urban contexts more specifically has shaped how cities are planned, managed and lived by all urban actors, from grassroots and local government to international organizations working on urban development. With an increasing majority of the world’s population living in urban centers, cities today mustbecome hubs of innovation and vectors of positive transformation if humankind is to thrive. Rapid urbanization does cause demographic, environmental, economic and spatial challenges such as overcrowding, water shortages, disease, and pollution, but when well-managed, urbanization can also help people escape poverty by providing jobs, access to clean water and sanitation, and promoting innovative solutions. Sustainable and resilient urban growth is therefore essential to ensuring we move closer to globally-agreed development targets such as those set out in the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Urban resilience also makes economic sense. Reports from the World Bank indicate that a one-dollar investment in disaster preparedness may save as much as five dollars in economic losses.[1] Without increased resilience, an estimated 77 million urban residents risk falling (back) into poverty as a result of natural disasters. So, what isurban resilience? There is no single definition, but for UN-Habitat, a resilient city assesses, plans and acts to prepare for and respond to all hazards – sudden and slow-onset, expected and unexpected. While definitions may vary, key concepts including anticipating shocks to avoid disaster, learning from previous events, placing people at the center and effective response, are recurring key concepts.

Without increased resilience, an estimated 77 million urban residents risk falling (back) into poverty as a result of natural disasters.

Cascading effect of shocks

The same disaster can hit two cities almost equally but have a devastating impact on one and only minor repercussions on the other. In many cases, the difference can be attributed partially to infrastructure but also to underlying stresses that, when combined with a sudden shock, magnify the negative impact on the city’s population and functionality. Underlying stresses such as water shortage, high unemployment, or informality, make the city more vulnerable to natural shocks such as flooding, earthquakes, drought, as well as those related to human activity and climate change. 

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