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Resilient cities – what would it mean for the cities in the Global South?

Divya Sharma

‘Resilient cities’ is not a new term; it has been used widely when the future of cities is talked about – and, in this context, resilience is usually understood as the ability of cities and city systems to bounce back after a calamity or a shock. According to the UN Secretariat of the International Strategy for Disaster Reduction, resilience is ‘the ability of a system, community or society exposed to hazards to resist, absorb, accommodate, and recover from the effects of a hazard in a timely and efficient manner, including through the preservation and restoration of its essential basic structures and functions’.

New research, however, is questioning the status quo. Rather than looking at resilience from a single perspective of shock and stresses, with the goal of bouncing back to original state, development experts are increasingly arguing that transformative resilience (instead of mainstreaming resilience) should be incorporated into planning frameworks. They are questioning the very basis of ‘the original state’, particularly when it comes to cities in lower-income countries in the Global South. With growing knowledge, the term ‘resilience’ is being used in the deeper sense of institutional social and structural responses to calamities and adversity, as well as looking at whether or not these cities are part of a robust system to which they can bounce back.

Challenges cities face

Cities are growing in terms of absolute number and the population they support. Close to half of the world’s urban dwellers live in cities with a population below half a million, around one in eight urban dwellers lives in one of the 33 megacities – that is, a city with more than 10 million inhabitants. By 2030, the world is projected to have 43 megacities, most of them in developing regions; over the same time period, it is forecast that the urban population will double (with especially high growth in lower-income countries), while the area covered by cities would triple. Asia has the highest number of people living in urban areas, being 48% urbanised and home to 53% of world’s population. Africa shows extreme urban growth as well, with an urban growth rate that is 11 times more rapid than the growth rate in Europe.

Cities are vulnerable- While the city and state governments think about urban development and ways to cater to the rapid increase in urban population and number of cities, climate change impacts are increasingly taking a toll on urban areas where people, resources, and infrastructure are concentrated. Each year, an estimated 46 million people in cities are at risk from flooding from storm surges in the east Asia region alone. Some of Asia’s fastest growing cities are susceptible to climate impacts, such as sea level rise. In 2017, more than 1,000 people died and 45 million people had to bear huge losses in terms of loss of livelihood, homes, and services when severe floods hit south-east Asian cities, including Dhaka in Bangladesh and Mumbai and Chennai in India.

Cities lack services and need investments and infrastructure: It is not only climate change that is making cities vulnerable. This vulnerability is also created and aggravated by the weak socio-economic structures of our cities, bad and sometimes no urban planning, and lack of basic services and infrastructure. According to the Asian Development Bank, a large number of Asian cities do not have adequate urban basic services. In the majority of Asian cities, less than half the population has access to water, efficient systems of solid waste collection, sewerage system connections, or sanitary landfill facilities. This aggravates the impacts of climate change and makes coping with extreme events even more difficult.

In many cities in lower-income countries, climate impacts are much more severe due to the development pattern these cities have adopted. These cities permit degradation of natural protection, deforestation and building on floodplains, poor-quality housing construction on exposed slopes, and extensive ground coverage of concrete without adequate drainage. Even a day of heavy rains in these regions often result in intense flash floods, such as those seen in Mumbai in 2005 and Chennai in 2017.

Cities often have weak governance and management: Jurisdictional overlaps, weak economic bases, and low revenue collection are common features of cities in lower-income countries. Many governments have decentralised responsibilities to local governments. While this gives local governments a more strategic role in planning and decision making in urban development, it does not necessarily mean that city governments will have all the capacity or funding to carry out the functions devolved to them.

City governments often lack the requisite data to facilitate informed urban planning, and city growth is driven by market forces rather than by planned interventions envisioning sustainable and equitable growth. Various departments and sectoral institutions like environment, water, and energy work in silos leading to disjointed governance and therefore weak management and administration for urban areas.

We need transformative resilience

Climate resilience in these cities would not only mean building the coping capacity of the city and its systems to extreme events and climate impacts. It will also mean raising the bar in terms of existing urban planning, infrastructure and service provision, informed and capable citizens, and strong financial and institutional mechanisms. Resilience needs to be embedded in improved governance system: the capacity of city administration to plan, implement, and monitor urban development and integrate climate knowledge in building cities and its systems.

Transformative resilience as a multidimensional conceptual tool would lead cities to build their database systems and monitoring of planning and urban development to be sustainable and sensitive through an integrated multidisciplinary framework. Transformative resilience will also mean cities would look beyond mainstreaming resilience into urban development planning. Rather, it involves the transformation of governance, institutions, and systems into which city systems are embedded culturally, economically, socially, and environmentally. This will mean increasing the budget and technology needed to improve the baseline state of the cities, to reduce vulnerability and improve the adaptive capacity.

Without this, resilient cities in the wake of rapidly changing climate will remain a distant dream, and cities will keep witnessing extreme loss and damage, crippling essential urban systems with every climate event.