Building Resilience in Rapidly Growing Cities

One hundred years ago – when The Rockefeller Foundation was established – only 10 per cent of the world’s population lived in cities. Now more than 50 per cent do, and it is estimated that by 2050, 75 per cent will. Often, urbanisation happens with little or no planning, and with infrastructure and necessary services unable to keep pace.

At the same time, a wide variety of acute shocks – including storms, earthquakes, and the sudden onset of communal violence – and chronic stresses such as food, water and energy shortages continue to impact these dense, vulnerable urban populations and landscapes. And, it is likely that these trends will continue given projected and broad ranging impacts of climate change.

It thereforestands to reason that resource allocations should focus on enhancing cities’ resilience. At The Rockefeller Foundation, we view resilience as the ability of a system, entity, community, or person to withstand shocks while still maintaining its essential functions and to recover quickly and effectively. Simply put, resilience is what enables people to survive, adapt, and even thrive when disaster hits.

As evolutionary biologists have proven time and again, following a catastrophe there is a unique window to innovate, and adapt to the new normal. Cities must be prepared to do this – to bounce forward rather than bounce back after disaster strikes. But unlike evolution, resilience is a trait that can be learned – and a muscle that must be exercised. It is most importantly flexed during the periods between crises, so that cities are better prepared for the next big shock. Indeed individuals, communities and institutions can learn the skill of resilience and increase their flexibility, strength, and resourcefulness, within and across a variety of domains, including economic, ecological, social and institutional, and built infrastructure systems.

Challenge to resilience

But building urban resilience is not easy. For one thing, cities are exceptionally complex ecosystems. Myriad formal (national, state and local governments, for example) and informal groups (informal populations, advocacy groups and NGOs), along with the private sector, all have important roles to play in shaping both risk and resilience. Even highly centralised municipal governments with powerful mayors, such as New York City (pictured above right), still have stakeholders and constituencies to engage when it comes to improving their resilience posture.

For example, a common challenge, particularly in the developing world,is the lack of transparency about the costs and opportunities associated with solid waste management, flood control and public health authorities. When trash is not collected properly, it gets into drains and storm water systems and causes flooding, which can lead to disease outbreaks. But a coordinated effort has the potential to solve all three problems.

Viewed through a single lens, this problem would be easy to fix, and a lot cheaper than letting it go unaddressed. But because these responsibilities often span silos, and at different levels of government funding, finding and implementing a holistic solution – no matter how logical – can be difficult.

Building urban resilience is also challenging because it is still a developing discipline, without common understanding of the issues, a mature marketplace for solutions, or a community of practitioners supporting each other and sharing best practice.

100 Resilient Cities

It is for these reasons that earlier in 2013, the Rockefeller Foundation made a US$100 million commitment to building urban resilience and announced its 100 Resilient Cities Centennial Challenge. Through the Challenge, in the coming years one hundred cities across the globe will be selected for the 100 Resilient Cities Network. Through membership in the 100 Resilient Cities Network, cities will receive four forms of support:

  • Support to hire or fund a Chief Resilience Officer (CRO). The creation of this innovative new role is an innovation that will ensure that resilience-building and coordination is the specific responsibility of one person in a city government. The CROs can also oversee the development of a resilience strategy for the city and be part of a learning network of other CROs as representatives to the 100 Resilient Cities Network.
  • Technical assistance and support to create a resilience strategy. This process includes a broad stakeholder group and starts with hazard and risk assessments followed by analyses of (among others) the social sector, infrastructure and economic development plans; so that a city can form a shared vision of its priorities for resilience building.
  • Membership in the 100 Resilient Cities Network, which will provide support to member cities and share new knowledge and resilience best practices, facilitate coordination and build partnerships.

An innovative platform to provide tools and resources for implementation of the plan focused on four areas: innovative finance, innovative technology, infrastructure and land use, and community and social resilience from Swiss Re, Palantir, American Institute of Architects, Architecture for Humanity, and the World Bank. We anticipate bringing other partners to 100 Resilient Cities to further expand the resources available to selected cities.

These four areas of support will be a critical step towards addressing the above challenges – and many more. The CRO and resilience strategy staff will address the complexity issue by taking a holistic view across a city and its current silos, revealing smart intersections for collaboration and a plan for coordination. We know that cities are working on many important initiatives that could enhance their ability to withstand and recover from shocks and stresses.

The platform of services will begin to catalyse a market for new resilience-related solutions, because it will open access to 100 well-organised cities with strategies that lay out resilience priorities and needs. Solutions that are currently available – whether innovative finance, best practice building codes, planning advice, or new technologies – can work across multiple cities. Of course, local context and implementation will differ, but reinventing solutions for each situation from scratch is not the effective way to ensure that cities globally – beyond the 100 in the Network – can solve their most pressing problems. We must be able to scale.

100 Resilient Cities will also aggregate information learned during workshops, planning sessions and other interactions. This information will provide a good sense of what challenges resilience-building cities are facing and trigger a search for existing solutions ready to meet the needs of the cities and add them to the platform.

Where solutions do not exist, however, this data will spur us to approach a community of potential providers – private sector, non-profits and charities, as well as academic and philanthropic organisations – to spur innovation and development.

If we are able to, on the one hand, successfully scale solutions to cities where they need it most, and on the other provide a broad marketplace of providers, funders and innovators with information on the most pressing needs of the world’s cities, we will create a virtuous cycle that significantly helps cities improve their capabilities in the face of chronic stresses and acute shocks.

A new professional cadre

Finally, creating urban resilience requires cities to empower a new cadre of professionals – including the Chief Resilience Officers – specifically charged with connecting resilience efforts, advocating for more careful planning, and continuing to think about how their city can improve its resilience profile. The overwhelming response to the announcement and challenge shows how timely this effort is. We had nearly 400 cities from six continents submit applications, and have had interest from a broad and impressive range of potential platform partners.

This is something so big, so broad and so important that we must collectively address it. 100 Resilient Cities aims to be a catalyst in what we hope will be a global movement of the 21st century. Join us at

*Cross-posted from Climate Action

Head photo: CJ Isherwood, Flickr