Building resilient cities

Natural disasters like this earthquake in China are one reason for the growing interest in building resilient cities. (Photo by Dr.Zhang Bing).

I should have been in Abuja this week to speak at the Nigerian Institute of Town Planners conference on “Building Resilient Cities”. Due to lack of time to get a visa, I could not make it. However, I did write a paper and this blog is a summary of it. It reviews current thinking about the idea of resilient cities. This is a theme I have explored in previous blogs on this site.

What do we mean by resilience?, an “open, not-for-profit network of urban planners, architects, designers, engineers, and landscape architects” sees resilience as a concept to help communities and cities to cope with “the future shocks and stresses associated with climate change, environmental degradation, resource shortages, in the context of global population growth”.

The International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives, the leading international local government organisation working for sustainable development define resilience as “The capacity and ability of a community to withstand stress, survive, adapt, bounce back from a crisis or disaster and rapidly move on.”

The UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction say it is “The ability of a system, community or society exposed to hazards to resist, absorb, accommodate to 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.” UNISDR stress the importance of resources and organisational capacity – both prior to and during an emergency.

However, resilience is not restricted to recovery from environmental disasters. It is increasingly drawing attention from people involved in economic development. The financial and economic crisis triggered by the banks damaged the economic development model of capitalising on local assets and building networks that has held sway for 20 years or more. Strategies to build resilience can help reconstruct that model to fit a new situation. There is a new ESPON project on Economic Crisis: Resilience of Regions that is being led by Cardiff University and also involves Manchester University and Experian.

Resilience should not be conceived as leading to a return to some previous equilibrium, but as one academic paper put it, as ‘staying in the game’. It is about process and dynamics, not states and structures. This perspective stresses the importance of building learning and dialogues with communities.

Resilience, development and investment

Jeb Brugmann , a practising consultant, has defined resilience as “the ability of an urban asset, location and/or system to provide predictable performance – benefits, utility and associated rents and other cash flows under a wide range of circumstances”. He talks of “resilience upgrading” investments that aim to “create a development premium through a set of financially justified risk reduction measures that increase the reliability of investment returns and asset values under a wide range of circumstances” . In other words, resilience may demand investment but it can make business sense.

One problem is that building resilience is likely to make a call on financial resources and public spending, but the benefits of that spending are not so visible to politicians or citizens. A disaster that is averted is literally a “non-event”, and the benefits it brings are difficult to quantify in a convincing manner. Ironically, the best opportunities for a political climate receptive to a resilience building strategy are likely to be after, rather than before, the shock hits. Thus a smart resilience strategy will address ways to capture some of the value created by the measures.

Brugmann suggests ways of funding resilience – such as loans to building owners to retrofit buildings against known risks, with the option of packaging the loans and selling them to an investor as a means to generate a capital sum for resilience investment. However, the evidence suggests that it is difficult to get business engaged in efforts to build more resilient cities. ICLEI reported that only 11% of cities worldwide reported partnerships with business on adaptation measures.


The essence of a resilience strategy is to combine an understanding of the risks with a capacity to communicate the potential for action. Of course, that is an easy generalisation to offer, but the practice is not so easy. One issue is often data, which may not be available or easy to interpret in relation to risks. There may be a shortage of expertise available locally, especially in rapidly urbanising cities away from a capital city.

In such situations the value of a more qualitative and participatory approach to assessing risk and its spatial aspects should not be overlooked. Workshops can be run in which you can trace out “logical chains” on the potential impacts of different types of external shocks. Participatory techniques can be used to tap the knowledge of local residents about the detailed ways in which known hazards have impacted in the past (see my blog on Participatory 3-D mapping, for example).

A simple matrix can be used to focus workshop discussions about the nature, scale, degree and spatial impacts of risks. This can then be supplemented by brainstorming about potential mitigation and adaptation actions. In all of this there needs to be a strong focus on stakeholders and their roles. For example, people from different professions in different departments of a local authority or, at national level, different ministries, need to be brought together. The more integrated the resilience strategy the more effective it is likely to be.

A resilience action plan

Thus a resilience action plan is likely to be project-based, but involve the bundling of a number of initiatives to create a mutually reinforcing set of actions, built with stakeholders, while all key agencies share a commitment to the overarching concept of building resilient places. It will be tuned to the specific characteristics of the place and its residents. It will seek to lever in resources from the private sector and the local residents themselves, while building their capacity.

Brugmann makes a persuasive case for using a “special purpose vehicle” rather than regular local government departments to lead the task. This is because of the complexity of the challenges. An SPV should be able to invest, but also to recapture some of the value created by resilience measures, e.g. through local taxation or charges.

  • Michael Mutter

    Cliff. Your paper was duly presented by me (Mike Mutter) yesterday and well received by the Nigerian Institute of Town Planners Federal Capital Territory (FCT) Chapter members. Attendance was great, and the reaction was interesting. People really adopted the idea of improved governance and community participation to do so. There were two other papers on the same theme, and gave an incisive discourse on the current shortcomings. The idea of the blog to react is good, and I hope that this is taken up by attendees. It will be interesting to see the broader reaction.

    Michael Mutter, Urban Development Coordinator for the Nigeria Infrastructure Advisory Facility, Abuja.

    • Cliff Hague

      Michael, First many thanks for taking on the unenviable task of presenting my Powerpoint. I guess I owe you a bottle of something next time we meet up! I am glad that everythng seems to have gone off so well. It would be good if this blog could be used to take discussion further forward.


        Good morning Mike and Cliff. Am Onyemauche. I was present at the conference on Building resilience city in Abuja to represent my school. l must say am really satisfied because it reminded us what our duties are as planners. Though you weren’t their Mr Cliff, i must say that Mr mike did justice to that paper. Thanks so much

        • cliffhague

          Thanks for these comments. I am really pleased to hear that the Abuja event was a success.

        • Cliff Hague

          Thanks for the comment. I ws very pleased to hear that the conference in Abuja was a success.

  • John Walls

    My previous response did not contain the full web link details. The details below takes one to the page where the Urban Climate Resilience Synthesis Report can be accessed.