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Building cities that bend, not break

Cities are flexible entities that bend rather than break and their adaptive capacities are what citizens, governments or community institutions need to build to help cities be more resilient against disruptions such as Covid-19. This was a point made by Dr Judith Rodin, former president of the New York-based Rockefeller Foundation in a recent interview published in Urban Solutions. Below is an edited excerpt of the interview.

Building cities that bend, not break

Cool Neighborhoods NYC is initiative to keep communities in New York city safe in extreme heat. It combines physical infrastructure such as green infrastructure and cool roofs with efforts to promote communication and social cohesion such as a buddy system to check on vulnerable residents.

Cities are flexible entities that bend rather than break and their adaptive capacities are what citizens, governments or community institutions need to build to help cities be more resilient against disruptions such as Covid-19. This was a point made by Dr Judith Rodin, former president of the New York-based Rockefeller Foundation, in a recent interview with Urban Solutions, a magazine published by the Ministry of National Development’s Centre for Liveable Cities. Below is an edited excerpt of the interview.

 

Your book, “The Resilience Dividend”, discusses how cities can build resilience to withstand the disruptions of climate change, urbanisation and globalisation. This was written in 2014. Since then, have you observed any new or emergent disruptions to cities?

The most significant shocks since 2014 have been due to the surge in conflict-related immigration and its numerous consequences, and to pandemics, particularly those that are zoonotic, meaning animal-to-human transmission.

We are living through one of epic proportions with Covid-19. A range of factors, including increasing population, economic globalisation, environmental degradation and increasing human interaction across the globe, are contributing to the changing dynamics of all diseases, but especially infectious diseases. 

Yet, nations devote only a fraction of the resources spent on national security to prevent or prepare for health shocks, including pandemics.

And, as we know, prevention and adequate preparation, as we are seeing in country-by-country differences in the epidemiology and rate of spread of the Covid-19 outbreak, are essential to being more resilient.

This pandemic is still very much in flux and no country or city appeared adequately prepared in advance, but those that responded early and aggressively and were most nimble and adaptive will surely be those that come out of this with the outbreak better under control.

 

You have argued that disruptions are inevitable, while disasters aren’t. Which cities are at the forefront of adapting to disruptions, to prevent them from turning into disasters? What specific solutions were implemented to build their resilience?

A city is an entity that is flexible. It bends rather than breaks. And its adaptive capacities are exactly what we must develop, whether as individual citizens, governments or community institutions.

Many cities around the world are innovating to prevent and prepare for disruption in their efforts to avoid shocks, and, happily, they are sharing their ideas and successes.

In relation to the Covid-19 outbreak, there were cities which used strategies from their already-developed resilience plan, such as having integrated data sets.

This allowed quick decision making, well-rehearsed action plans among first responders and a mandate to focus early on the most vulnerable populations.

In contrast, some cities keep their important data separately by departments. So housing data is kept by the housing unit, public health data is separate from transportation data and so on.

Now think of how Covid-19 spreads and it is clear how such cities will struggle to respond effectively.

One non Covid-19 example of how a city builds resilience to disruption is the Cool Neighborhoods NYC initiative to keep communities in New York city safe in extreme heat.

It combines physical infrastructure such as green infrastructure and cool roofs with efforts to promote communication and social cohesion such as a buddy system to check on vulnerable residents.

Surat, in the Indian state of Gujarat, is dynamically mapping climate trends and integrating them with multi-hazard planning through geographic information system (GIS) analysis.

Multi-hazard planning involves tracking different risks and vulnerabilities — such as supply shocks to water and food — rising from climate change and other hazards using technology including GIS mapping.

Cities can add the use of machine learning to integrate more sources of data that will dramatically increase their capability for robust planning and responding in real-time to emergencies.

These are only a few of the hundreds of activities we are seeing worldwide.

 

Ultimately, a city’s resilience serves to safeguard its residents’ health, livelihoods and overall quality of life. How might individuals and communities get more involved in building resilience?

Social resilience focuses on basic needs like livelihoods and on the actions needed to protect and strengthen communities. And, while physical and ecological resilience are essential, cities cannot become fully resilient without focusing on the social fabric that knits us together or tears us apart.

For example, a public transportation system can be a key feature of community resilience if it intentionally connects diverse communities, enhancing social cohesion and easing travel for poor and vulnerable populations.

Such was the case in Medellin, Colombia, which had confronted decades of drug trafficking, crime, and homicide. Medellin underwent an incredible revitalisation by building transit systems that link the poorest and most vulnerable communities to the economic and social core of the city using a “gondola” system and hillside escalators.

Communities also need to develop ways to become nimbler and more adaptive. For example, San Francisco is developing networks that link their sharing-economy companies to local communities throughout the city.

The goal is to help communities more easily access what these companies are based on — the excess supply of goods, services, and space.

Airbnb could identify neighbours who have extra shelter to displaced residents who need it. Yerdle could help receive and redistribute donated items. Task Rabbit could call up volunteers willing to assist in clearing debris or restoration and rebuilding efforts.

With these online networks in communities in place, the transition from everyday business to post-disruption operation can be seamless, enabling a much more nimble and flexible response.

 

Let’s talk about money. Financing is often a big barrier for cities' resilience efforts. What approaches to financing resilience have you seen that really worked?

Innovation is flourishing, creating new tools using private capital to meet social and environmental goals, while generating competitive financial returns for investors.

Most people in the field call this “sustainable and impact investing”, a broad tent of strategies that ranges from investing in established companies that are working to address the impact of their operations to those that have been set up with the explicit purpose of solving a social or environmental problem.  

Groups of investors with considerable financial clout, for instance, are emerging on the impact landscape. In 2019, 477 investors holding US$34 trillion (S$46.6 trillion) in assets demanded action to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement on climate change, with some of them emerging as vocal leaders, particularly in Europe and Japan.

In Europe, a coalition of investors, including those managing more than €550 billion (S$889.6 billion) in Dutch pension assets, has committed to use the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as the framework for a growing amount of their investments.

Meanwhile, problem solvers, like non-government organisations, are becoming increasingly financially savvy.

In July 2019, for example, The Nature Conservancy (TNC) acquired 253,000 acres of working forest land in the Central Appalachian coalfields of Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia, using a US$130 million investment fund. It is based on a new financial model.

On this land, TNC will implement preservation activities, sustainable timber management and economic development initiatives that enable communities living there to move away from mining to other sources of income.

Investors will be repaid from the revenue generated through sales of carbon offsets and certified sustainable timber, as well as the sale of the land at the end of the investment period.

Related topics

urban planning climate change resilience building Covid-19

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