3 ways to step up urban resilience

flooding Vietnam urban climate resilience
Flooding in Vietnam — one of several water-related risks more likely to affect cities as climate change accelerates.

This story first appeared on TheCityFix, a resource about urban sustainability by the World Resources Institute. It is part of a series of articles, "From ideas to implementation: Creating sustainable cities with good governance."

By 2020, even optimistic estimations predict that most of northern India will face extreme water stress. In Guangzhou, China, over 10 million citizens could be at risk from sea level rise by 2070 — assuming an increase of just .5 meters.

As these two examples make clear, cities everywhere need to consider the potential physical, social and economic effects of climate change when developing local policies. Alarmingly, urban areas are particularly at risk of bearing the brunt of climate change, due to their lack of resilience and vast, rapidly growing populations.

In response to these uncertainties, urban areas actively must prepare themselves for future environmental threats. Leaders should aim to forge cities that are able to reduce their environmental impact and take precautions to mitigate the negative impacts of climate change.

However, many cities struggle to acquire the information they need to properly assess their risks, and others still don’t consider resilience in the decision-making process. As a result, gathering information and planning for risks is one of the largest challenge facing governance.

During my interviews in Brazil, resilience was always the last topic we discussed, as it is rarely on the government’s agenda. Indeed, the largest obstacle is Brazil’s current government structure, which prioritizes response over planning in advance.

For example, whenever there is a new environmental risk that needs to be addressed, the governmental department called Defesa Civil (Civil Defense) unilaterally deals with it. However, it is purely a reactive body, built only to respond to emergencies — and there is no department in charge of long term resilience.

Moreover, as departments within government often fail to communicate, rarely much is done to address resilience and adaptation. Unfortunately, Brazil is not an exception to the rule; many cities across the globe are not managing their future environmental risks.

So, how do we improve resilience?

1. Raise awareness

Raising awareness is a good first step to address risks and find local solutions. An intuitive way to accomplish this is to have cities assess the risks they have faced in the past and identify the solutions that successfully addressed them.

Through this process, communication is key; cities can learn about local risks best by engaging with citizens, and should make public the results of their analysis.

For example, in the case of Brazilian mudslides, decision makers should research which strategies have proved most helpful in the past, and inform locals about their unique threat levels. By understanding potential risks, citizens can establish individual strategies and plan appropriately for emergencies.

2. Pro-active planning

The second step is to pro-actively plan, putting policies in place that identify and prepare for threats, and determining an appropriate response. To accomplish this, it is essential that cities gather research and codify action plans through legislation.

San Francisco’s history with earthquakes offers a great example of how cities can learn from tragedies to avoid future damages. After an earthquake in 1906 ruptured water pipes and led to widespread fires, the city established a contingency plan. As a result, the earthquakes that hit in 1989 and 1994 were less dramatic: their infrastructure survived and lives were saved.

3. Adapt to uncertainty

Planning and raising awareness are key for increasing urban resilience, but cities also must be constantly adapting to shifting environments. To achieve this, cities can partner with universities to better understand local risks, and incentivize creative solutions by holding competitions that reward individuals for adapting their communities.

For example, Solutions Search established the international competition "Adapting to a Changing Environment: How are communities around the world adapting to their changing environments?" in 2013. The contest drew 88 submissions from 37 countries, encouraging citizens to "[u]se biodiversity and ecosystem services … as part of an overall adaptation strategy to help people and communities adapt to the negative effects of climate change."

The competition spurred citizens to innovate local solutions that made their communities more sustainable; for example, residents of Desaraju Palli, India created solar-powered water pumps to alleviate drought. Cities should launch similar initiatives adapted to their local context.

Managing climate mitigation

Unfortunately, resilience work is rarely discussed or funded; while many regions recognize climate change as a threat, too few see it as a local problem that needs managing.

For example, consider sea level rise — it’s a well-documented problem palpably affecting small island states, and therefore receives a considerable amount of support. However, many cities face challenges that are less well known, such as droughts, lack of potable water and floods. Solutions to these problems also need institutional backing, but are frequently overlooked or dismissed.

To begin preparing for the uncertainties in their future, cites should raise awareness, begin pro-active planning, and foster adaptive management. Without these measures, cities will begin making changes only once it’s too late.