Rethinking urban climate resilience: time for a reset?

Aditya Bahadur and guest blogger Thomas Tanner discuss their new book which explores the changing nature of climate risk in towns and cities and explains why existing approaches for tackling this risk need a shake-up.

Aditya Bahadur is principal researcher in IIED's Human Settlements research group; Thomas Tanner is director of the Centre for Development, Environment and Policy at SOAS University of London

Flooded street with tall buildings in the background

Floods in Dhaka, Bangladesh (Photo: Dougsyme via FlickrCC BY 2.0)

For the first time in the history of the world, more people live in towns and cities than in rural areas.

Urban areas are highly exposed to climate change and are facing hazards at increasing frequency and intensity. Cities also concentrate people with limited capacity to adapt to these risks.

Additionally, extreme events that used to be rare – such as heatwaves and extreme rainfall − are occurring more often, with huge impact on towns and cities. We urgently need to rethink and, in fact, to ‘reset’ existing modes of building urban resilience. 

This provides the context for our book ‘Resilience Reset: Creating Resilient Cities in the Global South’ (Routledge, July 2021) that explores the set of changes, or critical pivots, needed in five key areas of resilience action to ensure cities are ready for the challenges they face.

Doing data differently

The foundation of resilience action lies in reliable data. Climate models, satellite imagery, surveys, census data and participatory approaches are employed to understand the degree to which urban areas are at risk of climate change impacts. However, while such approaches have been useful, they suffer from weaknesses in certainty, granularity and veracity.

It’s time to pivot towards a new generation of approaches for acquiring and analysing data on climate impacts in cities that rely on ‘big data’ and ‘artificial intelligence’.

The book explores a range of exciting initiatives such as data generated by drones, ATM machines and cell phones to inform urban resilience policies and practice.

Understanding risk at its roots

An equitable and effective vision of urban resilience cannot be brought to life without meaningful collaboration with the urban communities most affected by shocks and stresses.

Existing modes of engagement have focused on expanding the asset base of poor urban residents, raising awareness on climate impacts, strengthening the social bonds between community members, improving governance processes and improving infrastructure. However, we argue that these approaches often fail to engage with the root causes of risk (such as power imbalances and inequality) and have failed to deliver impact at scale.

We need to pivot towards more transformational resilience practice − traced through replicable examples of initiatives that help resolve the structural issues (for example caste, class or gender) that make people more prone to harm from climate impacts. It also illustrates pathways for delivering lasting change for vulnerable urban communities by working at scale.

Bridging the gap between the formal and informal city

Urban planning has been a core entry point for enhancing urban resilience and has helped reduce risk by influencing what is built in a city, how it is built and where.

However, most urban planning initiatives focus primarily on the ‘formal’ city despite vast areas of some of the world’s riskiest urban contexts being dominated by informal settlements. Fifty-six per cent of sub-Saharan Africa’s population lives in informal settlements, 31% in South Asia and 21% in Latin America.

The book underlines the crucial importance of bridging the gap between formal urban planning processes and the vast informality that characterises cities of the global South. We argue that to successfully deal with the crises facing cities, planners need to embrace informal knowledge (for example from self-surveys undertaken by those in informal settlements), actors (‘barefoot planners’) and practices (the work of informal builders and artisans).

Building climate capabilities

Sectoral entry points have also been a popular approach; action to strengthen urban services and systems such as water, energy, health and transport has proven importance in helping cities battle climate risk.

However, we trace how action within these sectors is directed disproportionately towards development of infrastructural solutions. More than 60% of all funding from major climate funds that went to cities was invested in transport infrastructure.

Developing skills and capacities of people who manage these crucial urban systems and services have been overlooked. Instead, we show how key city functionaries can enhance their awareness, authority and ability to take action. 


Co-author Aditya Bahadur discusses the book’s content, who should read it and why, in light of COVID-19, the call for “resilience reset” is more relevant than ever

Fast, flexible financing needed

None of this is possible without enhanced financing. Yet municipal revenues are under severe strain, intergovernmental transfers are scarce and inflexible, private finance is sporadic, multilateral and bilateral finance tends to prioritise infrastructural solutions, and finance from philanthropies tends to be short term.

We call for a pivot towards new and innovative modes of finance spanning resilience bonds, climate risk insurance and land value capture schemes that are proving effective in supplying fast, flexible financing for urban resilience at scale.

Taken together, pivots or shifts in these five areas of resilience action can ensure that marginalised urban communities in some of the riskiest urban contexts in the world are not only able to function but flourish despite multiple and interacting shocks and stresses in a post-COVID world.

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