The issues of urbanization, globalization and climate change are playing out at a city scale, posing new challenges and uncertainty to all of us living in cities. It used to be that a sustainable neighborhood was one that used less energy and less water and was made of renewable materials. While those are still important elements, a neighborhood is resilient and sustainable if it can recover from or be designed to avoid an intense flood or earthquake. A city must also be economically resilient by not depending on a single industry.

Sudden shocks in cities can cause significant damage or disruption and chronic stresses can weaken the fabric of a city over time. In terms of stresses there can be high unemployment, lack of affordable housing, youth violence, civil unrest and income inequality. A city won’t be resilient unless it has talked to its residents to understand why some of these things are happening, in order to find a solution. A sustainable neighborhood becomes a resilient one though if designed to respond to these challenges. Neighborhoods need to be in a position to do this. Cities can’t be resilient on their own, and while cities should be leaders in building resilience, the neighborhoods within the cities must be able to support them.

Urban resilience is the capacity of individuals, communities, institutions, businesses and systems within a city to survive, adapt, and grow despite the chronic stresses and acute shocks they experience. That is a lot to tackle. All of this goes into the 100 Resilient Cities definition of a resilient city — one that can survive and thrive no matter what challenges it faces. The Rockefeller Foundation launched the 100 Resilient Cities program in 2013 to help 100 cities around the world achieve urban resilience. They are now working in 49 countries in 27 languages. The key aspect of this program is to provide funding to hire a chief resilience officer to lead resilience building efforts in the city.

100 Resilient Cities provides the city support — through their staff and consultants like AECOM — to develop a resilience building strategy.  This process helps the city understand the threats it’s facing; it’s capability to address those threats; and what it needs to do to bridge that gap. AECOM is lucky enough to be working with over 30 of the cities in the network, carrying out a resilience assessment and developing a resilience strategy.

The first step in developing a resilience strategy is to undertake a preliminary resilience assessment in order to understand all the challenges and risks that a city faces, and where those challenges are most geographically acute. This process allows cities to understand where shocks and stresses might be co-dependent, so that any one solution or action can provide multiple benefits.

Most, if not all, of the cities that AECOM have worked with under the 100 Resilient Cities processes have gained a deeper understanding of what they know and, more importantly, what they don’t know about their vulnerabilities. A lot of this comes from an extensive amount of stakeholder engagement and collaboration, especially with the community, but also across all departments of cities, regional agencies and with utilities. This program gives the cities the ability to look more thoroughly at the interdependencies between departments and issues, which is an opportunity they might not have had before.

All of these steps have relevance to the concept of sustainable communities — from getting appropriate input into city decision making, to supporting more affordable housing and facilitating people to stay through adapting to sea level rise. Key issues of resilience need to be tackled and supported at multiple scales through different levels of government policy and programs from the national level down to the local level. The challenge to us urbanists is to consider how our projects should be helping cities take on their biggest challenges.

Claire Bonham-Carter

Originally published Jul 6, 2017

Author: Claire Bonham-Carter

Claire Bonham-Carter is vice president of sustainability and resilience in AECOM's Buildings + Places business line in the U.S. West region.