Building urban resilience

opinion May 14, 2013 00:00

By Ashvin Dayal
Special to The N

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When the Rockefeller Foundation was established 100 years ago today to promote the wellbeing of humankind globally, its mandate focused heavily on fighting infectious diseases, building medical institutions and strengthening national health systems in Asi

Today, with more than half of the world’s population living in urban areas, and that number expected to double to 6.4 billion people by 2050, there is an urgent need for cities to build greater resilience to the most significant effects of climate change and public health threats, and other shocks both natural and manmade, which are only increasing in their frequency, impact and scale.  

More than ever, cities are at the front lines of current challenges. Yet, most cities are unprepared to address these challenges characteristic of our 21st century world. What’s more, poor and vulnerable populations tend to face more constraints in terms of means to cope and recover, due to inadequate infrastructure and services and lack of safety nets. The results are disrupted livelihoods and increasing inequality. Furthermore, disasters in urban areas have the potential to shut down entire economic systems and supply chains, as Bangkok knows firsthand when the 2011 floods causedover US$45 billion in economic damage. 
As we embark on our second century, today the Rockefeller Foundation has announced the 100 Resilient Cities Centennial Challenge, a $100-million effort to build urban resilience in cities around the world. This challenge invites cities to apply to be named one of the 100 resilient cities, each of which will receive support to create a resilience strategy, hire the city’s very first chief resilience officer to oversee resilience planning and implementation, and become part of a global network to receive the most advanced resilience-building assistance. 
This new challenge builds on the experience of the Rockefeller Foundation’s Asian Cities Climate Change Resilience Network (ACCCRN), a pioneering effort launched in 2008 to enable Asian cities to build their resilience to climate change. Today, with the Foundation’s support, over a dozen Asian cities have developed comprehensive urban climate-change resilience strategies, and a further 40 will be supported to do so over the next three years. And these strategies are already translating into concrete actions, with 30 projects now underway in India, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam, addressing specific problems related to issues such as land use planning, drainage and flood management, emergency response, ecosystem strengthening, citizens’ awareness and disease control. 
Through ACCCRN, we can see what a tremendous difference it makes when cities prioritise, plan for and secure the financing to implement urban resilience. In Thailand, building greater urban resilience is a vital priority given the large investments being made in expanding physical infrastructure, the economic value of urban economies, and the risks that Thailand faces in the context of climate change. For example, in Hat Yai, the construction of new roads has obstructed waterways, exacerbating seasonal flooding problems that are also being compounded by shifting rainfall patterns. The effect of this was most recently experienced in 2010, when 80 per cent of the city flooded, causing extensive economic losses and human suffering. 
Through the ACCCRN initiative, the Rockefeller Foundation has partnered with the Thailand Environment Institute and Songkhla Community Foundation to strengthen flood preparedness for some of the most vulnerable communities in the city. This has included generating detailed flood maps of households at risks, installing floodwater gauges and community level warning systems to ensure faster responses, and establishing better collaboration and information exchange systems between communities and different government departments so that the city is better prepared in advance of future crises. 
A key lesson we’ve learned through ACCCRN is that resilience must be prioritised at the highest levels of city leadership. Indeed, political will, along with multi-stakeholder collaboration and community engagement are essential for advancing successful urban resilience action. This why we’ve included resources for appointing a chief resilience officer as an innovative component of the overall package of support that selected cities receive. The 100 Resilience Cities Centennial Challenge is aimed at galvanising political support and promoting the capacities needed to act. Through this effort we hope to inspire an ever-growing number of cities worldwide to build their resilience in an increasingly complex and dynamic world, so that they have the ability to withstand and emerge stronger from whatever shocks and stresses they face over the next 100 years.
Ashvin Dayal is the managing director of the Rockefeller Foundation, Asia. To learn more about the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities Centennial Challenge, visit