How do you build city resiliency

A Resilient City is generally defined as one that has developed capacities to help absorb and even alleviate future shocks and stresses to its social, economic, and technical systems and infrastructures while maintaining the same functions, structures, systems, and identity. How do you build a resilient city? Stephen Taylor, Sydney City Executive, discusses.

Sydney City CBD

"...cities haven’t always had a good track record at preparing for, and then dealing with, either shocks or stresses.”

“Preparing not repairing” is the way King Alexander of the Netherlands described his country’s approach to handling both expected and unexpected emergencies during his recent trade mission to Sydney.

This comment stayed with me for a while. It then struck a deeper chord during the visit of Michael Berkowitz, President of the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities (100RC) Programme. Along with the UN’s City Resilience Profiling Programme, this pioneering initiative is driving global urban resilience – and in 2014, Sydney was selected for membership in the 100RC Network

A Resilient City consciously builds the resources, strategies and capacity to deal with everything from so-called ‘shocks’, such as natural disasters, economic blows and cyber-attacks, to subtler but no less damaging ‘stresses’, which can include traffic congestion, crime, pollution and unequal access to housing, education or healthcare, to name just a few.

However, cities haven’t always had a good track record at preparing for, and then dealing with, either shocks or stresses. In fact, most responses play out as costly catch-ups – even when risks are well known – perhaps because the costs associated with preparing rarely carry the political capital of other schemes. 

Being resilient doesn’t come easily. Not only do we need to understand a city’s assets and weaknesses, we need to map and measure possible shocks as well as both existing and potential stresses. We then need to proactively create the preparedness that will enable ready responses to shocks, while simultaneously identifying and enacting strategies that will ease current and prevent future stresses. With funding from the 100RC programme and establishment of Beck Dawson as our city’s Chief Resilience Officer, Sydney is beginning this journey. 

Interestingly, many areas of city resiliency are at the heart of city sustainability. Our recent Sustainable Cities Index looked at factors such as housing affordability, business readiness, and the aging of our population, as well as our exposure to natural disaster risk; all areas we often raise in city resiliency discussions.

City resiliency is about more than physical infrastructure, economic systems or legislation. It’s also about values such as inclusion, engagement and participation – cultural values that promote open dialogue, social cohesion, robust networks and strong communities. I believe that this diversity, which is embedded in the concept of resiliency, could be its biggest strength.

Before we get ahead of ourselves, one of the most important questions is how we define and measure what it means to be resilient. Lucy Cormack recently wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald that homeowners are ‘sitting ducks’, with property values declining while, at the same time, our household financial risk profile is climbing. So clearly, resiliency is not only a government issue, but one that’s literally close to home for many families.

It’s a fascinating debate that’s critical for our future – and it’s happening now. It’s time that we prepare.

Stephen Taylor

Australian Cities Director +61 2 8907 9084 Ask me a question
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