The RSIS Centre for Non-Traditional Security (NTS) Studies' Blog

Resilient Cities in a Hazard Sensitive World

Cities are complex living systems. A city is home to many inhabitants and other living organisms that live within a melded natural and built environment. These elements of a city form a dynamic, relationship between humans and their urban environment, which evolves as cities grow. The rapid and multidimensional changes in a city affect the capability of the city to respond to changes. The ability of a city to cope with change is a subject to urban resilience. Resilience has multiple meanings in various contexts, however  the Resilience Alliance has contributed a useful definition which states that resilience refers to the ability of a system to not only absorb disturbances but also to learn from them.

Disturbances driven by rapid population growth, pollution and climate change bring about changes to the urban environment. Additionally, changes occurring in urban socio-ecological systems are crucial as they influence the resilience of the urban environment. Such changes can also cause shocks and vulnerability and lead to declining urban resilience. Thus, the resilience of the urban socio-ecological systems demonstrates its adaptive capacity to respond to the “unexpected or unpredictable shocks”. Resilience can be built, maintained and managed by taking into account uncertainties and complexity in the process. This approach is called adaptive management.

It would seem that the idea of creating a resilient city requires a kind of reinvented governance that embraces a learning process in a changing environment. As cities grow, changes will keep occurring and they are not always predictable. Thus, the method of controlling the driver of change or the change itself seems to be outdated. Cities need to be flexible to changes for which they will have little capacity to pre-empt the causes. Despite a wealth of uncertainties, it is clear that cities should strive to build adaptive capacities and facilitate fluid learning processes that attempt to understand changing conditions.

Recent events that have affected coastal cities have brought these needs to the forefront of global awareness. Some examples of these events are Sumatera earthquake and India Ocean tsunami that lashed coastal areas in Asia and Africa, Hurricane Katrina that devastated New Orleans, USA and the current earthquake and tsunami that hit the east coast of Honshu, Japan. An interesting point to note from the earthquake and tsunami in Japan is how the calamities have been discussed as a test of Japan’s resilience. The Japanese resilient spirit has clearly mesmerised the world. Central to their resilience is the human agency that demonstrated through the way governments and wider communities respond to the shocks and behave during the crisis. The resilience is visible in the people’s behaviour, yet it might be too early to claim that the cities are also resilient.

There are three questions to answer in order to prove a city’s resilience, they are:

  1. To what degree the cities have been affected and to what extent that they can still provide basic services?
  2. How soon the affected cities are able to self-reorganize?
  3. How much these cities can learn from and adapt to the changes resulted?

These questions suggest that it will take time to properly examine the resilience of a city as it is measured using both environmental and social perspectives. It is inevitable that disasters have somehow become the tool to test for cities’ resilience. The directly affected cities might be assessed for their ability to provide water, electricity, food and other supplies despite the loss they experience. Disaster preparedness and relief programs are also examined not only whether they are available but also whether they are effective. It is important that such response measures be applied to both the highly affected cities and surrounding cities, as the later might be less affected but crucially play roles with regard to providing support for the highly affected cities. By looking at wide range elements in the social-ecological systems, from city’s environment to city’s governance we could then make a proper and complete assessment of a city’s resilience.

All in all, such a ‘test’ should be for all coastal cities across the world. Taking into account the past, present and future events, cities in the world need to start the learning process.


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