WUF7: City Resiliency — Facing the Reality of Natural and Man Made Disasters

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This is the sixth post in a series of blogs on the World Urban Forum 7 in Medellin, Colombia.

climate-sotu

Throughout the week long meeting of the World Urban Forum in Medellin, Colombia, there was clear agreement:

Our climate is changing, temperatures are increasing, sea levels are rising, droughts are worsening, storms are becoming more violent, fires are larger and more expansive, the interface between urban and rural areas seems to be disappearing, allowing diseases to spread to places where they once never existed, and other natural disasters like earthquakes are impacting more and more people.

Furthermore, as the world’s population becomes increasingly urban, as human settlements occupy more and more available land, natural and man made disasters are becoming more consequential.

But there was also agreement that population and density alone are not the reasons that natural and man made disasters are becoming more consequential. Our cities are becoming more dependent on technology to work; the infrastructures of our cities are becoming more complex; individually and collectively we are becoming more dependent on mass services for survival. If our cities are to continue to grow and become places of opportunity, they must be able to respond to the impacts of environmental and other changes, and resilient not just for some, but for all regardless of their economic or social position.

On the last day of WUF7 this message was driven home again and again in a dialogue that included Joan Clos, director of the World Urban Forum; Judith Rodin, president of the Rockefeller Foundation; Luz Helena Sarmiento Villamizar, Colombia’s Minister of Environment and Sustainable Development and others intimately involved in addressing urban resiliency.

Joan Clos said that “we must create a new system of organization because of the limitations of available land. The more land we occupy the more problematic is our growth, especially if we wish to be resilient.”

Judith Rodin said that everything we do in cities must be done through the lens of resiliency so that our cities and the people who live there can adapt, survive, respond and grow no matter what the shock, and do so without regard to the economic or social position of the city or its residents. She added, “Never before has humanity faced such a threat as it does today. The sheer number of people at risk at any one time is unprecedented.”

There was also agreement that to do so takes money and innovation, and requires engaging all members of society while developing strong partnerships between the public and private sectors. And lest we think the cost is too great, the Rockefeller Foundation’s research shows that every dollar invested will save $15 in future losses. “The upfront costs are huge, but the cost of doing nothing is far greater. For example, the World Bank has shown that right now 25 percent of the businesses that fail after a disruptive event never reopen. That is too high a cost.”

What then is a resilient city? Luz Helena Sarmiento Villamizar put it this way: It is one in which the risks from climate change are mitigated, the relationship between sustainable and urban development are understood, and are done so understanding that the challenge of creating an equitable city must be the defining lens.

Therefore, it is not enough to ensure that the wealthiest parts of a city come back to life; or that the downtown business district is protected. It requires that every resident, every neighborhood, every community and ultimately the entire city come together to respond to a natural or man made crisis.

“In Colombia it means that we cannot forget that poor people are likely to be the most vulnerable. If we are to meet their needs we must include them in the resiliency planning and development process, since they are the most vulnerable economically and socially,” said Villamizar.

Kathrine Vines, director of the climate change risk assessment network of C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, a non-governmental organization working with 66 cities around the world to mitigate the effects of climate change, reiterated this point. “We must ensure that each city’s residents, economies, etc., can respond to the undeniable stress of climate change since cities are the first place citizens go to manage risks of climate impacts,” Vines said.

Stefan Denig, vice president of Siemens Sustainable Cities Program said “we must not forget that cities are at incredible risk of huge catastrophes. London has built barriers to the Thames. In the first 30 years the barriers were only raised twice; in the last decade they have been raised 40 times. It is likely that New York City will experience a disruptive weather event every three years.”

Denig added, “if New York City failed to move toward a more resilient city, it would lose $3 billion over the next 20 years. If it only responded with protection it would still lose money over the next 20 years. But if it moved toward resiliency, investing the same $3 billion over the next 12 years would save the city about $6 billion over 20 years.”

So what then was the lesson of this dialogue, one that also included the mayors of Lampa, and Quillota, Chile, both of which in the last ten years experienced an 8.9 earthquake, a tsunami on the nearby coast, and serious flooding; a council member from Toronto, which has begun to experience devastating winters due to a shift in the jet stream; and a representative from the World Bank who underscored the financial problems facing any efforts to create resilient cities? That time is rapidly running out to create resilient cities that can respond to and recover from the ongoing changes in climate, and the increasing urbanization of the planet, both of which are conspiring to increase the likelihood of experiencing catastrophic events. To do otherwise, is to live in a constant state of denial that can only result in catastrophic outcomes.

Neil Bomberg

About the author: Neil Bomberg is NLC’s Program Director for Human Development. Through Federal Advocacy, he lobbies on behalf of cities around education, workforce development, health care, welfare, and pensions. Follow Neil on Twitter at @neilbomberg.