Globally, all cities are vulnerable to severe impacts from a range of shocks and stresses that can be both natural and human made. Today, cities and city inhabitants are facing additional and amplified challenges as a result of rapid urbanization, climate change and political instability. Taking into account that 50% of the population already lives in cities and that, by 2050, this figure is expected to reach the 70%, there is a pressing need for new tools and approaches that strengthen local administrations and citizens, as well as their capacity to face new challenges and to better protect human, economic and natural assets of our towns and cities.

Resilience refers to the ability of any urban system to maintain continuity through all shocks and stresses while positively adapting and transforming towards sustainability. Therefore, a resilient city is one that assesses, plans and acts to prepare for and respond to all hazards, either sudden or slow-onset, expected or unexpected. By doing so, cities are better able to protect and enhance people’s lives, secure development gains, foster and investible environment and drive positive change.

As risks and urban population are dramatically increasing, the concept of resilience has gained greater prominence in international development. This is of special relevance due to the fact that, as vulnerable groups and the poor are more prone to shocks and stresses and they may not have the resources to recover, the global agendas having resilience as a key concept will ensure that the call for sustainable and resilient cities leaves no one behind. Furthermore, it is essential to understand that resilience lies at the core of the humanitarian-development nexus due to the fact that, in its essence, it must seek the betterment of people. Ingraining resilience, therefore, must reduce risks by increasing capacities and must decrease fragility by enhancing effective and forward-thinking responses.

Why resilience in cities?

Over the last decade, natural disasters affected more than 220 million people and caused economic damage of USD $100 million per year. The number of people affected by disasters since 1992 amounts to 4.4 billion people (equivalent to 64% of the world’s population), and economic damage amounts to roughly US $2.0 trillion (equivalent to 25 years of total Official Development Assistance). In 2015 alone, 117 countries and territories - 54% of the world - were hit by disasters.

Cities hit by mega-disasters, such as Kobe or New Orleans, can take more than a decade to recover to their pre-disaster standards. Chronic and recurrent crises, as seen in the droughts in the Horn of Africa, require the root causes of crises be addressed, rather than only responding to the consequences. Other natural disasters are also threatening a huge part of the population. In fact, currently, river flooding poses a threat to over 379 million urban residents, with earthquakes and strong winds potentially affecting 283 million and 157 million respectively.

Human-made disasters, such as conflicts and technological disasters, can also undermine the development gains of countries and cities. The number of people at risk is increasing significantly, with rapid urbanization inducing uncontrolled and densely populated informal settlements in hazard-prone areas. Furthermore, climate change has further exacerbated the risks that cities face as it has provoked sea-levels to rise threatening, in this way, the 200 million people living along coastlines that are less than 5 meters above sea level.

In sum, cities and local governments need to increase their capacity to reduce both the damage and the recovery period from any potential disaster.

What is UN-Habitat doing for resilience?

UN-Habitat’s goal is to increase the resilience of cities to the impacts of natural and human made crisis. To do so, UN-Habitat firmly believes that working directly with local governments and their partners is essential as they are the level of governance, which is closer to citizens. For this reason, it has launched the City Resilience Profiling Programme (CRPP), which supports local governments to build their capacity to improve resilience by developing a comprehensive and integrated urban planning and management approach, as well as tools for measuring and profiling city resilience to all types of hazards.

The flagship initiative of CRPP is the City Resilience Profiling Tool (CRPT), which follows a people-centred and holistic approach to analyse the entire city from a resilience perspective. Furthermore, UN-Habitat has recently launched the Urban Resilience Hub, which provides a space for knowledge, best practice and innovation to flourish. A part from providing tools and guidance, the hub works along three more complimentary strings. Firstly, it provides knowledge as it gathers best practices, challenges and experiences from local governments and their partners. It specially does so in the sections of “Food for Thought” and “Resilience Pills”, which offer the newest ideas and thinking on development while providing testimonies from real cities. Secondly, it carries out advocacy activities through campaigns, networks and promotion, as it is committed to telling stories of real cities taking concrete action to protect their infrastructure, functionality and inhabitants. Finally, it also promotes partnerships and collaboration, as UN-Habitat contributes, leads or hosts a number of the networks to further knowledge, practice and awareness of urban resilience.

UN-Habitat is collaborating with several cities in order to implement and enforce resilience. On-going collaborations include the city of Asunción (Paraguay), which is committed to building resilience against water-related hazards such as flooding; Barcelona (Spain), which co-developed CRPT through contributions and expertise; Dakar (Senegal), which faces uncontrolled urban development and growth; Maputo (Mozambique), focused on building resilience in vulnerable informal settlements; Port Vila (Vanuatu), a small island state that is vulnerable to numerous natural hazards; and Yakutsk (Russia), the largest city built on permafrost with extreme temperatures.

Partnerships and Communities of Practice

Global commitment to urban resilience has grown substantially over the past decade. As a result, a growing number of communities of practice working on the topic have been created. UN-Habitat contributes, leads and hosts a number of the networks to further knowledge, practice and awareness of urban resilience.