Uniting for resilience

Cities are facing environmental and social threats through civic cohesion

Sean Dudley
21 June 2017

6 min read

Cities around the globe have networks of organizations, systems and processes in place to cope with threats such as terrorist attacks or natural disasters. But a new focus on civic unity – encouraging citizens, businesses and governments to work together to strengthen the community – also is helping cities become more resilient.

When Glasgow, Scotland, hosted the 2014 Commonwealth Games, the city saw an opportunity to not only showcase itself to a global audience, but also benefit the lives of its citizens. A site previously prone to flooding and contaminated from industrial use was cleared, made safe and developed as an athletes’ village. Today, that site is a safe residential area with 1,400 houses.Glasgow’s experience reflects the city’s dedication to resilience, both physical and social. Although resilience traditionally is associated with prevention of and response to major threats, including natural disasters, terrorism and climate change, a growing resilience movement is expanding to focus on creating a better community.

The Rockefeller Foundation, a nonprofit organization headquartered in New York City and dedicated to “improve the well-being of humanity” since its founding in 1913, defines resilience as “the capacity of individuals, communities, institutions, businesses, and systems within a city to survive, adapt, and grow, no matter what kinds of chronic stresses and acute shocks they experience.” The Rockefeller Foundation formalized its resilience ambitions in 2013 by creating the 100 Resilient Cities (100RC) movement, which works with cities to enhance global resilience.Three of the 100RC cities – Rotterdam in the Netherlands, Toyama, Japan, and Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, reflect how widely the challenges can vary – and why resilience is becoming an increasingly important issue for cities everywhere.


Rotterdam faces location-specific challenges – especially flooding – that cannot be ignored. Its leaders, however, are equally focused on social issues.“It’s important from a resilience perspective that our physical systems are robust and resilient,” said Arnoud Molenaar, chief resilience officer (CRO) for the city. “But the same applies for the social fabric of the city. Without a good physical resilience infrastructure, it’s impossible to be a resilient city. But without a good social resilience system, the same applies. Both components are of vital importance.”Rotterdam’s resilience focus includes stepping up its efforts to move companies with a presence in the city away from fossil fuels and toward more sustainable energy sources.



“We have to start a journey of transformation,” Molenaar said. “We must find the best way of meeting our resilience goals, which include physical and social factors and cover social cohesion and education, cyber use and security, adaptation to climate change, infrastructure and changing governance.”Like the Netherlands, Japan is renowned for the physical challenges inherent in its geography. But while the city of Toyama has occasional floods, its main challenges are social in nature.“When we look at resilience, we’re not necessarily thinking about catastrophe,” said Joseph Runzo-Inada, Toyama’s CRO. “Relatively, Toyama’s pretty secure. But we do have a declining and aging population, and this affects everything. It means costs go up while the tax base is going down. That’s a stress on our city that we must become more resilient to.”In Vancouver, on the other hand, isolation is a major issue, said Penny Gurstein, professor and director of the School of Community and Regional Planning and the Centre for Human Settlements at the University of British Columbia.“If people don’t know their neighbors or feel comfortable enough to work with their neighbors, that could be a big issue,” she said. “There’s a lot of density in most modern cities, but if a shock occurs and people don’t know how to work together, problems will arise and resilience will be lower.”


In response to growing concerns about resilience, the Rockefeller Foundation pioneered 100RC to help “cities around the world become more resilient to the physical, social and economic challenges that are a growing part of the 21st century.”When 100RC was first created, cities globally applied to be part of the new network. An expert panel judged cities’ suitability for membership based on factors such as “innovative mayors, a recent catalyst for change, a history of building partnerships and an ability to work with a wide range of stakeholders.”The foundation’s 100 member cities face vast and varied challenges, including inefficient public transportation systems, endemic violence and chronic food and water shortages.100RC helps cities adopt resilient practices by providing the resources needed to develop a resilience road map. In addition to delivering financial and logistical guidance, the organization helps cities access strategic partners to support their resilience efforts and offers a network for 100RC members to collaborate by learning and sharing ideas.


Each member city also has a CRO. The CRO is employed by the city to help lead its efforts, work with government departments and stakeholders and act as a “point person” to ensure the city applies a “resilience lens” to all of its plans and projects.


To help cities become more resilient, 100RC developed a City Resilience Framework, which guides cities in addressing health and well-being; economy and society; infrastructure and environment; and leadership and strategy.“The Resilience Framework helped our city staff and citizens achieve a more comprehensive understanding of resilience and the issues Toyama was better at tackling and not as good at tackling,” Runzo-Inada said. “This framework is a starting point for resilience planning.” CROs are responsible for developing strategic plans to address their cities’ specific challenges. While these differ from city to city, common themes emerge. A city in Asia, for example, could face a threat from earthquakes similar to those faced by a city thousands of miles away in South America. Through the 100RC network, the two cities could benefit from common advice and systems, allowing for improved resilience efforts.“The strategic plan each city produces is its most important tool,” RunzoInada said. “These are shared among the 100RC cities. 100RC also sponsors conferences, and these often provide the best opportunities for one-on-one discussion to help truly understand the significance of the published plans.”


While the 100RC network offers a global forum for resilience challenges, Duncan Booker, Glasgow’s CRO, stresses that it is important for cities to work with local companies and people to quickly identify a city’s most prevalent issues.



“When we got together with our local partners, they immediately said to us that the key issue in Glasgow was around tackling inequalities,” Booker said. “That was the real long-term stress on people that we needed to look at. Therefore, in many ways, we believe a more just and a fairer city is the basis for a resilient city.”Rotterdam’s Molenaar emphasizes the need to listen to the collective voice of the city’s most important asset – its people.“We’ve done interviews with around 3,000 citizens in Rotterdam,” he said. “We asked them what they thought was the most important of all the resilience topics, and they consistently told us ‘social resilience.’” By gathering firsthand information from citizens, Rotterdam is now better equipped to identify what it must do to boost resilience and can act as an example for other cities to follow.“The first step toward resilience is defining what kind of city you want to be,” Molenaar said. “Identify what are the major challenges or disruptive transitions you are facing right now and will face in the future. Then define goals and develop an approach to meet these. In Rotterdam, our mission is to come up with solutions that are integrated, multifunctional and always add value to the city in a broad perspective.”


100RC cities can access a range of platform partners to support resilience efforts. These include global software organizations that can help with resilience planning, as well as companies in resilience-relevant industry sectors such as insurance and transportation.“Through the 100RC system, you can meet the key people in these organizations who are interested in helping with resilience,” Runzo-Inada said. “You have the opportunity to access skills these organizations have and begin to identify how they can help with the specific problems your city faces. Working with these platform partners can be very valuable.”


Though the movement’s initial emphasis was on cities’ physical challenges, more CROs today are investing in their citizens to reach their goals.“If you look at an incident that would normally require an ‘emergency’ response, the first responder ideally should be your neighbor,” Booker said. “Therefore, building greater social cohesion across communities is a key aspect of resilience. In Glasgow, most people don’t know or need to know the names of their neighbors. We’ve got a challenge there. But if you start from the point of view of emergencies and of shocks, this is absolutely at the heart of things. This is increasingly becoming a key feature of our resilience approach.”In Vancouver, Gurstein identifies a growing activism across all aspects of society, with civic pride, cohesion and resilience at its heart.“I think when people are pushed to the breaking point, things come out,” she said. “People are saying ‘no’ to things and being more active about enabling positive change in their cities. In Vancouver there’s a growing sense of civic pride and citizens wanting to make a great community, despite pressures such as lack of affordability and house prices in the city. But I think there are enough people saying, ‘This is enough, we have to do something.’ That, for me, is resilience in action.” Such passion is key to resilience, Runzo-Inada said.“I look at cities like athletes,” he said. “Two athletes might have the same ‘measurables,’ but one performs at a consistently outstanding level and the other does not. With athletes, we sometimes talk about ‘heart’ – that immeasurable something extra. Likewise with cities. A resilient city must have civic pride, strong community bonds and deep commitment among citizens. These are not fully measurable qualities, but are fundamental to the creation and sustainability of a resilient city.”

For more information on the 100 Resilient Cities movement:http://3ds.one/Resilient

Related resources