Piecing together resilient cities

UN Development Programme
6 min readOct 31, 2018
©2018 Daan Roosegaarde

Over half of the global population lives in cities; by 2030, 60% of people will make cities their home. At this pace of growth, coupled with the increasing effects of climate change on global urban centres, when considering Sustainable Development, we must consider the urban.

In the past 20 years, disasters have killed around 1.3 million people and left 4.4 billion more injured, homeless, displaced or in need of emergency assistance. With climate change progressing in an unprecedented manner, and so is urbanization, this year’s World Cities Day, organized by UN-Habitat along with the cities of Shanghai and Liverpool, centres around the call to action: Building Sustainable and Resilient Cities.

Building sustainable and resilient cities, like the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), encompass a wide variety of issues. We asked urban experts, across social, climate, and innovation spheres, to share their opinion on how cities should look in the future to better respond to the challenges ahead of us.

Towards a Just City

by Toni L. Griffin, Professor in Practice of Urban Planning, Harvard Graduate School of Design, The Just City Lab

When we have not yet corrected for a past that divided the city, the future of cities will continue to promote inequality. Therefore, the future of cities must dismantle spatial segregation by becoming a more Just City.

Around the world, cities are growing with more diverse populations. However, this growth is often exacerbating already present racial and economic inequality, and therefore deepening spatially divided territories and xenophobia within the city. When we don’t live together, sharing the same spaces in our cities, we do not get to know one another. When we do not know one another, we do not learn to value or even respect difference. And when we do not respect difference, we do not create what Dr. Martin Luther King called, the “beloved community”.

The future of cities must put injustice in the past.

A Just City is where all people and communities, and especially the marginalized, have equitable and inclusive access to environments that offer the opportunities and resources to be productive and prosperous, advancing social and economic mobility and higher quality of life. Design for the Just City must be intentional and embed the values of reconciliation, acceptance, engagement and trust into the work of city-building — including the land policies, regulations, financing instruments and design standards necessary to dismantle the systems that perpetuate spatial segregation.

Smart Mobility for Communities

by Nels Nelson, Senior Planner at Stantec’s Urban Places

Mobility is becoming increasingly electrified, autonomous, and shared — what planners call the “three revolutions.” In the best case, transportation will revolve around autonomous transit and microtransit (shared electric scooters, bicycles, and other short range modes we haven’t yet imagined). It will have ride-hailing and a much smaller role for private, single-occupancy vehicles. The “three revolutions” will make travel radically safer, more equitable, decarbonized, more efficient, and cheaper. They will allow better use of land, as cities replace parking with other uses. In the worst case, the revolutions produce a host of problems. Swarms of empty autonomous vehicles would create even more traffic, suburban development would sprawl even further, and obesity rates would rise as fewer people walk.

To achieve equitable and vibrant communities, the best-case scenario, cities will need strong planning and policy.

Cities can start by reframing transportation infrastructure as moving people, not vehicles — configuring roads, sidewalks and paths to move the most people, most efficiently. That translates into supporting dense development around a robust network of car-free zones that allow people to get around on their own terms. Shared scooters and bicycles will provide convenient and fast (15 mph, 25 km/h) options for short trips. The humble bicycle lane will morph into a human-scaled mobility network that keeps bikes and electric scooters safe from conflicts with faster cars and slower pedestrians. People will use mass transit, including bus rapid transit, for longer trips, delivering the passenger-miles growing cities need to function. Transit will increasingly shift to autonomous operation as the technology matures, including first-mile/last-mile extensions that operate through flexible shuttles like ones being tested today in the Atlanta suburb of Chamblee, Georgia.

Streets are the lifeblood of the city; as a public good, they should work for every resident. Each community have an important role in creating the smart mobility future that works for them.

Building Climate Resilience

by Robert Kehew, Unit Leader, Climate Change Planning Unit, UN-Habitat

Following the 2014 floods, UN-Habitat, through its CCCI and Participatory Slum Upgrading Programme, helped the city of Honiara in the Solomon Islands develop adaptation planning capacities. In collaboration with the Government and City Council, efforts yielded the Honiara Urban Resilience and Climate Action Plan.

In Lao PDR, a project to enhance resilience focuses on 47,000 people in 189 vulnerable settlements affected by floods, droughts, landslides and climate-related diseases. In Africa, our work includes the conservation of a fragile ecological buffer from flooding via ecological zoning for Maputo and pro-poor approaches to building climate resilience in informal settlements.

Through the Cities and Climate Change Initiative (CCCI), we seek to enhance the preparedness and mitigation activities of cities in developing countries, emphasizing good governance, responsibility, leadership, and practical initiatives for local governments, communities, and citizens. Given the current and upcoming plight of climate change on poor communities, it is crucial that UN-Habitat focuses on helping the poor and marginalized communities adapt to the hard realities. Our Adaptation work in Africa includes the conservation of a fragile ecological buffer from flooding via ecological zoning for Maputo and pro-poor approaches to building climate resilience in informal settlements.

Inspiring Action

by Studio Roosegaarde

“Waterlicht” is the dream landscape about the power and poetry of water. As a virtual flood, it shows how high the water could reach without human intervention and raises awareness around rising water levels caused by global warming. The combination of water and innovation is engraved into the Dutch culture, most memorably in the sprawling network of water canals. “Waterlicht” is a powerful and poetic experience to remind us of the risk of inaction and the role for innovation.

A project that shows the sheer force of nature if we cease seeking innovative solutions to battle the rising water. “Waterlicht” takes the audience through a journey of water in specific locations.

Waterlicht is an inspiration for the future: can we build floating cities, how much power can we generate from the movement of water? Experience the vulnerability and the power of living with water,” says Daan Roosegaarde, Artist and Innovator

Inclusive, Resilient, Sustainable Urban Development

By Rejeev Issar, Policy Specialist, Global Climate Risks and Risk Governance, UNDP

Considering that the battle for sustainable development will increasingly be fought in cities, the center of gravity for action to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) will inevitably gravitate towards urban centres. Ensuring a resilient and sustainable urban development paradigm will necessitate a range of actions involving incremental steps such as improving efficiency within existing technological, governance and value systems, as well as transformational changes, accompanied by a cultural shift in governance contexts.

The United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP) policy and programmatic work involve supporting countries and cities in advancing evidence-based urban development, strengthening urban governance and systems, promoting livelihood resilience and implementing disaster and climate-resilient development solutions. The regional Arab Cities Resilience Project helps municipal authorities identify actions and benchmarks to measure progress of resilience building. In the Europe and CIS Region, the ICT for Disaster Risk Reduction project helped cities develop ICT based solutions to manage disaster and climate risks as well as other emergencies.

The facts that nearly two-thirds of the urban infrastructure is yet to be built and that secondary and tertiary cities emerge as the fastest growing urban areas, offer a great opportunity to develop inclusive, resilient and sustainable cities. Our past experience and future projections testify to this need.