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Building Resilient Cities–Not Tomorrow, But Now

It’s not easy. Globally, humanity is enduring one of the most difficult moments in decades. The experience is particularly bewildering for younger generations, who have never encountered challenge of this magnitude before.
By Esteban León
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Building Resilient Cities–Not Tomorrow, But Now

It’s not easy. Globally, humanity is enduring one of the most difficult moments in decades. The experience is particularly bewildering for younger generations, who have never encountered challenge of this magnitude before. 

We are all forced to take this pandemic seriously to stop the spread of the virus. The necessary measures to accomplish this imperative–from curfews and quarantines, to lockdowns that are unprecedented in scope and duration–will have immense consequences. The damage to global, national and local economies is readily apparent. There are also other less tangible consequences, including the psychological impact of giving up our freedom of movement and the fear that potentially authoritarian governments could use the crisis as an opportunity to increase control. 

It is also frightening to witness how easily systems and even communities seem to be “deconstructed” in front of our eyes.  While the sky, seas, rivers are clearer, and wildlife, relishing the lack of noise, vehicles, contamination and human presence, is venturing out into spaces that were dangerous just weeks before; the financial markets, our human “empires”, are diminishing rapidly. Humanity should seize this opportunity for collective reflection.

Building resilient cities. Somewhat counterintuitively, what most people visualize when they think of a city is the infrastructure–the bridges, buildings, streets–the “lights” of the city as some economist used to say.  This conception is counterintuitive because all of these structures were preceded and created by people, for people. Like our infrastructure, efforts to build more resilient cities must also be by people, for people. 

For this reason, the city resilience approach that UN-Habitat has developed is based on the social aspects and governance capacity (or lack of) in cities.  The objective of diagnosing urban systems’ capacities is meaningless if the exercise doesn’t go hand in hand with an effort to understand humanity, in this case the inhabitants of the city.  The ultimate objective is to improve the living conditions of the population while maximizing resources and preserving natural resources. A healthy city provides the best quality of life for the most people.

The world’s population grew from two billion to over seven and a half billion over the course of the last half century. The physical space of the globe did not expand. Now, the same space that only fifty years ago supported two billion people must somehow accommodate triple that amount. More than half of the world’s population now lives in urban areas. This means that some four billion people are living together in cities. If current trends continue–and there is no solid reason to believe they will not–by the close of the current century there will be more than eleven billion humans on earth. 

I’ve been asked many times recently about the value of compact cities in light of the current pandemic. Without doubt measures such as self-isolation, staying indoors and practicing social distancing are more difficult in a very compact city setting. However, compact cities do provide benefits even in a crisis such as this, for example access to basic services and medical care. Compact cities are also, regardless of any one individual’s feelings about the matter, the cities of the future given the world’s exponential population growth.  Given this reality, we must act now to plan better, more sustainable and resilient cities. 

Urban planning is a technical and political tool and process that, when done well, is the best way to reduce risk. The idea is simple: we must ensure that, while developing the cities of the present, we consider the cities of the future and the potential shocks and stresses the future may bring, such as the one that we are living through now.   

The compact city concept promotes relatively high residential density with mixed land uses. It is based on efficient mobility and has an urban layout that encourages walking and cycling, the maximization of energy consumption and reduced negative environmental impact. The benefits of a well-planned compact city include shorter commute times, cleaner air, and reduced noise and the consumption of fossil fuels and energy. 

Lessons hopefully learned.  My hope is that the COVID-19 pandemic crisis awakens us to the fragility in which we all live. That fragility is not solely attributable to the direct effect of the illness; rather, the virus is revealing weaknesses in the systems we have built. We all live in the same world, everything is interconnected. Probably (hopefully) that is more evident in a city, where all urban systems depend and reinforce each other. As the COVID-19 crisis has made painfully clear, a pandemic impacts us all. North, South, East and West, we must come together to advocate, plan and build resilient cities, not tomorrow, but now.   

Esteban León
Head of City Resilience Global Programme, United Nations Human Settlments Programme (UN-Habitat)

Resilience Pills

Launch of Making Cities Resilient 2030 (MCR2030)

UN-Habitat Executive Director's in the presentation of the CRGP in Barcelona

UN-Habitat Celebrates World Cities Day 2019 - Barcelona

Programa de Cooperació Barcelona – Maputo

Barcelona Resilience Week 2018 Highlights

Highlights World Cities Day 2018 in Barcelona.

New Resilience Challenges - Barcelona Resilience Week [Workshop]

Towards Sustainable and Resilient Cities - Barcelona Resilience Week 2018

Building resilience with CityRAP

Barcelona's Climate Plan with Irma Ventayol, Barcelona City Council [ENG]

SDG11 Progress 2018

UN-Habitat Executive Director on resilience

Shocks and stresses on the sustainability of settlements

Interview: Esteban Leon on Development-Humanitarian nexus

Barcelona facing climate change

Mayor of Maputo, David Simango, on city-to-city cooperation

Principles for co-production

Cape Town Drought - Alderman Ian Neilson, Executive Deputy Mayor City of Cape Town

Local Government Resilience Programme Jordan

'We Live Here Together' - A short film about creating a sustainable & inclusive urban future

Entrevista a Amaia Celaya

Ron Dembo - Citizen Roles in Resilient Cities

Sembrando Resiliencia

Urban Resilience Hub by UN-Habitat

New Urban Agenda Interview Corner - Christin Kristoffersen (Arctic Cities)

New Urban Agenda Interview Corner - Dan Lewis (UN-Habitat)

Yakutsk mayor interview

Resilient Cities Series: Interview with Mayor of Asuncion, Mario Ferreiro

Resilient Cities Series: Full interview with Mayor of Maputo

Talking Resilience with staff from Maputo City Council

Building Urban Resilience in Maputo

The metropolitan scale of Resilience

Resilient Cities Series: Full interview with Mayor of Yakutsk (Russia)

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The Library

Executive Summary – Recommendations of Actions for Resilience and Sustainability

English2019

Executive Summary – Recommendations of Actions for Resilience and Sustainability

English2019

Executive Summary – Recommendations of Actions for Resilience and Sustainability

English 2020

Executive Summary – Recommendations of Actions for Resilience and Sustainability

English2020

Sumário Executivo – Recomendações de Ações para a Resiliência e a Sustentabilidade

Português2019

Resumen Ejecutivo – Recomendaciones de Acciones para la Resiliencia y la Sostenibilidad

Español2019

Sommaire Exécutif – Recommandations d’Actions pour la Résilience et la Durabilité

French2020

City Resilience Action Planning Tool (CityRAP)

English2018

Key messages on COVID-19 and informal settlements

English2020

Recommendations of Actions for Resilience and Sustainability

English2019

Recommandations d’Actions pour la Résilience et la Durabilité

French2020

Recommendations of Actions for Resilience and Sustainability

English 2020

Recomendaciones de Acciones para la Resiliencia y la Sostenibilidad

Spanish2019

Breaking Cycles of Risk Accumulation in African Cities

English2020

Guía para la Resiliencia Social

Spanish2018

Realising the Multiple Benefits of Climate Resilience and Inclusive Development in Informal Settlements

English2019

Building Urban Resilience in the Face of Crisis

English 2019

Gender Equality Enhancer

French 2019

Global Report 2019

English2019

Apoyando la Reconstrucción de Hogares después de Desastres

Spanish 2019

Soutenir la reconstruction de logements après une catastrophe

French 2019

Supporting Safer Housing Reconstruction After Disaster

English2019

Annual Report 2018

English2018

Infrastructure Improvement Enhancer

English 2019

Guide to the City Resilience Profiling Tool

Russian2019

Climate Action Enhancer

Russian2019

Barcelona Resilience Week 2018 Report

English2018

Data Speak Louder Than Words

English2018

Human Rights Enhancer

English2018

Supporting Housing Reconstruction After Disaster

English2018

Resource Efficiency Enhancer

English2018

Social Resilience Guide

English2018

Working Towards More Resilient Cities

English2018

Guide to the City Resilience Profiling Tool

English2018

Progress on MCSR action 2

English2018

Informality Action Enhancer

English2018

World Cities Day 2018

English2018

Annual Report 2017

English2018

Local Governments’ Pocket Guide to Resilience

English2015

Press Kit – French

French2017

Press Kit – Spanish

Spanish2018

Progress on MCSR action 1

English2018

Making Cities Sustainable & Resilient

English2018

Climate Action Enhancer

English2018

Gender Equality Enhancer

English2018

Urban Resilience Flyer

English2017

Press Kit

English2017

City Resilience Profiling Programme volume 8

English

City Resilience Profiling Programme volume 7

English

City Resilience Profiling Programme volume 6

English

City Resilience Profiling Programme volume 5

English

City Resilience Profiling Programme World Urban Forum

English 2014

City resilience profiling programme Volume 3

English 2014

City Resilience Profiling Programme Volume 2

English2013

City Resilience Profiling Programme

English2012

Highlights 2017

English2017

How Resilient is your City

English2017

City Resilience Profiling Program – Volume 9

English2017

City Resilience Profiling Programme – Habitat III Special Edition

English2017

City Resilience Profiling Programe – Volume 11

English2017

Trends in Urban Resilience 2017

English2017