In our roles as enablers of economic growth, shapers of place and facilitators of community well-being, every decision we take could be explored through the lens of resilience and the capacity of our cities to prevent, address, recover from and adapt to disruption whether that disruption is a sudden, unexpected emergency or a slow-moving disaster. As long as 200 years ago, Thomas Jefferson highlighted that the concerns of disaster risk reduction and government are inextricably linked saying: “the purpose of government is to enable the people of a nation to live in safety and happiness”.
Thus the role of local government rests not only in civic leadership when acute shocks interrupt city life but also in creating and enabling resilience in all aspects of the city. This pivotal function of government can only be delivered locally since resilience is context specific, influenced by factors such as local risks, the size of a city, its industries, its heritage, its demographics and the access its communities have to risk-reducing mechanisms, together with its ‘built-in’ resilience resulting from previous investment in infrastructure and urban development.
Both the United Nations’ Making Cities Resilient campaign and the 100 Resilient Cities (100RC) programme, an initiative pioneered by the Rockefeller Foundation, recognise the overarching role of local government.
Within the UK, Greater Manchester, Kirklees, London and Stoke-On-Trent have signed up to the Making Cities Resilient Campaign. Cities within the Campaign report its usefulness in generating political momentum for resilience, giving exposure and validation to resilience and disaster risk reduction agendas and encouraging dialogue between the many stakeholders from across all sectors within a city who have a part to play in building resilience.
Five UK cities have been selected to participate in the 100RC programme – Belfast, Bristol, Glasgow, Greater Manchester and London. 100RC supports a view of resilience that includes not just the shocks – floods, heatwaves, fires etc.—but also the stresses that weaken the fabric of a city on a day to day or cyclical basis including high unemployment, inefficient public transport, crime or a lack of access to affordable housing. Bristol and Glasgow, as early participants, have published resilience strategies that address this interplay of shocks and stresses and both are starting to bring forward resilience projects that may offer ideas to other cities in the UK.
By addressing both shocks and the stresses, a city can become more able to respond to adverse events and to disruption, being better able to deliver basic functions in both good times and bad. Disruption is costly and can throw a city off course yet, equally, unexpected events can drive the delivery of reinvigorated places, redesigned services and reconnected communities, and in doing so generate a resilience dividend. The resilience of cities is beginning to be a factor in global investment decisions and, if another reason for pursuing resilience is required, it also lies at the heart of population health and well-being.
An emergency powerfully turns the spotlight of national government onto disaster response but local resilience building is a long-term activity. It requires us to both consciously and intentionally consider resilience as we avoid creating new risks, reduce the burden of existing historic risks and build the capacity of our cities and communities to cope with disruption. I’d like to suggest this agenda is challenging and requires a persistence and determination in local government.
The goal is to mainstream resilience into everyday business, weaving it into the very fabric of the city. Whilst recognising that much has already been achieved in this respect, for example the UK in comparison with many countries has a strong safety culture and regulatory framework, if local authorities do not provide visible leadership that cannot be ignored and do not advocate across sectors for resilience to be considered, it can be value-engineered out of decisions or fall down the agenda.
Few would disagree with Lianne Dalziel, an MP from New Zealand, when she says “not knowing about disaster risk is a dereliction of duty” and a focus on resilience can help our local authorities to lead our cities into the future addressing the social, economic and physical challenges of the 21st century.