Resilience—the most probable buzzword to be associated with post-pandemic recovery.
Defined as the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties, resilience has been and will continue to be a coping mechanism that most of us will rely on to bounce back from this pandemic, whether individually or on a much grander scale.
As one of the panelists in the Institute of Strategic Resource Management’s (ISRM) Round Table Discussion held last 29 July 2021, Prof. Marqueza Cathalina L. Reyes, D.Eng., Academic Program Director of the Executive Master in Disaster Risk and Crisis Management of the Asian Institute of Management, shared her insights on urban resiliency, specifically for cities in developing countries.
“The Covid-19 pandemic has laid bare the vulnerabilities of cities both in developing and developed world. Against biological hazards and exposes the inadequacies and weaknesses of their health care systems. This unprecedented public health emergency has produced cascading shocks that affected the economic and financial systems of entire countries, underlining the importance of a systems approach in strengthening urban resilience and risk governance. The pandemic also has undoubtedly shown the global connection of cities, as cities have become the epicenters of the pandemic, where over 90 percent of confirmed cases occur, and from which the disease started to spread, first among globally connected cities then to virtually all corners of the world,” stated Prof. Marqueza in her research paper for the ISRM Round Table Discussion.
The challenges we are facing, and some of the possible options we have for responding to and managing the risks and threats that define our new reality was discussed in-depth during the event.
Completing the roster of esteemed ISMR Global Roundtable panelists were Lord Toby Harris, ISRM President and Chair of UK Preparedness Commission; Xavier Castellanos, Undersecretary-General of IFRC and lead of the IFRC Urban Resilience and Strategy 2030 program; and Nadine Sulkowski, University of Gloucester Project Lead for the Erasmus Project BUiLD (Building Universities for Leadership in Disaster Resilience).
Read on for the full transcript of Prof. Marqueza’s thought piece during the ISMR Round Table Discussion.
Resilience of cities in developing countries in Asia: Quo vadis?
Marqueza L. Reyes, Dr. Eng.
Assistant Professor and Academic Program Director,
Executive Master in Disaster Risk and Crisis Management Program, Asian Institute of Management
for the ISRM Global Roundtable on Urban Resilience
29 July 2021
Urbanization and Disasters
We live in an urban world. With more than 4.2 billion people now inhabiting cities, the world has become more than 55 percent urban. By end of this decade, this is projected to become 60 percent. With an annual growth rate of 1.8, the world urban population has a doubling time of 38 years. This demographic shift towards urban living is a megatrend that is expected to continue.
Most of this urban growth will take place in developing countries in Asia and Africa, and many of these cities are located in coastal areas. These already highly urbanized and densely populated cities will likely continue to grow and expand in a manner that is haphazard, poorly managed, and unsustainable. Further, most if not all cities in Asian countries like Indonesia, Thailand, Philippines, Bangladesh, India, China, and others have to also face extreme weather events including more severe storms, prolonged rainfall, flash floods, heatwaves, etc. are exacerbated by climate change. Coastal cities, in particular, are at risk of significant storm surge flooding during storms because of rising sea levels. According to C40, by 2050, over 800 million people living in more than 570 cities, many of which are major cities in Asia, will be vulnerable to sea-level rise and coastal flooding and 1.6 billion urban dwellers will be regularly exposed to extremely high temperatures. The global economic costs to cities due to sea-level rise and flooding could amount to USD 1 trillion by mid-century. 
The impacts of extreme weather are intensified by rapid urbanization. Urbanization concentrates people, property, and assets in hazardous and rather confined locations, thus increasing exposure and thereby the disaster risk of cities. Urbanization also increases the demand for existing infrastructure that is already aging and poorly maintained in these urban centers. For example, the water supply system becomes extremely overloaded during the summer months due to higher temperatures as a result of global warming and increasing population. This ‘everyday vulnerability’ of cities, from insufficient water supply, inadequate and unsafe housing, inadequate affordable health care services to lack of decent employment and livelihood opportunities affects the urban poor and vulnerable groups the most.
Aside from climate-induced and hydro-meteorological hazards, many cities in Asia are vulnerable to geophysical hazards such as earthquakes. Rapid urbanization likewise intensifies the disaster risk of cities from ground shaking and liquefaction, as many urban centers are located along coastlines, rivers, and in floodplains since cities have traditionally used waterways as transportation corridors. Such areas are underlain by soft soils that can liquefy and magnify ground shaking that could cause more damage to substandard buildings, non-engineered housing, and infrastructure systems that are poorly maintained.
What does resilience mean in the urban setting?
In a changing climate while in the midst of a pandemic, building the resilience of cities in has become an imperative. However, the meaning of resilience needs to be pinned down, especially when it is applied to urban settings. From a study of 20 cities in North America that looked into how cities were structuring and coordinating resilience work, numerous emerging definitions of resilience arose in discussions with local authorities and practitioners. Thus, one of the conclusions of the study was that there is a need for a clear definition of resilience in the context of urban governance.
Looking at the city, from the point of view of an urban planner like myself, a city is a system of systems. For one, a city is an economic and financial hub, a growth center in relation to its regional area of influence, and at the same time, it is also a part of a wider system of cities at the national and global levels. For example, if and when a large earthquake hits Metro Manila (the so-called Big One), which is the primate city of the Philippines producing about 37% (2019) of its GDP, the country’s whole economy would suffer unimaginable economic and financial losses, not to mention the cost of business and service interruption, building and infrastructure damage and losses, and the cost of reconstruction that the capital region itself will incur.
Cities must therefore protect themselves financially. This means cities must have economic and financial resilience, for example, by putting in place ex-ante financial mechanisms and strategies even before a disaster strikes to provide rapid liquidity to finance massive disaster response operations and fast track reconstruction and economic recovery, reduce the burden on the public budget, and avoid relying on unpredictable external financial aid.
A city also consists of physical and infrastructure systems, such as transportation networks, communication, utility and lifeline systems, critical facilities like schools and hospitals, commercial and institutional structures, etc. that are all physically connected as areas used for living, working, recreational activities, and other human pursuits in the urban setting. The physical resilience of infrastructure systems from the engineering perspective is to ensure the stability and resistance of infrastructure systems in the face of shocks and stresses brought about by hazards through failsafe design and optimal performance. In this physical context, resilience is considered as a measure of the speed at which a physical or infrastructure system returns to equilibrium following some kind of disturbance.
Cities are also made up of social systems. Social resilience, usually defined at the community level rather than pertaining to individual resilience, is a vital component of the wider meaning of urban resilience in which people and social groups that are exposed to hazards develop the ability to absorb and adapt to environmental changes, including disaster shocks, stresses brought about by climate change effects and uncertainties. It is linked to the social capital of communities and societies, their positive social relationships, and supportive social structures that strengthen the capacities of a city or community to resist disaster impacts and recover from disasters in an efficient manner.
The social system is also intertwined with the state of a city’s ecological system, which provides life-sustaining ecosystem services to the urban population. Ecological resilience emphasizes change and adaptation, that resilient ecosystems are constantly changing and can absorb change and persist in spite of disturbance. Ecological resilience focuses on renewal and reorganization rather than on stable states, which is the opposite of engineering resilience. And so, cities with strong socio-ecological resilience have social-ecological systems that have the ability to deal with hazards, protect essential habitat and ecosystem services, and provide insights on what makes a system less vulnerable and learn to enhance the resilience of the entire urban system as well. For example, a city that is characterized by socio-ecological resilience mandates the reduction of stressors like development and pollution, establishes land uses that reduce floods and soil erosion, and promotes non-material benefits of natural recreational areas.
What then is a disaster and climate-resilient city? A city that is resilient means that not only its infrastructure system, buildings, critical facilities, utility and lifeline systems, transportation systems, communication networks, in short, the built environment, can withstand sudden shocks and long-term stresses due to various types of hazards, including climate-induced hazards, but also that its social systems, institutions and public services, and ecological systems would be able to continue functioning and adapt, reorganize and recover from the effects of a hazard and through disruption in a timely manner and efficient manner.
From these definitions of resilience, urban resilience can be demonstrated by cities that exhibit successful adaptation, self-reliance, social capacity, and that function well while under stress. Urban resilience is therefore multi-dimensional and multi-faceted, which requires a systems approach to urban risk governance. Local authorities, together with the diverse groups of stakeholders extant in cities, must continuously reduce and mitigate the city’s vulnerability and exposure to different types of hazards and improve the quality of life of all residents that can be leveraged against poverty, unemployment, and the everyday vulnerabilities, while at the same time strengthen the resilience of the various systems that compose it against disasters and climate change.
The Covid-19 pandemic has laid bare the vulnerabilities of cities both in the developing and developed worlds. Against biological hazards and exposes the inadequacies and weaknesses of their health care systems. This unprecedented public health emergency has produced cascading shocks that affected the economic and financial systems of entire countries, underlining the importance of a systems approach in strengthening urban resilience and risk governance. The pandemic also has undoubtedly shown the global connection of cities, as cities have become the epicenters of the pandemic, where over 90 percent of confirmed cases occur, and from which the disease started to spread, first among globally connected cities then to virtually all corners of the world.
Strengthening urban resilience
Both national and city governments must meet the needs of their growing urban populations in terms of livelihood, decent work, and basic services such as health care and education, access to adequate food, water, and power supply, affordable housing, safe and efficient transportation, and communication systems, and a safe environment, among others. But cities cannot go back to business as usual. Cities should therefore properly manage the ongoing process of urbanization side-by-side with strengthening the resilience of the different systems that comprise them. Proper land-use planning, prioritizing community health and safety and vulnerable groups, investing in resilient infrastructure and buildings, retrofitting existing structures against hazards, and implementing environmentally sustainable and inclusive urban development projects are effective ways to manage urbanization and at the same time strengthen urban resilience.
For instance, investing in well-designed, resilient buildings and houses that consider key hazards from the very start of the design process, selecting the site, etc. is one way for cities to adapt to climate change. This means there is a need for more engineers, architects, urban planners, trade practitioners (e.g., carpenters, masons) and other professionals to be trained in climate- and disaster-resilient building construction. Further, there is also a need to understand and promote the growing body of good practices in the construction sector for climate-resilient buildings.
Nature-based solutions also offer adaptation options. Rising temperatures due to global warming turn highly built-up cities into heat islands, especially during the summer months. Creating green roofs, provision of parks and open spaces, and even planting of trees around buildings can reduce the temperature inside buildings. Green infrastructure provides additional co-benefits for the whole community in terms of positive social and health impacts on people, reducing surface run-off thus mitigating flooding, and supporting biodiversity.
Informal settlements, where a significant proportion of the urban poor lives, remain one of the biggest challenges in urban governance in general. Informal settlements are made-up of self-built structures, overcrowded, and generally unhealthy and unsafe environment. The city of Manila, for example, launched in 2020 a public housing program that aims to provide decent housing to its slum dwellers inside the city as opposed to relocating them outside the city. This strategy aims to enable beneficiaries to remain close to their sources of livelihood and income as well as public services like health care and schools. However, it remains to be seen if this public housing strategy will increase social and community resilience, for instance, and how it will contribute to the wider development objectives of the city.
As an urban planner and DRM practitioner, I see the growing number of secondary cities as an opportunity that local authorities and stakeholders should seize to create urban centers that are well-planned, well-managed, well-financed, and resilient to disasters and climate change.
The wicked combination of unmanaged urbanization, Covid-19 pandemic and generally increasing hazardousness of many cities have prompted the suggestion of relocating entire cities, called “managed retreat.” Even after the 2011 Thailand floods, for instance, there were already suggestions from authorities to relocate the capital city to a safer location away from the threat of flooding, ground subsidence, and rising sea levels. More recently, the move to relocate the administrative functions of the highly flood-prone, overcrowded, and sinking capital city of Jakarta to Kalimantan on Borneo Island is garnering more support from various quarters. For Metro Manila, some national government agencies have already began the process of relocation starting with their satellite offices in the New Clark City Government Center, located less than 100 kilometers from the nation’s capital.
For academic institutions like AIM, the task is clear. We need to produce disaster risk and crisis managers who can step up to become leaders for disaster and climate resilience, meaning that they are not only technically competent, scientifically grounded, and systems-oriented but can also bring and lead a diverse stakeholder groups and sectors extant in cities to collaborate and work together in spite of their different agendas. Therefore, AIM’s executive master’s program on disaster risk and crisis management develops strong leadership skills and risk governance abilities of students to further prepare them for their role as resilience leaders in their communities, businesses, and organizations. Executive courses on disaster risk management, crisis management, resilience, and sustainable development are also made available to local authorities working in different sectors in the city that deal with other pressing urban issues (e.g., social welfare, gender, solid waste, environment, budget).
Likewise, more research should be done on urban resilience, particularly around improving urban resilience assessment and planning processes based on what has worked on the ground, understanding barriers and challenges to urban resilience implementation, and what factors enable the successful institutionalization of urban resilience in city government and collaboration and leadership for impactful urban resilience actions.
 UN DESA, 2018. Word Urbanization Prospects.
 Fastiggi, M. et al. 2021. Governing urban resilience: Organisational structures and coordination strategies in 20 North American city governments. In Urban Studies, vol. 58(6) 1262–1285, DOI: 10.1177/0042098020907277.
 Reid, R. and Botterill, L. 2013. The Multiple Meanings of ‘Resilience’: An Overview of the Literature. In Australian Journal of Public Administration, vol. 72, no. 1, pp. 31–40, DOI:10.1111/1467-8500.12009.
 Ibid, 34.
 Ibid., 33.
 Ibid., 31.