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Urban resilience: Can our cities pass the stress test?

Henry J
Lewis

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

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The world is becoming increasingly urban, and cities face constant struggle with the complex environmental social, economic, and political challenges of the 21st century. Cities have attracted and concentrated a massive number of people, generating new problems of management and creating enormous challenges not only for the public sector in managing limited resources, but also for transportation — which is becoming a nightmare in Kingston at certain times of the day, costing millions of dollars in unproductive time in traffic.

By the year 2030 over 70 per cent of the world's population is likely to be concentrated in cities. This will have a dramatic impact in our lifestyle. Many international organisations have argued that cities will need to become more resilient to these challenges.

Urban resilience is not a new concept. It has been debated and discussed over the past decades across scientific disciplines, including urban planning, which seeks help to frame the arduous process of tackling the environmental, social, and economic challenges of modern cities in a positive way.

USAID defines resilience as the ability of people, households, communities, countries, and systems to mitigate, adapt to, and recover from shocks and stresses in a manner that reduces chronic vulnerability and facilitates inclusive growth.

Goal #11 of the UN Sustainable Development Goals states: “Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.” However, I am yet to see the Government of Jamaica's policy framework in response to this goal. Maybe there is one, but I am not aware of it. Again I am left to wonder whether there is an urban resilience policy framework for the cities of Kingston and Montego Bay.

Does Caricom have an urban resilience framework? I did a cursory search, but I couldn't find any information informing me of Caricom's resilience framework for its member states.

I am not an urban planner, neither am I an ecologist, I am a social scientist who has a keen interest in sustainability and the well-being of nations. It doesn't take an urban planner or anyone in the field of egology to know that resilient cities promote well-being and inclusive growth.

Over past decades the Caribbean region has faced some severe environmental challenges that have impacted economic growth in a big way. As a region, we are entering a new urban era in which nation states are increasingly influenced by human activities and where cities have become a central nexus of the relationship between people and nature, both as crucial centres of demand for ecosystem services and as sources of environmental impacts. Given what some of our brothers and sisters experienced in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma in 2017, governments must now look to the future.

We have had unprecedented chances to vastly improve urban resilience and sustainability through designing urban systems for increased resource efficiency, as well as through exploring how cities can be responsible stewards of biodiversity and ecosystem services, both within and beyond city boundaries. Two central concepts for achieving this — urban sustainability and urban resilience — have, however, until now rarely been applied beyond city boundaries and have often been constrained to either single or narrowly defined issues (eg, population, climate, energy, water). Although there is often an aim to optimise resource use in cities, increase efficiency, and minimise waste, cities can never become entirely self-sufficient. This means that individual cities, like Kingston and Montego Bay, cannot be considered “sustainable” or “resilient” without acknowledging and accounting for their dependence on ecosystems, resources, and populations from other communities. There is, therefore, a need to revisit the concept of sustainability and resilience in the urban context.

Research on urbanisation in the Caribbean revealed that there are a number of urban management issues:

• climate change

• high vulnerability to national hazards (hurricanes,floods and earthquakes, etc)

• economic vulnerability

• weak legal and institutional capacity

• limited technical capacity to undertake appropriate assessment and planning

• poor data collection, management, and information sharing

• urban crime and insecurity

• large informal economy and sizeable informal housing and land sector

According to UN-Habitat 2012, Latin and America and the Caribbean is the most urbanised region in the world with 80 per cent of its population living in urban areas. Currently, 70 per cent of the Caribbean population currently live in urban settlements. These urban settlements are the centre for social, political economic, and environmental factors that increasingly show developmental challenges and opportunities.

Resilience principles provide a powerful tool to make explicit how cities can improve their resilience: to help cities brainstorm on and evaluate options and plans for urban resilience in a meaningful and comprehensive way. Urban resilience entails the capacity of individuals, communities, institutions, businesses, and systems within cities to survive, adapt and grow no matter what kinds of chronic stresses and acute shocks they experience and the capacity for a system to survive, adapt and flourish in the face of turbulent change and uncertainty.

The question we need to ask is how resilient is the city of Kingston? The research suggests that a resilient city has the capacities in place to shift into a different state in the aftermath of a shock or disaster while restoring its functions and services. An 'unresilient city' has limited or restricted capacity to recover, and “has high poverty and crime rates and devastated natural environment, or 'a ghost town'” (Pickett et al. 2013).

Building resilient cities

• Ensure that cities are able to holistically prepare for, withstand, and recover from economic, environmental and social disruptions. Actors should strive for cities that operate on resilient systems; that is, systems (financial, governmental, infrastructural, ecological, societal, etc) that are adaptable, robust, redundant, integrated, inclusive, resourceful, and flexible. Climate adaptability and environmental responsibility are recognised as drivers of sustainable development as well as qualities of it.

• Ensure that cities address underlying environmental and physical disaster risks before a crisis occurs by investing in a sustainable network of urban systems and human communities that reduce vulnerability to a range of shocks and stresses. In the recovery process, seek ways for urban systems to learn and transform in order to rebuild safer. Humanitarian and development actors can assist to reduce the risk of future crises by facilitating a reconstruction process that engages local neighbourhoods, municipalities, urban planners, and the private sector, among others, at various scales.

• Ensure that urban resiliency planning includes and empowers the voices of the most vulnerable populations. Give special consideration to the participation of children, women, youth, elderly, and disabled populations in resiliency planning and needs assessments, while recognising their unique risks and vulnerabilities as well as available community-based protection mechanisms.

• Ensure that resiliency strategies prioritise investment in local economic development and job creation. Engage the private sector as a means of achieving financial systems that offer opportunities for savings, loans, credit, and skill-building for vulnerable groups of people, especially the youth segment.

Henry J Lewis is a lecturer at the University of Technology, Jamaica, School of Humanities and Social Sciences. Send comments to the Observer or hjlewis@utech.edu.jm.

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