Why cities must prepare themselves for future shocks and stresses

Thomas Sek Khuen Tang
AECOM, Malaysia

The world is changing. The rate of progress made by mankind has accelerated dramatically over the past few decades, achieving more within this period than has been accomplished in centuries. Growth of cities is part of this pattern. Edward Glaeser in his pivotal book ‘Triumph of the City’ explains that ‘cities have survived the tumultuous end of the industrial age and are now wealthier, healthier and more alluring than ever’. People migrate to cities as opportunities arise allowing them to abandon rural lives in search of more challenging and rewarding jobs. Technology, science, and productivity have all played a role due to specialization and division of labor. In 1900, the urban share of the world’s population was 13 percent, rising to 29 percent and 50 percent in 1990 and 2007 respectively. Today, the developed world has a proportion of 75 percent urbanization, compared to the developing world’s share of 44 percent. By 2030, projections show that the world is expected to reach a 60:40 split between urban and rural populations.

It is clear that many challenges lie ahead for planners, architects, engineers and other professionals to come up with new ways to serve densely concentrated populations efficiently and effectively. It is worth noting though that, given comparable income and lifestyle patterns, residents of cities actually use far less energy per head than equivalent rural communities living in single family houses. Not only is the sharing just in terms of energy but city residents furthermore share walls, floors and ceilings with their neighbors, which means less materials required to build structures. But the downside is that when disaster strikes – either in the form of shocks or stresses – the scale is magnified.

The susceptibility of cities to disasters has become more marked over time. The frequency of disasters affecting cities is increasing due to man-made activities and, more recently, climate change; earthquakes, hurricanes and other phenomena are always going to occur – climatic and geological archives have shown this – but the current impacts are more devastating and costly. This is a consequence of infrastructure in cities reaching their capacity limits and coming to the end of their useful lives. Cities like London and New York face massive maintenance bills running into billions of dollars to upgrade their drainage and transport systems; much poorer cities do not even have the luxury of basic services in the first place yet still have to accommodate growing and more demanding populations.

First, we need to distinguish disasters from hazards. Hazards by themselves do not constitute disasters – rather it is the level of exposure that determines the scale and nature of the disaster. Migrants to a city in search of opportunities are often forced to take up residence in flood prone areas or live in unsafe structures due to economic circumstance. These vulnerable populations are the ones highest at risk and bear the brunt when disaster strikes. For instance, whenever typhoons hit many cities in less developed countries, exposed slum residents are the ones who are most impacted. Stresses are just as debilitating as shocks. Urban poverty leads to desperation and many developing cities are the scenes of pollution, congestion and social disorder.

The aftermath of the F-5 Tornado that hit Joplin, MO, USA in 2011. Image Credit: Dustie / Shutterstock.com
Joplin, MO, USA: The aftermath of the F-5 Tornado that hit in 2011.
Image Credit: Dustie / Shutterstock.com

So forearmed with this information, why can’t cities be better prepared? Disaster recovery runs into billions, not to mention the toll in human suffering and loss. In the past decade, over 700,000 people lost their lives, over 1.4 million were injured and approximately 23 million were made homeless as a result of disasters. Overall, more than 1.5 billion people have been affected by disasters in various ways. Women, children and people in vulnerable situations are disproportionately affected. The total economic loss since 2005 has been more than $1.3 trillion. In addition, between 2008 and 2012, 144 million people were displaced by disasters. Recurring small-scale disasters and slow-onset disasters also affect communities, households and small and medium-sized enterprises and constitute a high percentage of all losses.

Yet sadly, despite the growing understanding of how and why disasters strike, many cities still end up spending more on disaster recovery rather than prevention. A report by the NGO Global Humanitarian Assistance estimates that only US$1 out of every US$100 spent on humanitarian aid is spent on disaster risk reduction . This lack of preparation may be explained by several missing factors such as robust governance, strong political will, and awareness of social equity. But this is no excuse for inertia.

Over time, cities are capable of building disaster resilience provided they know where to start. The Hyogo Framework is at the heart of building resilience in cities and communities. The framework captures the essence of disaster risk drivers, namely ‘the consequences of poverty and inequality, climate change, unplanned and rapid urbanization, poor land management and compounding factors such as demographic change, weak institutional arrangements, non-risk-informed policies, lack of regulation and incentives for private disaster risk reduction investment, complex supply chains, limited availability of technology, unsustainable uses of natural resources, declining ecosystems, pandemics and epidemics’. While the framework advocates making disaster risk reduction a national and local priority and the application of knowledge and education to strengthen disaster preparedness, recently updated guidelines advocate a more action-oriented approach together with 2030 targets. The latter include goals to reduce disaster mortality, the number of affected people globally, direct disaster-related economic loss, damage to critical infrastructure and disruption of basic services. In addition, countries with national and local disaster risk reduction strategies are urged to follow international cooperation measures to share access to multi-hazard early warning systems and disaster risk information.

Kobe, Japan: A section of the port left as it was after the 1995 earthquake that claimed over 6,000 lives. Image credit: Mark Watkins
Kobe, Japan: A section of the port left as it was after the 1995 earthquake that claimed over 6,000 lives. Image credit: Mark Watkins

The understanding of this risk should be a key priority for cities. Firstly, one must recognize that cities are dependent on a series of interlocking systems – which include energy, water, communications and transportation. This sets the basis for risk analysis. Should one system break down, then the entire city grinds to a halt. For instance, if the power goes down, then computers and servers go down. Similarly if water services fail then public health issues arise.

The United Nations Disaster International Strategy for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) sets out ‘Ten Essentials’ which include the critical and interdependent steps local governments should take to make their cities more resilient. Actions under each Essential are part of the overall disaster risk reduction planning process and can influence urban development planning and design. Using these Ten Essentials, over 2,000 cities from 107 countries have joined a “Making My City Resilient Campaign” and applied a range of tools to assess their levels of resilience. The Disaster Resilience Scorecard launched in 2014 quantifies resilience performance, supports target setting and prioritizes action through an investment-based approach. One of the many advantages of the Scorecard is that it highlights the connections between the different aspects of disaster resilience and the responsible parties, as well as identifying gaps in plans and provisions. The Disaster Resilience Scorecard can furthermore be used as a means for cities to demonstrate their attractiveness for inbound economic investment. The insurance sector in particular uses the scorecard to assess the level of risk to allow them to adjust premiums for the well-prepared or write new policies where none exist today. Assessments with higher ratings denote strengths that the city will wish to maintain; those with lower ratings denote weaknesses or areas for improvement where the city will need to invest time and funds to improve. As no city in the world will achieve a maximum score, the purpose is to allow cities to establish a baseline and a set of priorities for moving forward.

The investment aspects of disaster risk reduction cover the economic, social, health and cultural resilience of persons, communities, countries and their assets, as well as the environment. Investment can be drivers of innovation, growth and job creation and can save lives, prevent and reduce losses and ensure effective recovery and rehabilitation. At a local level, mechanisms for disaster risk transfer and insurance, risk sharing and retention and financial protection for both public and private investment can reduce the financial impact of disasters. These include protecting critical facilities (in particular schools and hospitals and physical infrastructures), proper design and construction, retrofitting and rebuilding and nurturing a culture of maintenance. Local measures can also influence land-use policy, including urban planning, land degradation assessments, and informal and non-permanent housing as informed by anticipated demographic and environmental changes.

Flooding in Sidi Ouaaziz, Morocco in 2014. Image Credit: Migel / Shutterstock.com
Sidi Ouaaziz, Morocco: Major flooding in November, 2014.
Image Credit: Migel / Shutterstock.com

From a business perspective, resilience and the protection of livelihoods and productive assets throughout supply chains is important and can be improved through assured continuity of services and integration of disaster risk management into business models and practices.

At a global level, it is key to promote the development and strengthening of disaster risk transfer and sharing mechanisms and instruments in close cooperation with partners in the international community, business community, international financial institutions and other relevant stakeholders. Coordination between global and regional financial institutions with a view toward assessing and anticipating the potential economic and social impacts of disasters is crucial.

The R!SE Initiative is one such global response towards developing a new way of collaborating on a global scale between public and private sector organizations who are prepared to take a leadership role on disaster risk reduction. Within R!SE, an alliance of companies and institutions has applied the results of the Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction to make investments risk-sensitive and strengthening the resilience of local communities and the global economy as a whole by using Activity Streams that cover business strategies, risk metrics, disaster risk management industry standards and disaster risk investment principles, business education, city-level resilience and the role of insurance.

The sustainable development of cities is linked to their resilience to shocks and stresses. With shifts in urban patterns, society will face constraints and challenges brought in by use of resources and, possibly, climate change. Understanding the threats from these shocks and stresses is imperative in building this resilience. Policies and tool are available for use but managing the risk is a joint effort of several stakeholders and not just governments. Reducing the vulnerability of cities must be a priority for future sustainable development.


Tang, Thomas Sek Khuen
Thomas Sek Khuen Tang is Director of Sustainability for AECOM in Asia.
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Header Image: Bangkok, Thailand.  Credit: KAMONRAT/Shutterstock.com

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