Challenges in assessing and measuring urban resilience

Susie Moloney, Centre for Urban Research, RMIT University, Australia

Marta Olazabal, Basque Centre for Climate Change, Spain

Lilia Yumagulova, The University of British Columbia, Canada

Lorenzo Chelleri, Gran Sasso Science Institute, Italy

The Global Carbon Project (GCP), in collaboration with RMIT University, the Urbanization and Global Environmental Change Project, the Urban Climate Change Research (UCCRN) Network and IR3S, organized a workshop on “Tools and Indicators for assessing urban resilience”, on December 7-10, 2015 at the University of Tokyo. The workshop aimed to utilize resilience thinking as a guiding principle and bring together scholars from different disciplines to develop an integrated framework for assessing urban community resilience.  Building on existing studies the framework or ‘assessment toolkit’ is intended to use bottom up indicators suitable for local needs particularly for use by planners and decision makers to mainstream resilience thinking into the planning system and increase the response capacity of cities. Sharifi and Yamagata (2014) had previously undertaken an assessment of existing tools and identified a number of gaps and challenges where workshop efforts would be focused, particularly:

  • Identifying resilience criteria related to social, human, physical, economic, and institutional capital.
  • Specifying disaster management phase to which the criteria are related (i.e., mitigation, preparedness, response, recovery, and adaptation).
  • Use of bottom-up indicators that fit the local needs and reflect the different composition and needs of different contexts.
  • Development of assessment metrics that are easily scalable and replicable (while being context-specific).
  • Design of a framework that, while simple enough to be used by non-experts and suitable for self-assessment, could take account of the complexities and dynamics of cities as socio-ecological systems.
  • Linking vulnerability, mitigation, and adaptive capacity measures in the resilience assessment framework.
  • Emphasizing the iterative nature of such toolkits for each of the cities, and the need to continuously re-examine the approach to their climate adaptation planning.

There is a growing interest in applying resilience thinking to particular contexts – cities, neighborhood, and communities – particularly in the context of shocks and stresses emerging from natural disasters and climate change. There are also a number of existing assessment frameworks, such as those created by the Asian Cities Climate Change Resilience Network and Rockefeller Foundation, which, in an attempt to provide an integrated assessment, focus on urban elements and processes including infrastructure systems (energy, water, transport), governance and institutional dimensions and at the scale of communities and households (i.e., community and social resilience). The need to clarify and define the preferred understanding of urban (community) resilience is an obvious challenge. Adger (2000) defines social resilience as the ability or capacity of communities or social groups to cope with external shocks emerging from not only natural disasters and climate change but social and political process and upheavals. In a workshop concerned with developing a framework to assess urban community resilience to inform the planning and response process, there is a need to identify what parts of an urban system we are referring to (build form, infrastructure, social systems, communities, neighborhoods, etc.) and what stresses and shocks. The consistent message across the resilience literature is that how we define resilience (i.e., resilience of what and to what? (Carpenter et al., 2001)) has significant implications for how resilience might be first planned and strategically managed, and then measured and assessed (Quinlan et al., 2015:3). Alongside this, there is the need from the outset to recognize the difference between measuring and assessing resilience with the former focused more on quantitative methods and the latter concerned with identifying how resilience is ‘created, maintained and broken down’(Quinlan et al., 2015:3).

The GCP workshop brought together a range of participants from around the world and with diverse disciplinary backgrounds and while it is too difficult to document the breadth of issues discussed over the four days, here we aim to highlight some of the key issues and challenges that emerged around how to effectively measure and assess urban resilience in different contexts.

Although it might be a logical reflection for some and surprising for others, a first challenge was to come to a common or shared understanding of what resilience and urban resilience means, which generated significant debate. The workshop participants were as varied as the multiple conceptualizations of resilience coming from a range of disciplinary backgrounds including engineering, ecology and social sciences (socio-ecological). The fact that the workshop incorporated academia, researchers, practitioners and NGOs made it all the more interesting. However, with many planners and engineers in the room, much discussion focused around the characteristics and indicators of resilient built environments and infrastructure. Drawing on a broader understanding of socio-ecological resilience which emphasizes the adaptive capacity of a system and the capacity of a system to learn and self organize (O’Connell et al.,2015), and applying this to the concept of ‘urban resilience’, workshop discussion also focused around the role and capacity of cities and urban communities to mitigate, prepare for, respond to, recover from and adapt to ongoing stresses and shocks man-made and natural. One of the main agreements in the room was the significance of communities in building resilience with clear examples from the natural disasters recovery phase and the need for early community involvement in climate mitigation and adaptation planning, for example. With participants from both developing and developed contexts across the Asia-Pacific, Australia, Europe and the US – another key challenge addressed was how to compare and contrast the resilience of multiple urban contexts such as informal settlements in Bangladesh with cities in China or Europe. This raised the question of what urban scales an assessment framework ought to focus on and how rural and peri-urban contexts can be accounted for in an ‘urban’ assessment framework. In terms of urban scales and boundaries, participants also discussed the need to account for multiple scales in an assessment that can include the neighborhood, metropolitan or regional scales for instance. It became apparent that comparing and assessing indicators of resilient urban form was largely meaningless without the capacity to characterize and compare the social, institutional and governance capacity to modify and adapt and plan urban form and infrastructure in different contexts. Illustrative examples were brought from developing urban regions where robust and highly resilient infrastructures might be planned without any account for potential vulnerabilities in development processes and implementation.

Underpinning much of the workshop discussions around developing a useful urban resilience assessment toolkit was the need to understand and assess resilience both as an outcome and a process. Assessing processes for building resilience are as important as assessing the resilience of the built form. Building resilience is a social and institutional process that strengthens the capacity of cities and communities to respond and adapt to shocks and gradual changes and includes actions for learning and experimentation in urban environments (e.g., community emergency management or green infrastructures planning). There emerge challenges and trade-offs between generating comprehensive assessment tools (that include quantitative data and criteria prioritization) and tools providing direction and guidance for community resilience management (i.e., measuring vs assessing). The former focuses more on resilience as an outcome, and the latter, to understanding resilience as a process. The challenge is to ensure that an assessment framework can incorporate both.

Assessing urban resilience therefore involves characterizing the resilience of different communities in different contexts (urban, rural, peri-urban, coastal, etc.) including capacities to prepare, respond, adapt and change as well as characterizing the resilience of different urban form and infrastructure. Characterizing and defining ‘community resilience’, in both existing and emerging communities, urban and/or rural, geographical and virtual raises a number of issues around how to assess resilience across changing communities. For example, in our rapidly urbanizing planet, we need to examine: who’s part of the “urban community”, and why? How might resilience help us to articulate which capacities to whom within different communities? Are those communities who are becoming urban, losing or gaining capacities and opportunities? See for example the case of rural communities migrating to urban slums. Do they gain capacities to respond and adapt to major events? In other words, in becoming urban, is personal and social resilience increasing or decreasing? This need to articulate (and assess) the nexus between community resilience, urban form and the capacity to manage and govern for resilience emerged as one of the central challenges in developing an integrated urban resilience assessment framework.

The four day workshop involved presentations of both conceptual approaches and applications to assessing resilience in different contexts largely across the Asia Pacific region.  Not surprisingy, much discussion centered around definitions, system boundaries, urban scales, planning processes, metrics, data availability and validity as well as the more fundamental question of why do a comparative assessment and for what purpose, such as benchmarking, monitoring, diagnosis, and a selection of urban development alternatives.  While resolving these issues will be part of any iterative and ongoing process, it was clear by the end of the workshop that to produce a valid and useful assessment framework, indicators and measures must to a large extent be ‘co-produced’ with the local communities and stakeholders whose contexts are being assessed.  Developing a comparative framework while valuable will always be messy and incomplete particularly given the breadth of contexts and metrics available and the variety of purposes in doing an assessment. For some, an assessment might be useful to inform or shape policy-making, disaster preparedness and response strategies and infrastructure investment, for others to increase community awareness and cohesion. Clarifying both the meaning of urban resilience and the purpose of a doing an assessment are essential first steps. In the growing momentum to measure and compare the resilience of different cities and communities, we need to be mindful that a useful and effective assessment process will be one that is embedded in and informs decision making over the long term.  Building urban resilience necessarily integrates multiple scales and social and institutional processes, and requires effective and efficient multilevel governance focused on providing for and connecting the needs and resources of different urban communities. Urban community resilience needs to be informed, built and networked through both bottom-up and top-down actions. Developing an assessment framework that can support and inform these actions is surely a worthy purpose.

Financial support for the workshop was provided by APN, NIES, and UGEC.


Dr. Susie Moloney is a Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Urban Research in the School of Global, Urban and Social Studies at RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia.

Marta Olazabal

Dr. Marta Olazabal is post-doctoral researcher at the Basque Centre for Climate Change – BC3. She is co-founder of the Urban Resilience research Network (UR-Net).


Lilia Yumagulova is a Ph.D Candidate at The University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada.

Lorenzo Chelleri

Dr. Lorenzo Chelleri is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Gran Sasso Science Institute (GSSI) in L’Aquila, Italy.



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