Friday 22 May 2020 5:01 am

We need a new approach to city resilience

Head of Economics, WSP, the engineering professional services consultancy

Globally, cities are fundamental drivers of economic performance. If a nation’s major cities function well, the overall economy benefits in terms of jobs and innovation of products and services. The World Bank states that 55% of the world’s population – 4.2 billion people – now live in cities, generating 80% of global GDP. Protecting cities from shocks is therefore vital to economic and social prosperity.

In the run up to COVID-19, climate change and the associated need to move towards ‘net zero’ had rightly begun to dominate urban development, infrastructure policy and planning. The disproportionate threat of climate-induced risk had led to ideas around broader ‘urban resilience’ – how cities continue to operate, and then bounce back (possibly better), in the face of such shocks.

These shocks had tended to be described as significant climate-related events capable of causing major disruption and loss of life, with commensurate economic and social consequences – all driven by rising emissions, a reliance on non-sustainable lifestyles and damaging forms of economic behaviour. In turn, the response to dealing with possible climate events had often been physical, with policy and funding pushing cities towards planning for and investing in physical resilience, such as flood defences. 

However, as the chain of events that unfolded from the current pandemic demonstrate, resilience is about much more than this. The current global crisis is not climate-induced. Ironically, it is having unforeseen positive effects on emissions. However, COVID-19 has shown major weaknesses in the economic and social resilience of cities, regions and countries and our shared inability to balance the globalised economic system while sustaining the local economic fabric on which we depend. All levels – local, regional, national and international – have been shown to lack resilience. 

We now need to re-calibrate how we define and improve urban resilience, with far greater emphasis on balancing physical, environmental, economic, social and cultural resilience. 

The non-physical things that bind rapidly changing societies and communities together are important, as is a local economy’s ability to keep functioning and support its residents and workforce in times of crisis. Cities that perform strongly in economic terms tend to grow their populations rapidly – as shown in ‘historic’ mega-cities like London and New York, as well as ‘emerging’ ones in Asia and Africa.

In both cases, we have seen that the pressures of growth – unaffordable housing, constrained infrastructure systems and rising income inequalities – are further exacerbated by sudden shocks, irrespective of their cause. The near-universal ‘lockdown’ response to COVID-19 has shed light on the fact that ‘better-off’ urban social groups were able to continue leading productive and prosperous lives at least up to a point, largely within their own private confines. Others have not been so fortunate, posing a real question around social equity.

Hopefully, the current pandemic situation will initiate a complete re-think in policy terms and a new approach to financing, planning and designing how urban communities build in resilience to future shocks. This should include the designation of ‘climate crisis’ across cities but must adopt a broader and universal understanding of how cities function under pressure. 

Physical change is necessary for robustness, but this must be matched by efforts to underpin digital systems that enable remote working for any job where this is an option. Indeed, we need transport systems that can re-format quickly for social and spatial distancing, and efforts to invigorate and enhance the cultural and social underpinnings of community life, understanding how personal remoteness can be overcome. 

Government and the public sector must enable an improved basis for partnership in this regard, so that our physical, social and economic spaces can change shape and re-structure on demand and with relative ease. This might include, for example, changes to competition policy to allow retail, logistics and agriculture to work together more cohesively to guarantee urban food supply. As we await the return of some sense of normality, we have a unique window of opportunity to think big and devise radical new approaches to urban policy and planning. We shouldn’t let it go to waste.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.