Operationalising the Generational Challenge of Holistic Urban Resilience

Guest Author: Prof.  Jon Coaffee (University of Warwick)

This century, more than any other, is the century of the city, where rapid urbanisation and greater global connectedness present unprecedented urban challenges. Such increased urbanisation also concentrates risk in cities making them increasingly vulnerable to an array of shocks and stresses. Under such circumstances, city managers are increasingly having to plan for risk, crisis and uncertainty: they have to enhance urban resilience by providing an operational framework for reducing the multiple risks faced by cities and communities, ensuring there are appropriate levels of resources and capacities to mitigate, prepare for, respond to and recover from a range of shocks and stresses.

Increasingly, the ideas and principles of resilience carry tremendous influence in modifying and, in some cases, significantly changing international urban agendas, whether this is dealing with the unique needs and characteristics of places, looking at the short-, medium- and long-term issues, advancing knowledge, objectives and actions or recognising the wide range of stakeholders (who should be) involved in resilient planning.

Urban resilience has not only become a highly popular policy metaphor but also an increasingly politicised concept, incorporating a vast range of contemporary risks, underpinned by an orthodoxy that has pre-eminently focused upon managerial and technical aspects of ‘crisis’ response and environmental management. As a result of momentous events (e.g. the devastating events of 11 September 2001 in New York and Washington DC and the release of the fourth Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report in 2007 highlighting unequivocal evidence of a warming climate) resilience has increasingly become a central organising metaphor within both the urban policy-making process and, more broadly, the expanding institutional framework of national security and emergency preparedness. As policies which incorporate principles of resilience have evolved and been adopted internationally, the ideas underpinning resilience have additionally begun to infiltrate a host of further, more loosely connected, social and economic policies, which impact at the urban and regional scale. This growth in both the scope and importance of resilience has been strengthened by the political prioritisation of the safety and security of organisations, communities and individuals, and the need to enhance preparedness against an array of perceived hazards and threats, including terrorism, earthquakes, disease pandemic, global warming-related flooding, economic crisis and social breakdown.

2015 was a key year for urban resilience with three core and integrated dialogues deploying the discourse of resilience – explicitly and implicitly – in the advancement of international agreements: first, the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015–2030 which was adopted by UN Member States in March 2015 at the World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction held in Sendai, Japan; second, the UN Sustainable Development Goals released in September 2015, and third, the Conference of Parties (COP) in Paris that signed up to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in December, with the aim of achieving a universal agreement on climate change adaptation.

Notably, within these international dialogues the so-called ‘urban Sustainable Development Goal’ (Goal 11 is dedicated to Make(ing) cites and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable) marks the UN’s strongest expression ever of the critical role of cities in the world’s future, and in so doing raises the profile (and power) of urban areas in global discourse. Overall, these three post-2015 dialogues highlight the importance and utility of ideas and practices of resilience in tackling the integrated and complex urban issues of reducing the risk of disasters, advancing sustainable development and mitigating and adapting to climate change.

These core agendas, and their framing in resilience ideas, will ensure that urban resilience will be a vital area of study for years to come (see for example project websites HARMONISE and RESILENS). Key priority issue underpinning the future study of urban resilience should revolve around the extent to which core agendas can be joined up or amalgamated. It is clear that both operationally and in financial terms, that, for example, advancing schemes for disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation simultaneously makes much sense. Concomitantly, the key role of training and skills development to raise awareness of options that are available to all built environment professionals involved in the decision making process, or that hold a stake in developments is vital. What is clear from debates about urban resilience is that institutional inertia within a range of built environment professions is often a barrier to such collaborative working thus there is a key role that education and training can play in better aligning effort in this crucial area.  This can come through student-centred courses or through continual professional development, where adaptive capacity skills can be forged in a multidisciplinary and multi-professional environment, mirroring the complex reality of urban resilience problems on the ground. Orchestrating such a coherently joined-up approach to meeting the challenge of building comprehensively resilient cities will perhaps be the most significant challenge confronting all built environment professionals over the coming decades.


Biography: Jon is Professor in Urban Geography in the Department of Politics & International Studies at the University of Warwick, UK and director of both the Resilient Cities Laboratory and the Warwick Institute for the Science of Cities (WISC).

Relevant work:

  • Coaffee, J. and Lee, P. (2016) Urban Resilience: planning for risk crisis and uncertainty, Palgrave Macmillan, in press
  • Coaffee, J., Murakami-Wood, D and Rogers, P. (2008) The Everyday Resilience of the City: How Cities Respond to Terrorism and Disaster, Palgrave/Macmillian
  • Coaffee, J. and Clarke, J. (2015) On securing the generational challenge of urban resilience, Town Planning Review, 86, 3, 249-55
  • Coaffee, J. (2013a) Rescaling and Responsibilising the Politics of Urban Resilience: From National Security to Local Place-Making, Politics, 33:4, 240–252
  • Coaffee, J. (2013b) From Securitisation to Integrated Place Making: Towards Next Generation Urban Resilience in Planning Practice, Planning Practice and Research, 28:3, 323-339

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