How can urban resilience networks cater to city needs?

Guest Authors: Dr. Sebastiaan van Herk 1,2, Carolina Hollmann1 and Prof. Chris Zevenbergen2

1 – Bax & Willems 2- UNESCO-IHE

With climate change mitigation and adaptation increasingly present on the urban agenda, many local governments aim to increase resilience of residents and businesses, but have multiple challenges in operationalizing this generic concept: finding appropriate solutions, data, the right partners, technical expertise and enough funding. International city networks such as C40, 100 RCs, ICLEI, and many others offer an avenue for cities that are building resilience, by supporting and connecting to potential sources of funds and knowledge. However, since there is no single definition of urban resilience, or a normative way of building it, the key is to critically understand:

  • How exactly are these networks serving the needs of cities, in their search for resilience?
  • What are the differences and complementarities among them?
  • And how effective are they in driving learning and sharing?

We would like to contribute to these research challenges through this post, by presenting and discussing emerging thoughts resulting from a preliminary study developed by UNESCO-IHE and Bax & Willems. Our scope was limited by interviewing 30 member cities and analysing 13 international networks. However, our point of view out of this preliminary study could still be valuable to attempt a classification of networks along several criteria:

  1. Size: from small (about 60 members), typically targeting mega cities, to large (over 3000), including a mix of large and smaller cities.
  2. Coverage: global or regional, and also grouped around sub-themes, such as energy.
  3. Membership and funding model: grant-based (for the members), donor-supported, or membership fee-based.
  4. Content flow: spectrum ranging from demand-based, meaning member cities proactively request for activities related to specific challenges they are facing, to supply-based, in which networks provide standardized methodologies and guidance.

Figures 1: Cities Learning Networks highlighting the sizes (size of the circles) and evolution through time of different city networks (work in progress)


Given the breadth of options, we found that cities seem to prioritize their involvement based on three main factors:

  1. Politics: the name recognition of some networks certainly plays a role. In our interviews with sustainability or international relations staff within cities, it was common to hear that the mandate to join certain networks sometimes came from higher up. This was generally regarded as an opportunity rather than a burden, since it was a way to secure resilience issues on the city’s agenda.
  2. Technical need: Once involved, the number and type of exchanges the cities participate in seem largely driven by specific technical needs or questions related to urban adaptation (e.g. flood protection engineering, methods for community engagement, risk assessment procedures). We heard instances where drafts of action plans or other documents were shared within a network sub-group for discussion, and peers were willing to dedicate time and effort to helping each other. For time and resource-constrained city staff, this indicates a serious commitment to mutual learning that should be leveraged. Fostering active rather than passive learning exchanges emerged as the most sought-after functions of these networks.
  3. Timeliness: Related to the previous point, cities use networks to get assistance on current challenges they are actively working to address. Because of this, many cities emphasized the benefit of developing working relationships with peers tackling the same challenges rather than only being presented best practices. Learning from past successes should not be disregarded, but selecting salient topics for exchange seems crucial.

In short, because cities can be overwhelmed by the multiple options, they tend to be opportunistic in making the most of their involvement given their limited resources. Further study that leads to guidance or clearer classifications of networks could help cities make more strategic use of the learning opportunities available through their participation in resilience related networks.

Medium and Small cities may be underserved?

Partly by study design, because we sought cities that belong to multiple networks, our survey included mostly large and mega cities. This, however, revealed a possible under-representation in city networks of smaller cities (<1 million population), where most of the urban population lives.  Logically, mega cities are pioneers in proposing innovative solutions for adaptation plans and strategies, and their experiences can inspire and inform others. A first assumption, helpful for enhancing networking among cities, may be that if adaptation works in such complex urban environments, it could be useful for replication in smaller, simpler contexts. But how true is this assumption? Do smaller towns’ resources and political setting allow them to learn and act from big cities’ clout and experiences? How much of a leadership role do big cities take, though those networks, to share their insights with smaller cities in their regions and beyond? Indeed are there proper tools enabling down-scaling, or upscaling, of the solutions shared through these networks? These questions, and the potentially related resources addressing those challenges, seem to remain unaddressed within the networks we spoke with. An alternative approach, actively supporting cities with trainings and learning together is provided by the City-to-City learning network, or those minor networks providing funding to each city in order to support an ad hoc resilience strategy.

How to actively involve more local stakeholders in learning networks?

 Understandably, city networks work through local public officials because they have the mandate to enact and implement policies, influence budgets, etc. However, there is wide recognition among both cities and networks that more stakeholders have to be actively, and not indirectly, included in network learning activities. In particular, involving the local private sector was repeatedly mentioned as a missing element in network learning. The obstacles may be that local businesses lack a policy mandate to do so, or that they have not yet realized the business need to think about their own adaptation. Some cities have started to see local businesses come forth and seek to be included (for example large industrial companies), but otherwise, they remain disengaged from local resilience efforts, and as a result, from international networks. How to better involve them remains a critical question. This, points to the need to expand city-to-city learning activities to include the many other stakeholders on which urban adaptation depends, including businesses and civil society. However, how to leverage such participatory mechanisms still remains a critical question to be addressed.

Aknowledgment: the preliminary study on city learning networks has been funded by the Dutch Ministry of I&M to support the development of the UNICR’S RCC platform


Sebastiaan van Herk advocates, researches and delivers effective collaboration and innovation for resilience at Bax&Willems, UNESCO-IHE and UN-ISDR

Carolina Hollmann is strategic project management consultant, focusing on residential portfolio renovation for energy efficiency, urban infrastructure, smart cities, and climate change adaptationa at Bax&Willems

Chris Zevenbergen is professor at the Water Engineering Department of UNESCO-IHE and at TU Delft (The Netherlands) and he chairs the Flood Resilience Chair Group of UNESCO-IHE.

Relevant works:

Van Herk, S., Rijke, J., Zevenbergen, C., Ashley, R., Besseling, B. (2014) Adaptive co-management and network learning in the Room for the River programme. Journal of Environmental Planning & Management. Ahead-of-print (2014): 1-22. doi: 10.1080/09640568.2013.873364

Van Herk, S. 2014. Delivering integrated flood risk management; governance of collaboration, learning and adaptation. TU Delft & UNESCO-IHE PhD thesis, CRC Press/Balkema, Leiden. ISBN 978-1-138-02632-2