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Chapter 2.3 Themes and issues

Urban resilience


The concept of resilience has attracted substantial interest and momentum in recent years, and is now widely used within humanitarian and development practice. It is embodied in Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) 9 and 11 (known as the ‘urban SDG’) concerning sustainable cities and communities.+See For many, resilience is a helpful concept, and a useful term that ties together actions both before and after a crisis. Building resilience is a proactive term that can galvanise action. For others, however, it does not go far enough in addressing systemic issues of vulnerability and inequality, and there are concerns that calling a community ‘resilient’ may imply that external help is not needed.+This was the core of the criticism of government inaction following Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. See M. Kaika, ‘“Don’t Call Me Resilient Again!”: The New Urban Agenda as Immunology … or … What Happens when Communities Refuse to be Vaccinated with “Smart Cities” and Indicators’, Environment and Urbanization, 29 (1), 2017 (

This section provides a definition of urban resilience and highlights some of its attributes. It presents an operational model of resilience. The section discusses applying the concept of resilience in urban areas. The section ends with sources of further information. Urban resilience has close links to a number of other sections in this review, including those on climate change and ways of seeing the city.

2.3.1 Defining resilience

The concept of resilience has its roots in a number of disciplines, including engineering, psychology and ecology. In recent years, the concept has been used in a number of urban approaches, including 100 Resilient Cities (pioneered by the Rockefeller Foundation), UNISDR’s Resilient Cities campaign+See and the Asian Cities Climate Change Resilience Network.+See

The definition from the Rockefeller Foundation, formulated from their extensive work in urban resilience, defines it as: ‘the capacity of individuals, communities, institutions, businesses, and systems within a city to survive, adapt, and grow no matter what kinds of chronic stresses and acute shocks they experience’.+See In practice, this means that, in order to build resilience:

  • The key is to recognise and build upon existing capacities.
  • Building capacity applies at different levels – individual, communities, institutions, businesses and systems.
  • Resilience-building requires iterative approaches and investing in building relations and connections among city actors.
  • Success relies on combinations of inclusive, people-centred approaches and understanding the complexities at a larger scale (such as thinking about systems).
  • Restoring/building connections between different actors and layers is fundamental.
  • It’s not just about relief but also, in programming terms, building preparedness (in order to survive), building flexibility and thinking in new ways (in order to adapt) and strong disaster risk reduction (DRR) measures (in order to grow).
  • Implicit in growth is the idea that all preparedness, response, recovery and DRR measures combine to make urban areas stronger for the next crisis. So, in all actions, thought needs to be given to the next emergency as well.
  • ‘No matter what kinds of chronic stresses’ (meaning ongoing threats, such as water shortages, violence and excessive heat) and acute shocks (such as earthquakes, conflict and floods) implies not just focusing on one threat, but considering the wider spectrum of risk.

A number of other layers and understandings can be added to this definition. For instance:

  • Capacity is often described in terms of ‘adaptive capacity’ in relation to climate change and the need for individuals and institutions to adapt (see also Section 1.2.4 on climate change). Two other forms of capacity are anticipatory capacity, i.e. getting ready, and absorptive capacity, or the ability to recover.+Taken collectively, these three forms of capacity (adaptive, anticipatory and absorptive) are sometimes referred to as the Three As. See for instance
  • Other definitions highlight the need for action before a disaster more prominently (for example IFRC’s definition,+Resilience is ‘the ability of individuals, communities, organizations or countries exposed to disasters and crises and underlying vulnerabilities to anticipate, reduce the impact of, cope with, and recover from the effects of shocks and stresses without compromising their long-term prospects’. See D. Sanderson and A. Sharma (eds) IFRC World Disasters Report. Resilience: Saving Lives Today, Investing for Tomorrow (Geneva: IFRC, 2016) ( which adds the words ‘anticipate’ and ‘reduce the impact of’).
  • The term ‘bounce back’ (i.e. absorptive capacity) is often associated with under-standings of resilience. This is from engineering, where bridges are designed to recover their shape after stresses are removed from them.

2.3.2 Models of resilience

A number of resilience models are available – one recent review found 13 operational frameworks, indices and tools related to the concept.+L. Bosetti, A. Ivanovic and M. Munshey, A Review of Fragility, Risk and Resilience Frameworks (New York: United Nations University Centre for Policy Research, 2015), p. 16, cited in Sanderson and Sharma (eds), IFRC World Disasters Report. Examples include ISET’s framework for urban climate resilience ( and ARUP’s City Resilience Index, which seeks to quantify resilience according to infrastructure, health, economy and leadership ( A third model used in relation to naturally-triggered disasters is ‘disaster resilience of place’ (DROP), which emphasises location in relation to resilience and vulnerability (see A fourth model+S. Woolf et al., ‘Towards Measurable Resilience: A Novel Framework Tool for the Assessment of Resilience Levels in Slums’, International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction 19, 2016 ( assesses the level of resilience in low-income urban settlements. A fifth model, focusing on children, is Plan International’s Child-Centred Urban Resilience Framework (

The following model, from the UK Department for International Development (DFID), is presented here as it is readily understandable and is applicable to urban areas, for example in its emphasis on systems.

Figure 2.2 A model of resilience

Source: DFID, Defining Resilience: A DFID Approach Paper (London: DFID, 2011), reproduced in J. Twigg, Disaster Risk Reduction, Good Practice Review 9, Revised Edition (London: ODI, 2015), p. 19.

In this operational model (which aligns with the Rockefeller Foundation’s definition above):

  • Shocks and stresses are described as disturbances (a word commonly used in resilience thinking).
  • In describing what actions to take (No. 3, capacity to deal with disturbance), the key words are exposure (the size of the shock or degree of stress), sensitivity (how much the individual, community or system is vulnerable) and the ability to adapt (the changes people or systems make as a result).
  • Outcomes from the interventions taken range from very positive (‘bounce forward’) to failure (collapse).

Box 2.4 The Honiara Urban Resilience and Climate Action Plan (HURCAP), Solomon Islands

The 2016 Honiara Urban Resilience and Climate Action Plan (HURCAP) is a collaboration between Honiara City Council, the Solomon Islands government and UN-Habitat. The aim of the HURCAP is to strengthen the capital’s resilience to the effects of climate change, earthquakes, tropical cyclones and tsunamis, as well as structural vulnerabilities including unplanned urban growth and poor urban planning.

Building resilience in this context has focused on promoting participatory and collaborative planning in ten priority areas: urban planning and land development; housing; infrastructure; water, sanitation and waste; ecosystem services and coastal processes; human health and well-being; communication (awareness and education); livelihoods and behaviour change; disaster preparedness and response; and governance and partnerships.

Source: P. Jones and D. Sanderson, ‘Urban Resilience and Informal and Squatter Settlements in the Pacific Region’, Development Bulletin 78, 2017.

Box 2.5 Resilience: lessons from Amman and Kampala

With the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities programme, IRC is working to incorporate refugee movements into city development plans. In Amman and Kampala, it is working with the city authorities to support refugee-owned businesses, in particular women-owned businesses, in marginalised neighbourhoods. The initiative also included ensuring that international NGOs work more closely with local government and align their activities with local government policy. In Kampala, action points included a commitment not to view refugees as a burden, but ‘as an opportunity to identify and realise pathways to sustainable and inclusive growth’; and to engage both host and refugee populations collectively for mutual gain.

Source: IRC, From Response to Resilience. Working with Cities and City Plans to Address Urban Displacement: Lessons from Amman and Kampala (London: IRC, 2018).

This model is helpful in particular because of the three choices given in No. 3. Actions that work therefore include a combination of reducing exposure, reducing sensitivity and building adaptive capacity.

2.3.3 Applying the concept of resilience in urban areas

Resilience has a wide array of applications in urban programming. At a high policy level, resilience is embedded in SDG 11, to ‘make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable’. This is important because it signals that almost all the world’s governments have signed up to enact a resilience-based approach from now until 2030. According to the UN,+See as of 2015 142 countries had developed national policies, ‘the vast majority’ of which align with the SDGs. Resilience therefore can be openly discussed with national government decision-makers as a uniting course of action. The same applies where national policy translates to city-level policy (see the example below on municipal planning).

Resilience has also been especially tied in with climate change (recognised as both a shock and a stress: see Section 1.2.4 on climate change). The concept of resilience has also been used in the following ways.

  • To provide convening power to unite disparate actors for collective action. The term itself is positive, and is readily understandable. As an example, the NGO Cordaid uses ‘building urban resilience’ as a goal for convening neighbourhood groups to develop DRR programmes.+See, for example,
  • To emphasise DRR efforts to reduce disaster risk before a shock or stress occurs.
  • To better combine development and humanitarian emergency actions and understandings – a theme running throughout this review is that effective urban humanitarian action requires longer, more developmental timeframes.

Useful sources of further information

P. Sitko and A. Massella, Building Urban Resilience in the Face of Crisis: A Focus on People and Systems, GAUC, 2019 (

100 Resilient Cities and the global resilience movement (

An extensive list of resources on resilience and climate change adaptation can be found at

The World Bank’s publication Building Urban Resilience, while focused on disaster risk reduction, includes guidelines on risk assessment and land upgrading, among other things (

UN-Habitat’s 2017 publication Trends in Urban Resilience provides useful information on key actors and several case studies of urban resilience programming from a number of contexts (