Climate resilience in cities: the main barriers are soft, not hard

Esteban Leon, UN-Habitat

Esteban Leon

Head of the City Resilience Profiling Programme, UN-Habitat

18 February, 2019

Esteban has a background in economics, shelter/housing and settlement program design and management, capacity building, as well as building constructions and reconstruction projects in post-crisis situations and urban resilience building. He has been working for UN-Habitat since 2002 based in Nairobi, Geneva, Panama and Barcelona.

Climate change cannot be considered a distant threat to future generations, but the most pressing and challenging issue for humanity today. Regardless of its causes, the observed impacts of climate change are bringing the sensitivity of natural and human systems to the forefront. Although all people are affected, it is the poorest and most vulnerable who pay and will continue to pay a proportionately higher price as disruption, deterioration, displacement or even destruction of human life become more frequent.

The most common manifestations of climate change are altered weather patterns, rising sea levels and more extreme meteorological events. The expected impact of these phenomena on human life is being well documented and explored through numerous global reports and studies. The specific impact of climate change on cities and urban dwellers however remains the missing piece of the puzzle. This gap is increasingly pressing in light of the rapid urbanization that continues to take place in the most vulnerable regions of the world. Local governments are often on the forefront of efforts to build resilience to climate change but lack the capacity, tools and resources to tackle the issue confidently.

The diversity of cities – size, geographical location, political structures, underlying stresses – complicates any ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to understanding or developing climate resilience in urban areas. Nevertheless, under its mandate to promote sustainable and resilient cities, UN-Habitat embarked on this task back in 2014, seeking to develop a methodology that was sufficiently flexible to adapt to all urban contexts, but robust enough to deliver insightful and actionable recommendation to local governments on how to build climate resilience.

The resulting methodology, the City Resilience Profiling Tool, is currently being piloted in cities in all four corners of the globe, from the sub-Arctic city of Yakutsk in Eastern Russian, to the small island capital city of Port Vila in Vanuatu. From our work thus far, we have seen that the main barriers to initiating resilience building in these cities are the same: verifiable information and data, and buy-in from stakeholders. The good news is that data is now more available than ever before, from satellite images to big data, surveys to archives, cities can potentially tap into limitless sources of information. The bad news is that not all cities have equal access to this information or the resources required to gather and analyze it. Building buy-in can help address this gap by leveraging support among key actors, and encouraging them to work collaboratively in city-wide resilience vision as opposed to a silo approach.

In light of these initial findings, UN-Habitat scaled-up efforts to facilitate these two conditions in partner cities through our technical cooperation, knowledge products and outreach efforts. We are working with local governments to empower them to lead efforts to work with local partners to gather essential data on the city’s performance (transport, built environment, social services, economy, etc.) and collectively roadmap the city’s path to resilience. Our partnerships with the cities of Maputo and Yakutsk have been particularly fruitful as both local governments have committed to developing a permanent and cross-sector resilience unit. These units will mainstream resilience across all departments and promote informed and coordinated decision-making for climate resilience over the long-term. The resilience profiling exercise and the subsequent resilience unit model stand to be replicated in many more cities and potentially benefit the 70% of the global population expected to be living in cities by 2050. The challenge today is how to scale-up this and similar initiatives.