Making cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable is now a global goal following the adoption of the post-2015 development agenda in New York in September. Achieving this target – sustainable development goal 11 – is vital because, for the first time in our history, more people live in cities than live in the countryside. And it is urgent because a third of the urban population lives in slums, mostly located on hazardous land, with poor access to basic services, and few opportunities to earn a decent living.
Another huge challenge is that urban areas mostly develop along coasts and rivers, making many city dwellers vulnerable to the effects of climate change. This has led to a growing discussion on how to make cities resilient to flooding, rising sea levels, heatwaves and other harmful results of our changing climate. However these discussions are not yet taking place on a practical level, and there is no blueprint for immediate action.
To address this knowledge gap, the Overseas Development Institute is looking at practical examples from around the world, and our initial research shows that seven actions are key in helping towns and cities deal with climate change. What is more, we can start implementing them today:
- The right information and knowledge is crucial. Those making plans and policies must know how exposed cities are, and whether urban systems are capable of dealing with the effects of climate change. A number of traditional methods can be used to gather this information, including surveys and climate models. Newer approaches are constantly being tested. For instance, in Jakarta, agencies are trying to understand flood patterns by gathering information from tweets sent by those living in areas affected by floods.
- This knowledge must be fed into comprehensive urban planning processes. Research from New Zealand shows that including exposure and vulnerability to disasters in land-use plans means neighbourhoods don’t spring up in hazardous areas, and ensures the protection of ecosystems that help cushion the blows that a changing climate may bring. It is also vital to include the thoughts of those living in the worst affected areas – often poor communities – while developing these plans.
- Transport, energy, telecommunications, water and sanitation sectors must be geared to function during disasters. Simple changes can deliver massive gains for resilience. The main reason the New York subway resumed so quickly during hurricane Sandy was because employees had participated in months of emergency planning and evacuation drills. In some cases, structural improvements and technology upgrades are needed: making sure rail tracks can withstand extreme temperatures or that drains are built to handle extreme rainfall.
- City authorities must have the right training and skills. Engineers and planners must understand how climate is going to affect their departments. They can establish networks of cities to share this learning. In Latin America and the Caribbean, cities that had made progress on preparing for climate change were linked with others that had not. Being connected to places facing similar problems, but with different levels of preparedness, motivated city officials to do better.
- In the case of extreme “outlier” events that occur once every 200 years or so, city residents must be able to fend for themselves until government support arrives. City governments and non-governmental organisations must work with vulnerable residents to ensure that they have the right resources. Projects in northern India involved appointing community volunteers to take people to safety, enabling savings groups so that people have money to fall back on, or ensuring that essential services, such as water and electricity, come from multiple sources, should primary sources fail.
- Local businesses must be involved, as they lead urban expansion across the global south. Guilds of masons, contractors and builders can be made aware of the expected impacts of climate change, and trained in resilient building techniques. In Vietnam, small, inexpensive changes to roof design have helped houses withstand typhoons. Governments can also urge the private sector to provide disaster insurance to small businesses. In north-east India, a pilot project to provide insurance to fruit and vegetable vendors is showing early signs of significant success.
- Attracting finance for urban resilience is vitally important. The good news is that a lot can be done with what is available already. In many developing countries, significant government resources have been earmarked for urban development and renewal. The two main national urban development programmes in India have $10bn funding each and so resilience can be built by ensuring that climate change is factored into the projects funded through these.