Resilience comes from a city's People


Much of today’s talk around Resilient Cities focuses on the ability of a city or community to survive and get back on its feet after a natural disaster. Hurricane Sandy and Typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda were short-term events that have left long-term challenges for hundreds of thousands of people. Longer term climate change will affect hundreds of millions through lost coastal land, altered agricultural economies, and changing access to resources.

In recognition of these city-scale challenges, the practice of planning and design is evolving from the pursuit of Sustainability to the pursuit of Resilience. Planners are integrating natural defence zones and buffers, evacuation and emergency access routes, community resource centres, higher building foundations, and stormwater strategies to avoid landslides and runoff damage. They are undergrounding powerlines, incorporating redundant power systems, windbreak strategies, wetlands and breakwaters.

Such hardware and basic land use decisions are smart. They will help cities guard against the rising physical threats from Mother Nature.

But Mother Nature is relentless. And so are fellow humans. Natural disasters, drought, health epidemics, resource exhaustion, and land change are only part of the threat to the survival of cities. Global financial flows, economic collapse, non-state violence, cyberterrorism, socio-cultural injustice, and poverty are all city-scale threats. 

Faced with this broader, more contextual array of threat, we may find that the resilience of a community lies as much in the softer side, in the people themselves. 


In many ways, the most precious resource to sustain in Sustainable Design is ourselves. Passionate people drive nations. And protection of a nation’s natural and civic resources is a long game, so we had better be around to be in it.

Sustainability of ourselves means healthier selves: physically, mentally, socially, and culturally. For many, it means spiritually healthier too. If we are consumers of healthier lifestyles, then we demand healthier food. We choose to walk instead of drive. We seek preventative well-being, to avoid reactive health care. We head outdoors more. We try spend more on ourselves, and less on avoidable expenses.

This makes healthier people exactly the kind of market that demands healthier cities. A bikeway network is not viable without a population that wants to ride it. Urban agriculture is not viable without a community that demands local fresh food. Higher density, transit oriented neighborhoods have no traction without a citizenry who embrace the advantages of walkable amenity over suburban sprawl. Better indoor air quality is seen as a luxurious expense unless employees vociferously demand it. 

So a Sustainable community and sustainable design starts with people demanding healthier, more sustainable lives, and thus driving up demand – and driving down costs – for sustainable solutions. People who sustain themselves demand of their cities more for less.


A Resilient City is a city that is not only Sustainable in terms of balancing expected resource use, but can also weather the unexpected challenges the world can throw at it. Here too, the solutions for resilience come down to people.

Take a flash flood that wipes out low lying infrastructure of a town. Nature can take it; it has for millennia. It’s the people, their community and their livelihoods that are impacted. Crops are wiped out for a season or longer, and farmers must find other ways to literally get food on the table. Communities are faced with higher food and commodity costs, and stress skyrockets for households earning day to day. Resilience planning anticipates food supply, places of work, and continuity of a range of livelihoods.

Take a violent conflict that ravages a city. A resilient city may have the emergency response and evacuation framework to deal with the acute physical demands of quelling disturbances. But what about the hit on morale and reputation, the economic impact of tourists and buyers who choose to take their business and trade to more stable places? Resilience planning builds upon natural and cultural heritage to achieve strong economic engines and competitive identity that can survive temporary upheaval.

Take an earthquake that brings down the poorly built shantytowns of a region. Stronger codes may protect the haves, but the have-nots are inextricably linked. Upwards of hundreds of thousands who generate the essential informal economy could be impacted; in Mumbai the Dharavi slum alone is 6% of the city’s entire GDP. Broken water lines, cut-off power, and difficult medical access spawn epidemics. And while epidemics rage, pathogens know no income or jurisdictional boundaries. Resilience planning not only protects well-invested neighborhoods, but also shepherds poor communities out of harm’s way.

Take a vicious virus that incapacitates a community. With the ease of contagion in this jet-set age, this community may be a global one. Resilience planning not only anticipates medical response needs, but also focuses on healthier cities to help prevent public health crises.

This is a poignant time in the evolving balance of nature and urban development; a time for the cities of the world to tackle the challenge of the Resilient City not only as an infrastructural, hardware-driven effort, but as a people-driven endeavour. 

Yet even with a fresh checklist of issues to address, the challenges of each city are unique around the world. Cities may be best served by tackling one or two fundamental challenges at a time, instead of a shotgun approach to cover every tiem on these checklists. There is nothing like a measureable, tangible result from low hanging fruit to motivate and inspire a new crop of champions to find and implement more solutions. Resilience is, after all, a mission across generations. 





An evolving list of atypical challenges that may help a city down the path toward Resilience could include the following:



Support for Basic Livelihoods –
access to raw resources, ease of entry to labor, communications, stable banking, legal and patent protections, SME support, protected trade logistics, affordable and diverse commercial space


Vocational and Language Education – 

more and smaller schools, adult and continuing education, support and certification for anywhere education, 


Safe and Affordable Housing – 

higher density, mixed use, tight controls on low density and informal settlements, access to and protection of titles, micro-equity, clear and trackable parcelization and development activity, citizen registration, mobility for jobs, finance, accessible insurance


Household Financial Protection – 

asset records and insurance, off-site records, 


Gender Opportunity – 

daycares and clinics near workplaces, residence near workplaces, schools, 


Public Well Being – 

safe paths to school, walking trails and access to amenity, local fresh foods, preventative care, showers, clean water, hygiene and sanitation, accessible health insurance, epidemiological education, vaccination


Community Anchors – 

youth clubs, emergency response, disaster shelters and response bases, backup communication and power, household information archives 


Urban Natural Habitats – 

parks and streetscapes as habitats, native planting, habitat education, in-community wildlife reserves, connected canopies and ground routes, integrated stormwater


Sustainable Food – 

land for urban farms, fresh markets, distribution to serve all communities, especially low income, farm and aquaculture/mariculture support which mitigates runoffs and pollution, certification


Public Safety – 

petty and organized crime solutions, street lights, smart location of public services and schools, community policing and deterrent presence, alternative activities for youth, community service jobs, labor-for-services community barter marketplaces


Accessible Power and Communications – 

mobile generators, communications banks, resilient locations


Community Pride and Reputation – 

sports teams, community branding, global relevance stories, media presence strategies, tourism plans


Waste Management – 

reduction of landfills and cross-border waste trade, food waste, vector control, human health and hygiene, materials reuse


Smart Land Use – 

topographic intelligence, synergistic adjacencies, mixed use, transit oriented development, walking oriented development, market flexibility, organic character development, economically accessible districts and space, small grain parcelization, high energy districts, community resilience resource distribution


Happiness – 

KPIs need to need found and established

Sylvester Wong

catalyscity, 12 Tung Chung Waterfront Road, Hong Kong, New Territories, Hong Kong