What makes a resilient city?

Houston, Texas at Night 2010-02-28. Credit: NASA

Contributor: Danial Hoornweg, Corporate Knights

This article first appeared on Corporate Knights and is republished here under CC 4.0. To view it in its natural habitat please click here.

In the heat and stink of the summer of 1854, London was held captive by a virulent cholera outbreak. Hundreds were dying and no one knew the cause, or more importantly, how to stop the epidemic.

The Daily News, in trying to capture what was growing fear and uncertainty, published a letter on September 7 of that year laying blame at sewer builders for unearthing the corpses of humans who had died 200 years earlier from the plague.

In response to the accusations, the Metropolitan Commission of Sewers dispatched engineer Edmund Cooper to investigate. Cooper mapped the area in excruciating detail: locations of the deceased, water pumps, old and new sewer alignments, and a circle around the “supposed location of the plague pit.”

A quick look at Cooper’s map exonerated the plague pit. The deaths were concentrated several blocks southeast. There were only a handful of deaths near the pit and surely if some killing miasma, or ‘bad air,’ had emanated from the excavation those in the immediate vicinity would have a higher casualty rate.

Later, using data from a more extensive survey, John Snow, a physician with the Board of Health, began work on his own map of the Broad Street cholera outbreak. Snow, accompanied by local Reverend Henry Whitehead, visited homes as they inquired into the habits of the deceased and household sources of water. Snow eventually simplified Cooper’s information, plotting the location of all deaths and the 13 public water pumps.

The visual impact was striking. It immediately highlighted the connection between the cholera outbreak and the Broad Street water pump. John Snow’s ghost map is credited with showing that cholera is a water-borne illness. It also launched the science of epidemiology and the long-standing battle against communicable disease.

John Snow’s cholera map of Soho

John Snow’s ghost map highlighted several critical aspects of urban resilience. More data is not always better: Edmund Cooper’s original map arguably had too much information and simple visualization was difficult.

A multi-disciplinary approach yields the best results, especially when built on strong local linkages, like Reverend Whitehead’s community network. Coming from an employee of the sewer commission, Edmund Cooper’s initial map might have been as much about defending his employer’s innocence as it was about defining the source of contamination. John Snow’s ghost map proved the value of objective scientific inquiry.

Snow’s epidemiological work, along with London’s sewers, solid waste management, public health programs and potable water, provided a key lesson on urban resilience: with proper management, cities could be made safe. As city populations burgeoned, making cities safe became the key mandate of municipal governments.

Cities: a powerful paradox

When Cooper, Whitehead and Snow walked the streets and alleys of Soho, London, in 1854, the world was only about 10 percent urban. Less than 100 million people lived in cities worldwide, and London was the world’s largest city at the time with about 2.5 million people.

For the past 150 years, London has led many of the world’s public health and urban management advances. But the city could use help, as today the world is almost 55 percent urban and about 3.75 billion people live in cities. By 2050, the world is on track to have at least 120 cities with populations of more than five million people. In Canada, Toronto’s unique location, size, and relative affluence provide the region with an opportunity – perhaps imperative – to lead in the rapidly emerging field of urban resilience.

By the end of this century, as many as nine billion people will likely live in cities (more than 80 percent of the global population). This could be beneficial as cities, through associated efficiency gains in service delivery attributed to greater population density, offer the best hope for global sustainability. But this hope is predicated on ensuring urban safety and security.

Cities are a powerful paradox. On the one hand, we want our cities to be teeming with life; the bigger and more connected the better. Connected cities are especially important as they drive local and global economies and cultures.

Michael Mandel, writing in the April 2015 Harvard Business Review, highlights the power of urban connectedness. Using a simple surrogate measure from LinkedIn contacts, Mandel showed that for each 0.1 percent increase in connectedness a one percent increase in job growth was observed. The four-year job growth in the most-connected U.S. metro areas was 8.2 percent, while the least connected cities only had a 3.5 percent rate of job growth.

Similarly, Geoffrey West and his colleagues at the Santé Fe Institute found that everything else being equal, doubling the size of a city more than doubles growth in the local economy, and it does so at less than a doubling of the infrastructure costs.

The flip side of ‘bigger, better, denser cities’ is that big dense cities are particularly vulnerable, and just as our cities are growing much larger, risks like climate change, social unrest, energy disruption and water and food security, are increasing even faster. Today’s cities face additional, and often more insidious threats than London did in the 19th century.

Between 2000 and 2012 natural disasters resulted in $1.7 trillion in global damages (excluding terrorism and other man-made risks). These costs are likely to increase significantly as storms intensify, sea levels rise, and the world builds more urban infrastructure in harm’s way. Growing inequality within and among cities, as well as a much greater sensitivity to loss of power and communication systems, exacerbate city risks. Just-in-time delivery, for example, provides enormous benefits; except when the deliveries stop.

Humans often suffer from bounded rationality and cognitive limitations. Risk of extreme events can be discounted, while risks of minor events overstated. We see this in individuals who might still minimize the risk of driving drunk or smoking or overstate risks of vaccines and aeroplane crashes. Countries can also apply inappropriate proportions to risk; postponing action on climate change while restricting the freedoms of individuals from suspect ethnic groups.

As Henry David Thoreau said, “City life is millions of people alone together.” However, nothing brings these people together faster than a disaster. How people, and therefore cities, respond to risk and build and manage their cities determines a disaster’s impact.

Alone together

In January 2010 a magnitude 7 earthquake caused major damage to Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Death toll estimates were around 150,000 people and financial damage was pegged at about $8 billion. Reflecting the local poverty and absence of enforced regulations, most buildings in Port-au-Prince were of poor quality and suffered major damage.

Upon hearing of the disaster the world quickly responded. Without an equivalent 9-1-1 system, emergency workers needed immediate help to locate and rescue survivors. Using Ushahidi, an open source software platform, hundreds of volunteers around the world set up ‘Mission 4636’, the first crowdsource-based text, translate and dispatch system created to help rescue workers visualize and prioritize rescue work.

The Ushahidi Haiti Project in action.

Fundraising events included telethons and the UN’s largest humanitarian appeal ever, which raised $1.44 billion. A Haiti reconstruction fund was established. However, of the total $6.04 billion in humanitarian and recovery funding less than 10 percent went directly to the Haitian government. Wary of chronic government corruption, many NGOs and aid donors set their own priorities. Coordination was poor, and to make matters worse, a cholera epidemic broke out in October 2010.

Michaëlle Jean, then Governor General of Canada, became UNESCO Special Envoy for Haiti a month later. She voiced her anger at the slow rate of aid delivery with UNESCO head Irina Bokova. “As time passes, what began as a natural disaster is becoming a disgraceful reflection on the international community,” she wrote. Five years after the quake some 80,000 people still live in makeshift tent camps and half the rubble still needs to be moved.

In September 2010 a magnitude 7.1 earthquake struck just outside Christchurch, New Zealand. It damaged buildings but no lives were lost. A second earthquake measuring 6.3 hit directly underneath the city just a few months later. It was even more devastating, killing 185 people. Hundreds of buildings were eventually demolished, including most high-rise office buildings and hotels. Financial losses were estimated at around $40 billion, or roughly 2 to 3 percent of New Zealand’s GDP – a comparable percentage of Japan’s recovery costs from its 2011 earthquake and tsunami disaster.

The kind of international response seen in Haiti was not needed in New Zealand. Christchurch had a centralized and coordinated response with established relationships between governmental departments. And it had pre-established, robust urban systems. These factors provided a strong foundation on which to rebuild.

Reconstruction in Christchurch is divided into two broad parts. The above ground so-called “vertical rebuild” is proving challenging as people argue with insurance companies and the government on what type of buildings are best, and how to address traffic congestion and affordable housing. However, much of the vertical build can only proceed after the on-the-ground infrastructure is complete. The “horizontal rebuild” – water systems, utilities and roads – is progressing much better. An ad hoc consortium of several government agencies and civil engineering companies established ‘Stronger Christchurch Infrastructure Rebuild Team’ (SCRIT). Its 650-project, $2.5-billion (U.S.) effort appears to be on-track for completion by December 2016. By that time most of the debating on vertical rebuild plans will likely have been resolved.

Measuring resilience

From early days, cities under siege by warring factions outside the gates worried about poisoned water supplies, shortages of food, and power disruptions. And as cities continue to grow dramatically and threats increase even faster, urban resilience is emerging as an even more pressing aspect of sustainability. In fact, many agencies and governments are focusing on urban resilience. The Rockefeller Foundation, for example, now supports 100 city-based ‘chief resilience officers’ as part of its Resilient Cities campaign.

But how to measure urban resilience is today’s big challenge. In 2014, the Grosvenor real estate firm published a ranking of resilience for 50 world cities. Toronto was found to be the most resilient city overall based on an assessment of its adaptive capacity and vulnerabilities. People remembering the ice storm of December 2013, the frequent flooding of the Don River, or the policing fiasco of the 2010 G20 Summit might understandably question the ranking’s methodology.

Measuring urban resilience is fraught with problems. Especially as resilience is not absolute: a city can only be more, or less, resilient over time, or compared to another city. And some parts of a city might be resilient, while other areas are highly vulnerable. A city might also be very resilient against climate risk but highly vulnerable to security threats.

City leaders are inherently nervous about being measured and ranked, especially in the area of resilience. Much of today’s urban resilience is protection against willful harm. Letting your potential adversary know your weaknesses is never a good idea. And the risks a city faces are often beyond its control. However, the most critical first-responder to today’s unfolding risk profile remains a resilient city.

Building on several key ingredients Toronto is emerging as a global centre for urban resilience. The University of Toronto based Global City Indicators Facility oversees the city indicator standard ISO 37120 and has initiated a new work program to develop city resilience standard ISO 37121.

In addition to the Grosvenor study rating Toronto as the world’s most resilient city, Toronto has several attributes that enable it to be more resilient than most.

Toronto: a model of resilience?

Compared to the world’s other large global cities – those with regional populations greater than five million – Toronto is blessed by geography and relatively good governance and social behaviour.

The city is not coastal, meaning no threat from sea-level rise and modest hurricane risk. It has access to fresh water and local food supply. It is tectonically stable. Most flooding is localized, and strong conservation authorities to protect watercourses have remained since Hurricane Hazel in 1954. Toronto also has an energy supply that is stable and diverse, with low-carbon intensity electricity and reasonably-secure access to natural gas and petroleum.

The city gained valuable experience on ways to enhance resilience from the SARS disease outbreak in 2003, Mississauga’s train derailment in 1979, and massive power outages in 2003 and 2013. Its cultural diversity, informal networks, and tightly knit neighbourhood fabric also provide a strong underpinning of community strength.

The Greater Toronto Area (GTA) is well-placed to lead research on the similarities between urban and financial systems – the value of cooperative network diagnostics. And the region has one of the world’s highest concentrations of app development and data management capacities.

Of course, Toronto could be made more resilient. For example, power lines into the city and overhead wires and trees are still a concern. Trust in the police could be enhanced (perhaps through occasional sharing of officers and emergency workers across GTA municipalities to be better prepared for disasters). Communication between and across government agencies can always be improved. Neighbourhood ‘leadership nodes’ could be developed, and high-rise residential buildings could be better prepared for shelter-in-place operations. Partnering with cities like Chicago and Buffalo would be prudent.

To be clear, plotting and preparing for today’s disasters and bolstering city resilience is not as straightforward as John Snow’s ghost map that linked contaminated water sources and cholera. London led much of last century’s public sanitation and city building efforts. However, with Toronto’s fortunate location, contribution to ISO 37121 on the horizon, and the city’s growing global recognition for safety, security and, hopefully, on-the-ground improvements to resilience, the city can help lead this century’s need for more urban security, resilience and sustainability.

The question is whether it has the political will and the grassroots support to build one of the world’s safest and most secure cities – and more importantly, to share this knowledge.

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