Resilient cities

By Matt Burdett, 18 May 2019

On this page, we look at resilient city design, including strategies to manage escalating climatic and geopolitical risks to urban areas.

  • Jaipur, India, is a member of the 100 Resilient Cities network. Source: By the author.

What is a resilient city?

The term resilience in general refers to the ability to recover from something. It has been adopted by geographers to describe urban areas that are able to cope with problems and recover quickly, allowing their core functions to continue into the future. It is very similar to sustainability, but deals with the ability to withstand shocks and slow-onset problems rather than general issues like recycling and waste management.

The 100 Resilient Cities movement, which is supported by the Rockefeller Foundation, defines urban resilience 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” (100 Resilient Cities, 2019). The OECD defines resilience as “cities that have the ability to absorb, recover and prepare for future shocks (economic, environmental, social & institutional). Resilient cities promote sustainable development, well-being and inclusive growth” (OECD, 2019).

Shocks versus slow-onset problems

A ‘shock’ event is one that occurs suddenly. These shocks can come in many forms, such as:

  • Climatic shocks: major hazardous events such as flooding, extreme heat or storms
  • Geopolitical shocks: cities are focus points for global political disputes, such as war and terrorism
  • Geophysical shocks: such as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions
  • Health shocks: such as disease outbreaks
  • Socio-economic shocks: such as financial crises or political disputes

Resilient cities also need to be aware of slow-onset (‘slow moving’) problems which gradually affect the ability of the city to function. These are also called ‘chronic stresses’ and include;

  • Shortages of basic needs
  • Economic problems including inequality1
  • Socio-economic problems such as crime, lack of healthcare, education or housing
  • Infrastructure problems including energy, water, transport and telecommunications

It is the ability to prepare for, reduce and withstand the combination of such problems that makes a city resilient.

Measuring resilience

The OECD identifies the source of resilience as coming from a balance of economic, societal, governmental and environmental features.

Climatic risks to urban areas

One of the biggest threats to urban areas is climatic hazards. Many cities are located in climatically risky locations such as coastlines where flooding is a threat to the functioning of the city.

Typical climatic risks in urban areas include:

  • Flooding
  • Heatwaves
  • Extended snowfall (disrupting transport and putting stress on energy supplies)
  • Storms (hurricanes)

Possible solutions include:

  • Building sea walls and/or raising river embankments to prevent water flooding into neighbourhoods
  • Creating artificial floodplains in the city – these are green areas that absorb the water that would otherwise flood the urban area
  • Raising housing above ground level, so that buildings cannot be seriously affected by floodwater
  • Developing neighbourhood systems to check on vulnerable people during times of crisis
  • Preparing adequate evacuation procedures

Geopolitical risks

Geopolitics is about the links between geography and the balance of power between different countries and global movements. Geographical factors include resource availability, levels of development, population size, land area and so on. These all affect how powerful a country is. Geopolitical threats include terrorism and war. Cities are magnets for geopolitical hazards because problems that are due to geopolitical forces are more noticeable in cities than elsewhere due to the concentration of affected people, and the complex interactions that take place in cities compared to elsewhere. Examples include:

  • Terrorist attack
  • Protests against global movements such as migration
  • Segregation of groups from one another in specific neighbourhoods, creating distinct spatial variation in political identity and leading to a loss of social cohesion in the city
  • Loss of economic power due to globalization, such as deindustrialization in cities in HICs

Solutions are very specific to the problems of each city, but many cities have hidden ways of preventing terrorism and managing protests, such as:

  • Placing bollards around key infrastructure to prevent people driving directly into it
  • Using street furniture to channel movement – such as placing benches along a street, making it harder to move from side to side
  • Using close-circuit television (CCTV) to monitor activities
  • Creating one-way traffic systems to direct vehicles in particular directions


100 Resilient Cities, 2019. What is Urban Resilience? Accessed 18 March 2019.

OECD, 2019. Resilient Cities. Accessed 18 March 2019.

Resilient cities: Learning activities


  1. Identify the main features of resilient cities. [3]
  2. Define ‘resilient cities’. [2]
  3. Distinguish between shock events and slow-onset problems. [2]
  4. Identify four features that can be measured to establish whether a city is resilient. [4]
  5. Explain why cities are at greater risk from climatic hazards than other places. [2]
  6. Define ‘geopolitics’. [2]
  7. Identify two geopolitical hazards that may occur in cities. [2]
  8. Suggest why cities are more likely to experience geopolitical hazards than other places. [2]

Other tasks

Is your city a resilient city? Identify the features of a city near you and compare them to the threats faced by the city.

© Matthew Burdett, 2019. All rights reserved.

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