Introduction to building transformative urban resilience for all

Understanding and reducing risks from climate change and disasters in urban centres.

Building transformative urban resilience for all
A programme of work understanding the nature of risk for people living in urban centres of the global South, in order to support community, city, national and global efforts to build resilience
Clothes hang on lines outside small poorly maintained houses

Many residents in Freetown, Sierra Leone, live on unstable slopes and close to the coast, where they are exposed to a wide range of climate change impacts (Photo: David Dodman, IIED)

The combination of inequitable urban growth and rapid and unpredictable climate change is resulting in a rapidly growing number of urban residents living at risk from a range of complex and interacting shocks and stresses. Responding to these risks is central to the work of the Human Settlements research group as it seeks to achieve sustainable, inclusive, equitable, healthy, safe, resilient and prosperous human settlements.

Many of these people live in informal settlements with insecure tenure and a lack of affordable basic services. 

Climate change-induced shocks and stresses are eroding the physical, financial, social and natural assets that are crucial for ensuring their wellbeing. These are interacting with other types of hazards, including pandemics, and result in complex and disruptive risks. 

With more people living in towns and cities today than ever before, urban areas in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia are growing rapidly, and are often expanding into areas that are exposed to climate-related hazards. 

With a 1.5°C rise in temperature a near certainty, climate impacts are intensifying. These are particularly significant for urban areas that are already located in tropical areas (where high temperatures are expected to become a major threat to health and wellbeing) or along coasts and rivers (where flooding is expected to worsen). 

As today’s urban areas are nodes in global social and economic networks, indirect and ‘teleconnected’ risks from events taking place far away also shape the vulnerability of cities and their residents.

These urban centres also have significant amounts of poverty and inequality – but a range of other factors such as age, gender, tenure status and disability make some people more vulnerable than others.

What has IIED done?

The Human Settlements research group at IIED has three decades of experience of working on risk and resilience in urban areas. We enjoy longstanding partnerships with both grassroots organisations that are facing these challenges on the ground, and with major policy bodies such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). 

We have a particularly strong reputation on linking urban resilience with issues of poverty, governance and informality. We have strong networks of civil society and research partners working on these issues in Africa, Asia and Latin America, and a clear understanding of both the local, contextual realities of cities in the global South as well as the ability to influence global development policy processes. 

Our team has worked with:

  • Major international foundations to support documentation of climate change resilience initiatives in Asia
  • Universities and academic institutions to build knowledge on risk in African cities
  • Governments to develop new urban resilience policies, and 
  • International donor agencies to support multilateral and government programming that builds resilience for low-income groups. 

What is IIED doing?

Our work in this area includes different forms of partnerships. We are strengthening our knowledge partnerships with civil society, local governments, the private sector and academic groups – in the global South and the global North – to develop diverse, dynamic and more effective forms of locally relevant data collection and analysis on risk and resilience for influencing policy and practice. 

IIED principal researcher Aditya Bahadur and Ahmad Rifai of Indonesia NGO Kota Kita highlight the issues people living in informal settlements face due to inequitable urban growth and climate change, and how IIED and partners are working to tackle this

We will further build action partnerships with civil society groups who make changes on the ground, to document, analyse and disseminate the lessons learned on pathways of achieving resilient and equitable urban development, in order to influence policy and practice. 

We will enhance our policy partnerships with municipal, national and global institutions to make changes in policies that enable an effective response to disruptive risk in towns and cities.

We engage with major global policy processes, including the IPCC, to help ensure that high quality evidence from around the world can be used to produce policy relevant assessments. 

The outcomes of our work on urban resilience will be achieved at different scales, and will include: 

  • Empowered households and communities that are able to act effectively – in partnership with NGOs and local governments – to build their resilience
  • Local governments with the knowledge and capacity to protect all urban residents from shocks and stresses 
  • National governments that devolve appropriate levels of responsibility and finance to local governments and grassroots organisations, and
  • A global policy space that supports these endeavours, and that channels funding that is genuinely accountable to the needs of the most vulnerable. 

The projects IIED is working on in this area include:

Environment & Urbanization

A number of special issues of the Environment & Urbanization journal have focused on urban resilience. These include: