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A resilient city doesn’t stop at flood gates

by Lauren Stabler, PhD student at the Global Sustainability Institute, Anglia Ruskin University

In this afternoon’s session “Inclusive governance: partnering with communities and marginalized groups”, representatives of the Rockefeller Foundation, the International Labour Organization, Women in Informal Employment Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO) and IIED made a strong case for inclusivity, from which four key lessons can be drawn for urban climate resilience:

1. A resilient city doesn’t stop at flood gates.

Lest we forget, Sundaa Bridgett-Jones, Senior Associate Director of the Rockefeller Foundation, reminded us that “Urban resilience is not just about infrastructure. It’s about the overall health and wellbeing of the community.” While improving the resilience of urban infrastructure is clearly linked to human wellbeing, other issues, such as labor conditions, are equally important determinants of urban resilience. For example, Edmudo Werna of the International Labour Organization elaborated on the relationship between work place accidents and economic competitiveness, as well as continued education and training of workers and the successful implementation of new, green technologies. In other words, solutions for urban resilience should not be limited in scope and necessarily require the inclusion of additional social pressures.

2. We are only as strong as the most marginalized groups of society.

A resilient city is not one that protects only the most advantaged members from environmental crisis. This is a strong argument for inclusivity. Sandra Pepera of the National Democratic Institute in Washington DC provides the interesting example of “gender equal” snow plowing in Sweden, where residential areas, rather than main commercial roadways, are prioritized after snow storms, resulting in city-wide improvements in mobility after large snowstorms as compared to traditional models that favor advantaged groups.

Furthermore, during her presentation on inclusive risk reduction in the markets of Accra, Esther Ofei-Aboagye stressed that “Inclusive and resilient governance is a shared responsibility.” If marginalized members of society are lacking the ability to contribute to local adaptation, the overall resiliency of the system is jeopardized. As Mr. Werna nicely put, “Who does and will do the work necessary to achieve urban resilience? – Workers!” Therefore, their contributions are critical.

3. Solutions resulting from participatory processes are simply better solutions.

After Superstorm Sandy, the Rebuild by Design campaign launched a competition for architectural design. To improve the process of “co-design”, the Rockefeller Foundation accepted applications from architecture firms working together with residents, academics, and community NGOs. The competition leveraged around one billion USD and helped to shift the “recovery” paradigm by creating opportunities to address additional societal issues during the design phase, such as insufficient green space, a concern raised by several community members.

A further benefit of participatory design is the ability to access local sources of knowledge. This knowledge, which is often left untapped, is critical for the successful identification and prevention of local climate threats. In her presentation of inclusive and resilient urban development in Asian cities, Sarah Colenbrander of IIED poses the question, “We are always demanding evidence-based solutions, but what is evidence and who is allowed to provide it?” Ms. Colenbrander cites initiatives such as community mapping as positive examples for addressing this gap in inclusive governance.

4. Participatory processes should be safe, empowering and build off of existing social structures.

Rather than mobilizing new stakeholders, WIEGO makes a great effort to tap into already existing social movements and advocacy circles. Accra City Coordinator, Dorcas Ansah, attributes much of WIEGO’s success to this model and encourages others to seek such opportunities in their cities. WIEGO also works to create a safe environment for members of the informal market, (which makes up nearly 80% of Accra’s market economy) where they can freely share their concerns and ideas. WIEGO then empowers these voices by “teaching the language of engagement”; building skills in advocacy, negotiation, media relations and networking; and collectively elevating local concerns to the national level of political decision-making.