What we learned at Resilient Cities 2016

Resilience is about people more than anything else.

For every database, for every project, there is always a human interface: the civil servants, community leaders and regular citizens making resilience a reality.

This was a red thread along the whole Resilient Cities 2016 congress, which wrapped up today in Bonn after three days of intense, passionate and constructive debate sparking peer-to-peer sharing of ideas, projects, and opportunities.

The closing plenary, already hinting at urban health as a possible direction for further developments, brought the story of Tainan, Taiwan, which in the summer-autumn of 2015 had to face one of the deadliest and widest outbreaks of dengue fever in its recent past. Over 20,000 infected citizens, more than 100 dead.

How they beat dengue and what they learned from this process was summarized by the Deputy Secretary General Shin-Ching Liu: local governments and citizens need to team up. This is the only way such events can be tackled as a community.

In his closing remarks, the Mayor of Bonn, Ashok Sridharan, confirmed that “transformative optimism”, an expression first coined by former UNFCCC head Christiana Figueres, is what drives cities in making all those global processes a concrete reality and a solid project for their future.

At the start of the conference, which saw over 300 participants from more than 40 countries gather for the seventh year in Bonn to discuss urban resilience, three main strands of work were launched: how to finance resilience; how to ensure that resilience is inclusive; how to move forward on the global agenda.

After three days it became clear to all that these issues are fundamentally interconnected. It is impossible to move forward the global agenda without the involvement of citizens, and in particular slum dwellers and members of marginalized communities that are often the backbone of local economies. The case of Accra, in Ghana, where the so-called “informal economy” makes up a very large part of the local economy, is telling. Thanks to the help of WIEGO, hawkers and street sellers got together, identified their priorities and gradually conquered a sit at the table.

Resilience projects can often be outside the financial reach of local authorities. Lots of money is needed to build new, green and resilient infrastructure, as it is to upgrade existing infrastructure. How to make this connection happen? People, again. Their capacity, which needs to be build; their involvement in the planning and implementation of the project, which is crucial to ensure long-term success and therefore financial viability of the project.

It is not (or not only) about making “prettier” projects that would appeal to potential investors, but rather about creating the environment in which innovative financial tools can be developed to leverage existing resources and even bridge the income gap in many emerging economies, as was suggested during a workshop on City Innovation Platforms (CIPs) for African infrastructure risk and resilience.

What now? The road from Bonn to Quito, where the Habitat III conference will take place in October, launching a New Urban Agenda, will be another exciting journey.

Over the past two years the global agenda has advanced on many fronts: the Sendai Framework on Disaster Risk reduction was approved, as were the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including SDG 11 on cities; COP21 produced the landmark Paris Agreement on climate change.

All these pieces will have to come into place, outlining a vision for the sustainable city of the future. We at ICLEI, the largest network of local governments on the planet, surely have one. And while we start imagining Resilient Cities 2017, we are surer than ever that such a vision will be alive with people or will not be at all.

Michael Woodbridge contributed to this blog.

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