Building resilient cities is increasingly important. Currently, over 50% of people worldwide live in cities, and by 2040 that number is likely to exceed 75-80% worldwide. Cities are complex structures that link business centers to residential areas, weaving together the products and services that fulfill the needs of both; and we need to address resilience of businesses and residents alike. However, cities are also the most unequal places on earth. In fact, the larger the city, the more unequal it is. Thus, special attention needs to insure that the most vulnerable among us are considered in our urban resilience plans. We know that the poor, communities of color, the elderly and youth, single mothers and the mentally ill are more vulnerable to all forms of external threats. Thus, increasing resilience among the most vulnerable is the key to increasing overall resilience in contemporary cities.

When we look at the city as a system, there are a variety of dimensions of a city that contribute to their residents’ resilience, and each of these needs to be examined and reinforced when developing a resilience plan for our cities. First, the governance framework plays an critical role. Importantly, the most vulnerable members of our communities need to be represented in our governance practices. Their voices need to be included in stakeholder participation processes, which is particularly challenging for single mothers and residents for whom English is a second language. Providing free parking, language interpretation, childcare, and considering remote participation options are some of the innovations that increase participation of vulnerable groups in public comment gatherings. Majority rule in democracies emphasizes the will of the many over the will of the few, so by its nature it is incapable of guarding vulnerable populations if they are in the minority. Therefore, intentionally incorporating principles of justice in our governance practices is required to increase resilience for those most vulnerable when crises arise.

The economic structure of a city also shapes its resilience and the resilience of its people. Diverse economies are more resilient than those dependent upon only a few sectors or organizations. And economies that make it easy for all people to participate are more resilient than those where large groups are excluded from economic participation. Factors such as mass transit, transit-oriented development, affordable housing, and livable wages increase the resilience of the most vulnerable groups. Access to healthcare, childcare, and healthy food also increase resilience. However, there is a cycle plaguing contemporary American cities that makes it increasingly difficult for the most vulnerable residents to take advantage of the amenities they need. Specifically, the challenge of gentrification and the displacement of residents of origin from their communities continues to impact even the most innovative city planners.

The cycle of displacement begins when people who have more money become interested in the amenities that exist in affordable communities. Those amenities might be cultural, such as proximity to a thriving arts district (which often form in lower cost areas of cities). Quite often infrastructure amenities, such as green spaces or access to public transportation, attract people to seek housing in a particular neighborhood, which raises rents as demand increases. These challenges have proven difficult to combat, because most states do not allow rent fixing, which was the chosen method to protect residents of origin during the Great Depression. Thus, the cycle of bringing amenities, like green space and access to public transit, to the place it is most needed almost always results in the displacement of the residents for whom the amenities were created. Clearly, a set of integrated solutions is needed to address this highly predicable cycle.

Some of the most creative housing developments in today’s cities are finding ways to incorporate access to affordable housing, affordable and healthy food, and health and social services within walking distance from each other. The most innovative cities are learning from the 15 minute city model, where people can access all of their necessary products and services within 15 minutes of their home.  Where the provision of public transportation fails, the provision of access to all necessary products and services within a 15 minute walk from populated residential regions increases equity in planning processes and the resilience of the most vulnerable citizens within cities.

National Complete Streets Coalition (NCSC)

Of course, to take care of the most vulnerable in our cities, we also need to incorporate the “complete streets” model, which helps to insure sidewalks and bike lanes are maintained and protected. Too often, bike lanes are overtaken by delivery trucks, taxis, and buses. Sidewalks are in ill-repair or missing altogether, making it dangerous for pedestrians to navigate, let alone for the elderly or disabled. Multi-purpose housing buildings have shown promise as a way to integrate residences with access to healthcare, healthy food, and other needed amenities. However, additional infrastructure gaps need to be filled to realize the potential of “complete streets” and 15-minute cities. For example, availability of high-speed internet is critical. Remote work opportunities need to become fully integrated into our economic model of work. Neighborhood co-work spaces, public libraries, and other third spaces, such as coffee shops, can fill in to provide social support and community building services that increase resilience to boot.

The C40 Knowledge Hub sites several features of a 20-minute neighborhood that can provide helpful guidelines as we examine urban models for equitable resilience. Amenities play a central role, such as parks, green spaces, community gardens, and sports facilities. Local schools, diverse housing with affordable options, and connected transit, jobs and services make up the basic infrastructure. Local shopping centers, healthcare facilities, and I would add local community policing make up some of the critical services needed to build a system that supports resilience for all members of our urban centers.

As cities house more of our global residents, we face great challenges and great opportunities. Acknowledging the ways our current development processes tend to systematically exclude our most vulnerable residents from taking advantage of the amenities our cities can provide is only the first step toward creating more resilient cities. We have to take stock of the innovative models from around the world that are designed explicitly to uplift those most vulnerable to economic, ecological, and health related crises. 15-Minute cities, “complete streets,” and innovative housing options are showing great promise as models that create cities that are not only equitable in their functioning but more diverse, healthy, and resilient places to live.


Elizabeth Caniglia

Dr. Caniglia (PhD University of Notre Dame) is Professor and Director of the Institute for Sustainable Economic & Enterprise Development (SEED) in the College of Business & Economics at Regis University...

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