Published on Sustainable Cities

Urban jungles in jeopardy

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Why the world’s cities are at risk – and what we can do to make them more resilient

We may not know exactly what the world will look like in two decades, but we know this: it is going to be a world of cities.
The global population is becoming increasingly urban, and at an astonishing rate.  Each year, urban areas are growing by an average of more than 75 million people – more than the population of the world’s 85 smallest countries combined.
For the world’s economy, this is great news, since cities produce 80 percent of global GDP, despite currently being home to only 55 percent of the population. But it is a problem for urban infrastructure, which can’t keep up with such fast-paced growth. As a result, cities, already vulnerable, are becoming increasingly susceptible to natural disasters  – from flooding and landslides that can decimate informal housing settlements, to earthquakes that can devastate power grids and water systems.
These risks could be disastrous for the urban poor, 881 million of whom currently live in slums (up 28 percent since 2000). And climate change – which is increasing the intensity and frequency of natural disasters – will only exacerbate the problem. For this reason, multilateral and government institutions now see resilience and climate adaptation as integral pillars of development.
The Swiss State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO), for example, considers low-emission and climate-resilient economies to be key to global competitiveness. A recent report by the World Bank and the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (GFDRR) found that climate change may force up to 77 million urban residents into poverty by 2030  – unless we take action to improve the resilience of cities around the world.
To do so, cities have more tools at their disposal than ever before. In Dhaka, the spatial-data platform GeoDASH is serving as a central warehouse for 250 spatial datasets from more than 50 organizations. The GFDRR-funded platform, hosted by the Government of Bangladesh, allows government agencies working on resilience to easily share data.
Geospatial data is also aiding Can Tho, Vietnam, as the city works to reduce flood risk and improve connectivity between the urban core and new areas of urban growth. By collecting and analyzing the data, the city hopes to better plan its investment in infrastructure, and better manage its land use, sustainability, and growth. By reducing the impact of regular flooding, the project will help protect Can Tho’s 420,000 residents.
Urban resilience projects like these are a priority for the World Bank and SECO, who collectively provided $260 million (of which SECO provided $10 million technical assistance) for the efforts in Can Tho. However, the public and development sectors cannot do it alone; funding from the private sector is going to be necessary if we want to prevent climate change and urban population growth from plunging residents into poverty and causing massive economic losses. To attract this investment, we will need to address frequent obstacles to resilience investment: limited public-sector capacity, country-specific financial regulation, inhospitable business climates, and other factors.  
The public sector and multilateral development banks play a crucial role, helping cities overcome these barriers and boost investment in urban resilience. To that end, the World Bank, with support from GFDRR and SECO, is developing a new City Resilience Program that aims to help 50 cities create and fund comprehensive resilience programs over the next five years. The program’s approach recognizes that infrastructure, finance, and knowledge tools that inform policy are all interrelated and crucial parts of building resilience. Accordingly, the program is designed to work with cities to address all those sectors in a holistic, flexible approach that will unlock further sources of capital for resilience work.
Along with tools, guidance, and technical and operational expertise, the program will offer a global network of development partners. These partnerships – like the one between the World Bank, GFDRR, and Switzerland (both with the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) and SECO) – are key to improving urban resilience worldwide. Urban spaces bring people together; and to make them safer and stronger, the international development community will have to come together, too. Right now, disaster risk is evolving rapidly, far outpacing resilience efforts. Worldwide, 136 coastal cities can expect their collective annual losses to reach $1 trillion in just over 50 years.
Those numbers are daunting, but they are not set in stone – as long as we act now to invest in boosting urban resilience worldwide. Working together, we can build the inclusive, competitive, resilient cities of the future. 


Ivo Germann

Head of Operations of the Economic Development Cooperation Directorate, Swiss State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO)

Ede Ijjasz-Vasquez

Former Regional Director, Africa, Sustainable Development Practice Group

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