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Divergent definitions – Embracing a holistic understanding of urban resilience

Source(s):  United Nations Human Settlements Programme - Headquarters (UN-HABITAT)

By Sunjyot Singh

Frequently referred to as a buzzword, the emergent focus on resilience has allowed it to become an increasingly normative framework to envision future urban development within – often in contemporary contexts, informing multi-dimensional facets of urban development.

Resilience is mentioned 29 times in the New Urban Agenda (NUA), 20 times in Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and 6 times in the Paris Climate Agreement. Furthermore, goal 11 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s) aims to ‘make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable’ – resilience is the underlying mobilising philosophy of the SDG’s.

Prevalent in both scientific and non-scientific fields, researchers have identified the inability of ‘sustainability’ to sufficiently address the rapid changes brought upon by urbanisation. Subsequently, resilience has emerged as a new paradigm which has been widely adopted in urban design/planning (urban studies), ecological sciences, psychology, engineering, sustainability studies, economic development, governance/public policy and social studies. However, despite this transformative popularity, resilience remains to be a vague and malleable term. Contemporary urban resilience theory literature has gravitated towards defining urban resilience as:

‘the ability of an urban system and all its constituent socio-ecological and socio-technical networks across temporal and spatial scales to maintain or rapidly return to desired functions in the face of a disturbance, to adapt to change and to quickly transform systems that limit current or future adaptive capacity.’

Whilst the research often refers to resilience theory as conceptually contested, urbanisation continues to necessitate new paradigms of urban development. Consequently, resilience has been increasingly defined as a malleable term, one which should be considered a unifying concept but subsequently, poses challenges of mobilising resilience theory into practice. The SDG’s offer an overall development framework in which resilience drives the approach for integrated development.

However, as organisations such as UN-Habitat or 100RC develop toolkits to identify adaptive capacity, risk and methods to increase urban resilience, a new phase has emerged. What is inherently difficult to define within resilience theory results in a flexible term which offers actors the freedom to create adaptive responses – this unifies the various complex fields of research and practice which adopt urban resilience as a normative framework. In this context, we must recognise the importance of the varying definitions of urban resilience, however, it is pivotal that we begin to mobilise urban resilience with progressive refinement to existing toolkits.



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  • Publication date 31 May 2018

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