Environmental resilience in cities

By Colin McKinnon

This week I presented at the UN Habitat’s urban resilience week. The event brought together global cities to share their experiences of urban resilience in the beautiful setting of the Sant Pau Art Nouveau UNESCO World Heritage Site in Barcelona.

From the temperature spikes effecting Rio de Janeiro, the 183 days a year in Tehran when air pollution exceeds the maximum limit (this on top of other major environmental challenges such as earthquakes), the building design changes being mandated in Vancouver to cope with projected sea level rise and the development of a major new city extension 180m above sea level in Cagayan de Oro in the Philippines (ironically on the site of the original historical settlement), the resilience threats these and the other cities face are diverse and challenging. It was telling that every person I spoke to (and 55 cities were represented) had experienced unusual weather patterns in recent years.

However, they are not alone and the conference aptly demonstrated how the UN Habitat programme and networks like the C40 Cities have been really effective at encouraging the sharing of information, good practice, data and tools. This has helped these cities learn from each other and engage in mutually supportive development. Being able to compare experiences is often a much underrated activity.

From my own perspective, the potential for data analytics to contextualise and help plan future environmental resilience strategies is significant. The ever increasing waves of data being generated creates challenges (what is out there, how to access it, how to process it in order to find the answers you need and, finally, how to visualise the outputs in an intuitive way), but at the same time there is a democratisation of data which is simultaneously making it easier to use it to your advantage – for example by tapping into previously closed public sector datasets, by mobilising the power of social media to understand what is happening in real time and by infrastructure initiatives – such as cloud computing – which lowers the cost and availability of large-scale data processing.

Taken together, these have the potential to facilitate a much more widespread take-up of easy to use analytics tools and platforms in future. This is significant because whilst certain cities in the developed world are relatively sophisticated users of data, there are large parts of the globe (including cities within major economies) where this simply isn’t the case. 

So will the ‘data wave’ help or hinder better resilience planning for the majority? We are at an interesting point in time when organisations can decide whether to jump into the water and start surfing – maybe with a little coaching first – or sit on the beach and wait for the swell to subside. It was good to see that several cities represented in Barcelona this week have already decided to take the plunge…

Smart cities event