Well-Run Cities Are Resilient: The Importance of Responsive Relationships Between Local Governments & Slum Communities

17 February 2014

02050025

By Caroline Walker, SDI Secretariat 

“Time and again, those who have the least lose the most”[1]

Solutions to major challenges that have become exacerbated by climate change are often found in the hands of communities at the coalface of such disasters. In a recent New York Times article Tim Hanstad and Roy Prosterman discuss Typhoon Haiyan’s impact on the Philippines last November and the importance of allocating the poor land rights.  They highlight the lack of collateral for the majority of Haiyan’s victims: slum residents.  Hanstad and Prosterman emphasize that it is in the best economic and social interests of a country to address the issue of landlessness. 

Natural disasters are not “equal-opportunity destroyers”.[2]  The urban poor are the most badly hit. They have poorer quality housing and insufficient “risk-reducing” infrastructure (piped water, sewers, electricity and good roads).[3] David Satterthwaitedefines resilience as “…the capacity of a city to absorb climate change-related disturbances/shocks while retaining the same basic structure and ways of functioning”.[4] Satterthwaite and Dodman explain that an oft neglected aspect of resilience is political, further defining resilience in low and middle income cities as local government extending political representation to slum residents through addressing their needs.[5] Additionally, institutional competence is needed in order for cities to generate resilience. Low resilience in cities is shown both by the effects of disasters and subsequent disaster relief.  Typhoon Haiyan is testament to this.  Many of Haiyan’s 4 million displaced occupied low-lying coastal zones.The city of Tacloban (in the Leyte province), home to a large slum population and one of the worst hit, displays what Satterthwaite terms “accumulated vulnerability” – a failure to develop the necessary infrastructure to be resilient to climate change.[6] After the storm, government embarked on a plan to use a large portion of previously slum land to expand Tacloban City Airport.  Such land insecurity is why many slum dwellers remain in their structures amid natural disasters, fearing a loss of their land – increasing mortality.  Hanstad and Prosterman cite land reforms in South Korea, Vietnam and Rwanda to support their solution of addressing this and the issue of landlessness in the Philippines.  Giving the poor land rights is one way to strengthen a city’s structures and increase resilience.

Well-run cities are resilient cities; resilient cities are adaptive cities

The most resilient cities are associated with high-income and strong local and national governments. Such cities are characterized by strong physical, social, political and financial structures. These structures allow cities to adapt to changing conditions and withstand and recover from various stresses.[7] Historically, poor service provision by local governments in the global south has been marked by deficiencies in infrastructure and institutions.[8] Satterthwaite draws attention to this by comparing the devastation wrought by typhoons of the same strength in Japan and the Philippines.  The latter saw higher mortality rates.  Many high-income cities’ resilience “…is independent of any climate change adaptation measures because it was built [responding] to risks that are (or were) present independent of climate change but that climate change will exacerbate”.[9]  This highlights the importance of local and national authorities.

The need for bottom-up development

“Resilience to climate change is often the result of low-income citizens getting responses to everyday needs”.[10] In order for the urban poor to be incorporated in cities, local authorities need to increase engagement with community members.  Local governments are often reluctant to work with slum residents.[11]This requires action from communities and a change in government attitude.  The Philippine’s Homeless People’s Federation supported by Philippine Action for Community-led Shelter Initiatives Inc (PACSII) has been engaging government on housing since its inception.  Stronger housing structures would have curbed the death toll in the Philippines.  Federations across the global south are and can be a channel for the government to understand the needs of the urban poor and plan responses accordingly.  At the time of the disaster the Philippines Alliance was planning to mobilize affected community members in the Bohol and Cebu provinces to conduct damage assessments as well as profile, map and enumerate affected communities.  Such activities can direct local authorities to where the need is greatest.  Without this data funds are often misdirected or misspent, if that.  Community savings can also be used by Federations to invest in measures to increase resilience. After Typhoon Frank in Illoilo, Philippines, the Federation used community savings to leverage funds from the government in order to build transit housing accommodating 293 people.

Innovation is needed in developing resistance to and dealing with the effects of climate change.  Local authorities need to work with slum communities to improve the quality of housing structures and develop early warning systems in order to lessen the impact of typhoons like Haiyan.  Each group cannot do so effectively on its own.  Poor communities “…cannot build much-needed citywide trunk infrastructure, [thus] they have to demonstrate to government agencies their capacities as potential partners”.[12]  Local authorities and poor communities are the nexus for improving resilience. Whether systems developed are effective or not depends on whether they are supported by the poor. 

The impact of Typhoon Haiyan is one of many examples of the effects of climate change on the urban poor. Dual efforts need to be made to improve relationships between local authorities and the urban poor and to strengthen physical, social, political and financial structures.  Doing so will increase resilience, decreasing negative effects of disasters.  Hanstad and Prosterman write about the need for the international community to pressurize the Filipino government (as well as many others) to address land security.  This should be the start of a global discussion on land security, extending to how to increase resilience of slum communities – aiming towards achieving more inclusive cities. 


[1]Hanstad, T and Prosterman, R. The New York Times, “How the Poor Get Washed Away, ” 14 January 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/15/opinion/how-the-poor-get-washed-away.html?_r=0

[2]Hanstad, T and Prosterman, R. The New York Times, “How the Poor Get Washed Away, ” 14 January 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/15/opinion/how-the-poor-get-washed-away.html?_r=0

[3]Satterthwaite, D. 2013. The political underpinnings of cities’ accumulated resilience to climate change, Environment and Urbanization 25(2): 382. Available online at: http://eau.sagepub.com/content/25/2/381

[4]Satterthwaite, D. 2013. The political underpinnings of cities’ accumulated resilience to climate change, Environment and Urbanization 25(2): 381. Available online at: http://eau.sagepub.com/content/25/2/381

[5]Satterthwaite, D and Dodman, D. 2013. Towards resilience and transformation for cities within a finite planet, Environment and Urbanization 25(2): 291. Available online at: http://eau.sagepub.com/content/25/2/291

[6]Satterthwaite, D. 2013. The political underpinnings of cities’ accumulated resilience to climate change, Environment and Urbanization 25(2): 387. Available online at: http://eau.sagepub.com/content/25/2/381

[7]Satterthwaite, D and Dodman, D. 2013. Towards resilience and transformation for cities within a finite planet, Environment and Urbanization 25(2): 295. Available online at: http://eau.sagepub.com/content/25/2/291 

[8][8]Moser, C and Satterthwaite, D. 2008. Climate Change and Cities Discussion Paper 3: Towards pro-poor adaptation to climate change in the urban centres of low- and middle-income countries. v. Available online at: http://pubs.iied.org/pdfs/10564IIED.pdf

[9]Satterthwaite, D. 2013. The political underpinnings of cities’ accumulated resilience to climate change, Environment and Urbanization 25(2): 383. Available online at: http://eau.sagepub.com/content/25/2/381

[10]Satterthwaite, D. 2013. The political underpinnings of cities’ accumulated resilience to climate change, Environment and Urbanization 25(2): 388. Available online at: http://eau.sagepub.com/content/25/2/381

[11][11]Moser, C and Satterthwaite, D. 2008. Climate Change and Cities Discussion Paper 3: Towards pro-poor adaptation to climate change in the urban centres of low- and middle-income countries. v. Available online at: http://pubs.iied.org/pdfs/10564IIED.pdfa

[12]Satterthwaite, D. 2013. The political underpinnings of cities’ accumulated resilience to climate change, Environment and Urbanization 25(2): 389. Available online at: http://eau.sagepub.com/content/25/2/381