By Charles Rath.

Resilient: Strong. Healthy. Successful again. But how does a city become resilient? Here are five ways that city leaders can help:

Designing for resilience requires systems thinking: Cities are complex, interconnected systems. Think of a city as being like a human body – a harmonious balance of cardiovascular, skeletal, respiratory, and cognitive functions. Each system is dependent on the next, and is easily stressed when unbalanced or shocked after trauma. An obvious example is PTSD, once known as “shell shock,” affecting so many military veterans today.

Health experts have known the value of systems thinking in global health efforts for years. The same logic has grown popular in urban planning. Dr. Timon McPhearson, an Assistant Professor of Urban Ecology at The New School in New York City puts it this way:

“Systems thinking is crucial to problem solving including for urban planning and policy, because no problem exists in isolation, all are part of a larger system of interacting networks; social networks, bio geophysical networks, political networks, and economic networks. Interestingly, it turns out that you can’t understand the behavior of a system by studying its parts; you need to study the whole thing.”

California is an example. It may be easy to understand how the state’s drought is impacting its ability to produce food. However, you may be unaware that the drought is also having tremendous impacts on energy production. Energy and water are inextricably linked, with energy required to pump, treat, transport and cool water. Conversely, the force of falling water turns turbines that generate hydroelectricity, and most thermal power plants depend on H2O for cooling.

The smartest cities create resilience from shocks and stresses: When your body has a weakened immune system, it will often lose the fight against viruses and disease. Cities also bounce back much more quickly from earthquakes, hurricanes, and floods if the core components of their social fabric are strong – things like education, health, general prosperity and community cohesion.

There is also a strong connection between resilience and social networks. Disconnected communities have weak resilience. Transportation systems, entertainment venues and open spaces that bring communities together can have extraordinarily positive effects on their bounce-back capabilities.

Only diverse teams can create epic resilience ideas: The strongest resilience solutions generally come from large, multi-disciplinary teams of engineers, architects, designers, social scientists, and economists. Masterfully crafted city projects are both beautiful and functional. They stimulate the economy and improve quality of life for the community.

They also require diverse teams. Recent research reported by NPR found that diverse teams generally perform better, especially in idea rich fields like research, urban planning, and science. In the world of research, paper citations are a metric of effectiveness. Diverse teams lead to more citations. According to Harvard economist Richard Freeman, “People who are more alike are likely to think more alike and one of the things that gives a kick to science is that you get people with somewhat different views.”

Creating resilience solutions requires input from many, and an open mind to diverse perspectives.
Resilience solutions can have dual benefits: When Superstorm Sandy’s 14-foot storm tide nailed Hoboken on October 29, 2012, the streets, according to Mayor Dawn Zimmer, filled with water “like a bathtub.” The storm caused more than $250 million in damage.

The initial reaction was to erect giant sea walls around Hoboken, but citizens cringed at the thought of giving up their magnificent views of New York harbor and Manhattan skyline. Perspectives changed when the city began working with a winning team from Rebuild By Design, a competition created in the wake of the storm to pioneer ways of designing, funding and implementing a resilient future. Instead of erecting big, ugly sea walls, the team created a system of parks, buildings and greenways as barriers against flooding, as well as a park around the city to serve as a rainwater storage site.

The Hoboken example shows how resilience projects following a disaster don’t have to be a drag. They can protect cities and their citizens, and improve quality of life.

Cooler heads design the best resilience strategies: Mayor Lianne Dalziel, of Christchurch, New Zealand, knows something about resilience. Christchurch was hit by a magnitude 7.1 earthquake in September, 2010. It devastated the city and aftershocks that followed were equally grim, including a 6.3 aftershock the following February that killed 185 people. A thousand buildings were damaged or destroyed in the city center alone, and rebuilding continues to this day. The financial impacts have been estimated to be $40 billion. Some economists have projected that it will take New Zealand’s economy 50 to 100 years to completely recover.

As I listened to Mayor Danziel speak to an audience of experts and city officials last year, I was deeply moved by her warnings to communities about rushed decisions following a disaster – decisions that could ultimately do more harm than good. She even suggested that a “national cooling-off period” should be observed to prevent communities from major policy decisions fueled by emotion and sadness. It was a joke, but she might just be on to something. How do you avoid making rush decisions? Plan ahead.

Most of the best resilience ideas are borrowed. Salvador Dali once said, “Those who do not want to imitate anything, produce nothing.” Every city in the world is different, but the problems they face are often similar. Good solutions should be shared.

According to the World Bank, almost half a billion of the world’s urban residents live in coastal areas prone to storm surges and rising sea levels. This includes New York City, Miami, New Orleans, Mumbai, Ho Chi Minh City and Shenzhen, China; those are six of the ten cities projected to have the highest annual flood costs by 2050, according to Tim McDonnell of Climate Desk.

The United States, Colombia, Pakistan, Somalia, Australia, Guatemala, China, and Kenya are all also losing billions to drought. The World Economic Forum reports that since 1900, global droughts have affected two billion people, leading to more than 11 million deaths. Organizations like Rockefeller’s 100 Resilient Cities Challenge (100RC) recognize commonalities between urban areas, and are working hard to facilitate information sharing. In the networked age of information, sharing ideas is easier than ever.

Hire resilience experts: Are you leading a community development or critical infrastructure improvement project? Hire advisors, engineers, and urban designers that understand how to design for resilience. The community is where resilience starts and ends. It is the grass roots where the best-laid plans are hatched, and it’s also where the suffering begins when things go bad.

City leaders must engage with all levels of the socio-economic ladder, particularly the lower rungs. That’s where the people who are hit the hardest when disaster strikes are, and where to find those who are usually the most receptive to new ideas, especially if they can see how it will help them in the short run. The key is connecting with them in meaningful ways. And giving them real, open pathways to you.

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Originally posted at New Geography.

Charles Rath is President & CEO of Resilient Solutions 21, or RS21. RS21 pulls from a wide array of disciplines to create solutions for cities, countries, agencies and businesses challenged by the physical, social and economic forces that will drive our world in the 21st century. For more information, contact