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100 Resilient Cities – tackling inequality to build resilience Analysis

100 Resilient Cities – tackling inequality to build resilience

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The ability of a community to recover from a disaster reflects its underlying functioning.[i] The Resilience Strategies from cities around the world being released under the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities program have a consistent message:  inequality undermines the social cohesion necessary to create resilient communities.

100 Resilient Cities is aimed at helping cities around the world become more resilient to the physical, social, and economic challenges that are a growing part of the 21st century. It stresses that resilience is about developing plans for not only coping and adaptive strategies, but also transformative actions to make cities better, for both the short and long-term, in the good times and bad.

There are a number of cities including Melbourne, who are participants of the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities program. The City of Melbourne is due to release its resilience strategy at the end of May. The Council describes resilience as:

… the capacity of individuals, communities, businesses and systems within a city to survive, adapt and grow not just as a response to shocks (such as heat, fires and floods) – but also to the stresses that weaken the fabric of a city on a day-to-day or cyclical basis. Examples of these stresses include:

  • high unemployment
  • an over-stretched or inefficient public transportation system
  • endemic violence
  • chronic energy or water shortages.

The City of Melbourne’s current approach to resilience states that its diverse communities can be best served by being ‘better connected, more cohesive and more caring’. It states Melbourne needs to make decisions that include

… supporting our most vulnerable community members, building places that encourage social cohesion and connectivity, helping people diversify their employment and income-generating opportunities, and protecting and enhancing our natural environment.

There are lessons that can be learned from other cities across the world including New York, Berkley in California and San Francisco which have relevance to the Australian context. This includes the impact of inequality and the importance of social cohesion in recovering from disasters, and the role of community organisations play in promoting social cohesion and disaster preparedness.

New York’s One New York: The Plan for a Strong and Just City, states that neighbourhoods lacking in social cohesion and trust generally have a more difficult time recovering from a disaster. It states that:

…growing economic inequality poses challenges to the city’s social fabric. Inequality threatens to disrupt the connections between our neighbors, institutions, and communities that we rely on in times of crisis, prolonged stress, and difficult life events. Without these connections, recovery becomes even more difficult.

New York’s Resilience Plan aims to strengthen communities by building the community, social, and economic resiliency of its neighbourhoods. It emphasises deepening resident, non-profit, and business participation in emergency planning, and exploring social cohesion as a strategy for resiliency.

The plan acknowledges the critical role community organisations play in social cohesion. It states:

Social infrastructure plays an important role in making communities ready for the unexpected, and neighborhoods vary in the level of social cohesion and available resources. To address this situation, the City will work to build capacity in communities by strengthening community-based organizations that serve their neighbors and by working to expand civic engagement and volunteerism.

The plan will map community organisations and activities, as well as local government services and initiatives, across New York City, allowing for the identification of both gaps and duplication of efforts, as well as opportunities for integrating existing community-based and government initiatives. It aims to encourage more effective coordination, collaboration, and decision-making in these efforts, in addition to linking to tools for connecting organisations and aiding in community-based emergency planning between government and communities.

The plan will also bolster neighbourhood resiliency and civic participation by strengthening community-based organisations’ services, information capacity, and ability to conduct community-level emergency and resiliency planning. Importantly it will study a model for ‘social empowerment zones’, which aim to increase residents’ resiliency in under-resourced neighbourhoods by targeting funds and capacity building support to critical local service providers. It will also establish a Task Force to make recommendations on expanding the participation of community based organisations and faith-based groups in local emergency planning and resiliency efforts.

The Resilience Plan also acknowledges that service providers, such as community and health service organisations, can play an essential role in emergency preparedness and planning. The plan will include staff in emergency planning, training in public communications, and table-top exercises to ensure service providers are equipped with the necessary tools and training to serve vulnerable populations during emergencies. In addition it will modify standardized contracts to require service providers to participate in emergency protocols and develop a training program to incorporate community-based organisations in response and recovery operations.

On a smaller scale, California’s City of Berkeley has also released its resilience plan which is aimed at helping the city tackle not only natural disasters and climate change, but is aimed at tackling its racial, social and economic inequities. The Berkeley Resilience Strategy acknowledges that social challenges, alongside earthquake, wildfire and climate change impacts, are the city’s main resilience challenges. It states:

In addition to physical challenges, Berkeley also faces chronic social challenges. For example, racial inequity exists in health outcomes, income, and educational attainment…Inequity correlates with greater vulnerability to physical challenges, making many in Berkeley disproportionately at risk from natural disasters and the impacts of climate change.

The Berkeley Resilience Strategy is based on building resilience by building community. It states that strong connections between neighbours and lasting partnerships between community organizations are vital to helping all residents, especially those most in need, to thrive.

Under its goal to build a connected and prepared community, the City is of Berkeley is partnering with several community-based organisations to connect more residents with disaster preparedness, public health, climate action, and other services. The City will provide community-based organisations with free disaster supplies as well as disaster planning assistance. The organisations will serve as hosts for training and conduits to information and support that is tailored to the needs of the people the organisations provide services to. Importantly the City of Berkeley is prioritising partnerships with organisations that assist people who are disadvantaged such as low-income older people, people with disabilities and people from cultural and linguistically diverse backgrounds.


Of note was an online survey that gathered community input on resilience priorities. Alongside priorities such as community emergency preparedness training, community members identified the following priorities:

  • further improve access to public health services
  • provide affordable access to education
  • make housing inclusive and affordable.
The City of Berkeley partners with a community group to build and maintain walking paths which assist with firefighting and evacuation efforts as well as for recreation.


Each of these priorities, if addressed by the City of Berkeley, will contribute to tackling inequality and thereby build resilience.

San Francisco has similarly recognised that social equity and inclusiveness must be at the core of what makes a city thrive, and has identified housing affordability as a key factors in building resilience. The Resilient San Francisco: stronger today, stronger tomorrow plan also recognises the significant role that the community sector plays.

It states:

In times of crisis, communities lean on trusted institutions, service providers and faith-based organizations in their neighborhood or community. Community trust is critical, as those in need may not be as willing to engage with an outside institution that is unfamiliar with the community. Building empowered and resilient neighborhoods means leveraging existing community support channels, rather than creating competing or redundant organizations.

The resilience strategies of New York City, the City of Berkeley and San Francisco each make clear that collaborating with and supporting community organisations is a critical component in tackling inequality, encouraging social cohesion and building resilience.

The 100 Resilient Cities program is proving that tackling inequality is key to building resilience. The inclusion of and support for community organisations are critical to helping build cohesive and resilient communities, particularly for people who may be vulnerable or disadvantaged.

VCOSS looks forward to the release of Melbourne’s Resilience Strategy in the hope that it includes actions to address inequality, including working closely with the community sector, to help build the city’s overall resilience.

[i] Goldman L et al, Resilient Communities: Empowering older adults in disasters & daily life, The New York Academy of Medicine, 2014

Header image: City of Melbourne