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In the name of resilience

A new world where cities work together to share ideas, studies, apply practical solutions with the aim of discovering new paths to sustainability.

by Davide Perillo
13 January 2021
9 min read
by Davide Perillo
13 January 2021
9 min read

In Pune, India, the annual Ganapati Visarjan celebrations have always had an adverse effect on the environment, leaving rivers full of plastic, rags and litter. In an effort to remedy the problem, the Nirmalaya Project was set up.

The word Nirmalaya means the remains of offerings made to the god Shiva in Hindu  and “purity” in Sanskrit. Thanks to the project, this city of two and a half million inhabitants has seen a change over recent years, with waste now being collected and sent for recycling or disposal. Not all of it yet, but it is a promising start. This is just a part of a larger project to improve waste collection and recovery, involving more than 3,500 waste pickers in the Indian city, through the SWaCH consortium. The consortium provides training and a minimum level of protection for those who make their living selling what they find in the rubbish. And this means that 70,000 tonnes of waste are now being recycled every year.

In the six years since it was launched, the WISP project (Western Cape Industrial Symbiosis Programme) in Cape Town, South Africa, has saved 25 thousand tonnes of waste a year from being dumped in landfill, thanks to the introduction of the circular economy in local companies, who use the waste to produce energy. This has also reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 309,000 tonnes and generated 7 million of dollars in savings.

Moving 11 thousand kilometres southeast to New Zealand, a new separated collection programme set up in Christchurch, the country’s third largest city, has been turning what was previously thrown away into 53 thousand tonnes of compost for agricultural use every year.

Resilient cities

Three virtuous examples from three cities, far away from each other in terms of latitude, culture and level of economic development, but united by belonging to the Resilient Cities Network, the association that is the driving force behind these projects. The network was pioneered in 2013 by the Rockefeller Foundation, and now has a membership of 97 cities from 49 countries across six continents. 164 million of dollars have been invested in the project, which now stretches from Accra to Montreal, London to Nairobi  and Athens, Bangkok, Rio and Seoul,  in total involving over 220 million inhabitants. Two Italians cities, Rome and Milan, are also part of the network. The underlying idea is to make global cities more resilient, able to deal with problems without too much disruption,  and where possible, to see those problems as an opportunity for improvement. And this is exactly what has happened in Pune, Cape Town and Christchurch, and in the other dozens of programmes launched thanks to the Network.

Resilience is a broad term used in various fields. In engineering, resilient materials are those that don’t break when they are crushed or contorted. In biology, resilient organisms repair themselves. According to the Resilient Cities Network, when we use the term to describe cities it means “... the capacity of individuals, communities, institutions, businesses – the systems within a city – to survive, adapt, and grow no matter what kinds of chronic stresses and acute shocks they experience”. In this sense, shocks are sudden events, such as earthquakes or hurricanes, and stresses the permanent gaps, not only in infrastructure (such as roads, transport, lack of housing), but also in the social fabric.

The Network has a cooperative approach, with its founding documents stating, “We believe in the power of cities to work together”. The idea is to create Communities of Practice or “CoPs” as they call them, where those with similar problems get together to share ideas, research and operational solutions. The Network has offices in New York, Washington, London, Singapore and Mexico City. It helps cities that join to set up their own ad hoc structure connected to local administrations. Generally, a CRO (Chief Resilience Officer) is appointed directly by mayors or city councils, who then sets the plans and objectives.

Cities are making progress, but it is the global resilience movement that is gaining strength. It is changing institutions and introducing new processes around the world. And we are only at the start

Michael Berkovitz - president of Resilient Cities Network

The Network reaches Italy

Piero Pelizzaro, 38 years old and originally from Vicenza, is the only current Italian CRO, working in Milan (the position is vacant in Rome). As he explains, his work began in 2018 “with a preliminary resilience assessment, a framework document where the city’s main actors – associations, entrepreneurs and social groups – were interviewed to really get to the heart of what the population thought were the most pressing risks that required action”. Above all, the responses focussed on infrastructure (the Pioltello railway disaster and collapse of a motorway bridge had recently taken place) and the climate, with heat waves now becoming commonplace. From there, various works began, including a detailed assessment of the local climate. The heat islands that form in the city were mapped “among other things, in collaboration with the Athens Observatory, one of the Network’s other cities”. One project has been merged into the new Area Zoning Plan, with “green features made obligatory for new buildings, to be included in vertical or perimeter roofs and walls. A building that is able to cool the outside, or prevent it from heating up, has an overall positive impact. Considering that a large part of the Italian real estate market revolves around the city of Milan, it is clear that significant changes will emerge, changes which are not just cultural, but also environmental and social”.

And there is more, including the Forestami project, “…three million trees to be planted by 2030, a programme similar to ones in Melbourne and Manchester and launched also thanks to working groups set up with these cities and others, such as Buenos Aires, Paris and Quito”. And the Milan School Oasis, an initiative that follows similar ideas already developed in Barcelona, Paris and Athens. Pelizzaro says “Schools are the public buildings closest to the people and in Milan we have about 500. As we redevelop them, we are looking at how we can include the creation of green spaces or cooled rooms, which can be used as places for the elderly to find shelter in the summer. During heat waves, it’s impossible to tell them to go for a walk in the park, but if you’re able to offer cool places to spend time in, it will be a big bonus. So, why not make use of schools while they are closed?”.

These are just a few examples, but they give an idea of how the Network really generates “solid cross-cutting collaboration”, as Pelizzaro calls it. And this work has not even been brought to a halt by Covid, in fact, quite the opposite. It’s true that during the pandemic, the cities involved have had to review their resilience strategies, but it is equally true that “in many cases, rather than disrupting priorities, it has accelerated certain trends that had already been identified” Pelizzaro notes. Some examples can be found in the issues that are currently much discussed in Milan, including cycle paths, reducing car numbers and the idea of a “polycentric city, where public services can be reached by anyone in 15 minutes. These are hot topics right now because social distancing imposes constraints, but the idea of returning public space to the people already existed. These were paths that we’d already started on but that Covid has accelerated”.

Ambitious iniziatives spread

And this is the heart of the idea of resilience. It is not just a question of finding ways to deal with the unexpected, but of taking new paths and those paths must be sustainable. It is no coincidence that, alongside the programmes to overcome the digital divide, or those to develop female entrepreneurship, educational projects and urban planning, many of the Network’s initiatives concern the circular economy. These initiatives include the Urban Ocean programme that is bringing a dozen cities around the table to think about how to reduce plastic and waste destined to end up in the sea. But also more targeted local initiatives.

In Salvador de Bahia, Brazil, with its three million inhabitants, the local Resilient Office is responsible for building a local network to promote circularity. This involves preventing water and food waste and acting as an incubator for a series of entrepreneurial micro-projects in the sector. In Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay, the resilience plan is leading to a gradual reclamation of the Pantanoso, the most run-down area of the city due to its periodic flooding and difficulties with waste disposal. In Surat, India, 6.8 million people use the Tapti River as a source of drinking water. Pollution and network deterioration mean that water runs to taps for an average of only three hours a day. But a collaboration with Rotterdam is paving the way for harvesting rainwater from roofs, more than 1,300 systems have already been installed, along with flood protection systems. And the list goes on. On the Network’s website there is talk of “over 3.3 billion in funding collected directly from projects” and almost 25 indirectly leveraged around the initiatives. “Cities are making progress,” said Michael Berkovitz, president of the Network some time ago, “but it is the global resilience movement that is gaining strength. It is changing institutions and introducing new processes around the world. And we are only at the start”.