CHICAGO—For the first time in history, the majority of humanity lives in cities, and many national economies are driven by what happens in the great urban areas. But with looming challenges such as climate change, experts say that we need to pay more attention to cities’ resilience.
“This is about the capacity of cities to plan effectively,” Judith Rodin, president of the Rockefeller Foundation, told an afternoon panel on urban infrastructure during last week’s inaugural Chicago Forum on Global Cities, hosted by The Chicago Council on Global Affairs and the Financial Times. Rodin recently published a book titled “The Resilience Dividend: Being Strong in a World Where Things Go Wrong,” and said cities need the ability to withstand acute shocks such as floods and “slower burning stresses” such as a lack of affordable housing and poor air quality.
And the impacts from whatever difficulties encountered by global cities will not stay confined within national borders or even continents, Rodin added. She pointed out, for example, that the 2011 floods in Bangkok shut down many factories that manufactured computer components and disrupted worldwide supply chains.
“About 70% of the infrastructure needed in these developing world cities is not built yet,” she said. “And so the opportunity to think about infrastructure differently, in terms of sustainability or in terms of resilience, is profound.”
What makes this a unique time is the advent of so many technologies that can address the challenges created by the world’s urbanization. “There are all kinds of new materials,” Rodin said. “You can pave with road materials that absorb water more quickly and release it more slowly if you’re in flood-prone areas. Why would you use old materials?" And all of these new materials and techniques “need to get integrated and applied as we start to think about what a 21st century infrastructure looks like.”
According to her fellow panelist Henry Cisneros, the former secretary of the US Dept. of Housing and Development and current chairman of CityView, a Los Angeles-based real estate developer and investment management firm, what global cities need is “not just more streets, but smarter streets that have sensors that can tell you where the congestion is.” And instead of just calling for more power in growing cities, urban planners should also look into building advanced grids that can better distribute power and use alternative sources. There is “an interesting convergence of technology, demographics and economics that makes the new infrastructure really possible.”