More than half of the world’s population live in urban areas today (54.5% in 2016), and the figure is estimated to reach 60% by 2030. With increasing internal and external pressures, making cities resilient has never been more crucial.

“One of the biggest challenges that some Malaysian cities face is rapid spatial expansion,” says Lauren Sorkin, regional director, Asia & Pacific, for 100 Resilient Cities (100RC), when we meet for a one-on-one interview in the midst of the 9th World Urban Forum held in Kuala Lumpur from Feb 7 to 13.

The 100 Resilient Cities organisation is a Rockefeller Foundation initiative dedicated to helping cities around the world become more resilient in the face of physical, social, and economic challenges that are a growing part of the 21st century.

Interrelated challenges

According to Sorkin, Malaysia’s population density figures are starkly lower than that of other cities in the region, which averages around 5,800 people per square kilometre, compared with Malaysia’s 3,300 people per sq km.

“So you don’t have as many people in each space, which drives the city towards a very distributed urban space. Now, that’s OK if you have multiple (city) centres, where people have access to jobs and opportunities, but it creates a problem when all the opportunities are in the centre.

“So that integration between economic opportunity, transportation, and spatial planning is a big one,” she points out.

100 resilient cities

Sorkin says future cities need integrated solutions to the many challenges that will arise. Photo: The Star/ Raja Faisal Hishan

Another issue in many cities is related to natural disasters and climate change stresses, and how they affect water management.

“As cities grow, and as we pave over much of our natural surroundings, we eliminate drainage space. We have to look at these problems in an integrated way, to manage the natural resources that support our cities, as well as to deliver services such as transport, economic opportunities, quality affordable housing and jobs to citizens.

“Those are the challenges that are interrelated but also the greatest source of opportunity. If we address them at once with integrated initiatives, there’s a lot of work that can be done,” she says.

The 100RC organisation helps cities look at problems that are natural disaster-related as well as identify the city’s drivers and internal stresses.

For example in Melaka, says Sorkin, with rapid expansion and land reclamation, hard infrastructure may limit areas for drainage and limit natural flood control mechanisms.

“So what we ask cities to do is to look at how their own development approaches are perhaps adding complexities or challenges to what’s coming from outside,” she explains.

A recent 100RC initiative is the setting up of CoLabs.

“CoLabs is a really exciting new area for us. In our 100RC programme, we have worked very hard to build a coalition of over 100 partners from various sectors who donate technical assistance to our cities once they identify their initiatives and strategies.

“CoLabs is the newest way to wrap up as many as those free services for cities to solve a single problem,” she explains.

Integrated solutions

The theme of WUF9 was “Cities 2030, Cities for All: Implementing the New Urban Agenda” which focused on the New Urban Agenda as a tool and accelerator for achieving Agenda 2030 and the Sustainable Development Goals. (The New Urban Agenda was adopted in 2016 at Habitat III in Quito, Ecuador.)

How does the New Urban Agenda (NUA) affect the work of the 100RC?

“The NUA is so aligned with our own. We are all trying to address these really thorny problems and deliver on multiple benefits.

“Essentially, the NUA and the resilience approach are both saying, look, the problems of cities are pressing. They are also very inter-dependent, so we have to figure out a way to deliver integrated solutions to these multiple challenges and get the work done, otherwise cities will run out of money. They won’t be able to fix one problem at a time, it has to be integrated to be successful,” explains Sorkin.

On the local front, Mohd Ridhwan Mohd Ali was appointed as Melaka’s chief resilience officer (CRO) last September.

Ridhwan joins over 80 colleagues in other cities – eventually the number will reach 100 – who share common roles.

resilient cities

The Melaka River Cruise is popular with tourists. Photo: The Star/A. Malex Yahaya

“First and foremost, Ridhwan will be the focal point for resilience in that city and he will act as a key advisor to the chief executive of that city,” says Sorkin, adding that 100RC works with 23 cities in 11 countries in the Asia Pacific region.

“His second most important role is to be a coordinator and to be able to convene across all departments, and also business communities, academia and civil society, to plan resilience. So his role is not just to do that for general purposes but actually to build the city’s first resilience strategy,” she says.

Mohd Ridhwan’s job also includes preparing an assessment of the city’s key shocks and stresses, which will be the cornerstone of preparing the city’s first resilience strategy that will be released later this year, she adds.

One key problem in the city is flooding.

“Flooding has come out in the preliminary resilience assessment as a major issue. It is crucial for a CRO to be able to mobilise the right people in terms of implementation, because a strategy is only as good as the paper it is written on, until someone activates it.

“Ridhwan comes from a background of engaging youth in Melaka, so he has that history of bringing people together to address common goals. That’s one of the characteristics we look for in a CRO.

“It’s going to be exciting to see what Melaka develops in terms of Malaysia’s first resilience strategy. I think our CRO is one to watch in terms of how he is going to bring together many different agendas within the city,” says Sorkin.