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From Nomadic Resilience to Urban Vulnerability

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In this essay, we will endeavour to examine the role that resilience plays within the sustainability agenda. Are the two mutually exclusive or are both needed to achieve a sustainable equilibrium in our cities?

The essay will first define sustainability and resilience in their various dimensions as well as look at the impact that natural hazards have on our world. We will use the case study of Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia to highlight the case of a city that has turned its back on resilience to embrace sustainability and how this may impact its population. We will explore some solutions that Ulaanbaatar may adopt to improve its own resilience. Finally we will reflect on the changing needs of our urban environment and the role that resilience should take within its future development.

Understanding Resilience

‘….climate change could force more than 100 million people into extreme poverty by 2030. But with rapid, inclusive development that is adapted to changing climate conditions, most of these impacts can be prevented.’ (Hallgatte, Bangalore, et al., 2015).

As cities increasingly pursue an agenda of urban sustainability, they often underplay the importance of resilience, leading to a state of increased vulnerability to a rapidly changing environment. 80% of natural disasters today are directly linked to climate change and human intervention (Hallgatte, Bangalore, et al., 2015). Despite best efforts and increased awareness, it is likely that the state of our external environment will continue to worsen for generations to come. It could therefore be argued that the lofty aims of sustainability should be tampered in favour of a more realistic agenda of preparing our urban environment for improved resilience.

The perceptions of the differences between resilience and sustainability are often confused as they can be assumed to be one and the same. Sustainability within an urban environment is focused on the long term process of reaching an equilibrium between our use and production of natural resources, an equilibrium where all the disparate elements of our built environment function together in a manner that does not unduly drain resources or which creates a negative impact on our habitat while still allowing for enhanced population equality, greater social good and stable economic growth.

Resilience is harder to define as a concept as it is constantly evolving. It was initially discussed in the 1970’s within biological ecosystems and only considered in the urban environmental context in the last two decades. It is centred on the ability of a city to resist and recover from a disaster, be it natural or man-made and return to normalcy (and hopefully) growth with scarce urban resources relatively promptly. Such disasters or rather the risk of such disasters occurring are categorised by Shaw and Sharma, (2011) in their book “Climate and Disaster Resilience in Cities” as either shocks or stresses. Shocks are defined as “low probability but rapid onset and high impact events that cause immediate and visible damage to lives, property and environment”. Most of those shocks come in the form of natural hazards such as earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, fires and disease epidemics but can also take the form of human intervention such as 9/11 in the US, the recent Paris attacks of the 13th of November or even acts of war. Stresses are defined by Shaw and Sharma (2011) as “slow onset and low impact processes that are of high probability, particularly in the context of the urban poor and showcase a day-to-day continuum of hardships”. Those stresses are mostly economic in nature and concern the living conditions of the poor, inadequate infrastructure, public services, high inflation rates, economic instability which may reduce purchasing power, deplete savings over time and erode assets. A resilient city needs to weather such shock and stresses without permanent harm to its urban infrastructure or uncontrollable civil chaos. At the same time, resilience is not simply a technical challenge that can be overcome by good engineering but is the development of complex urban interdependencies that are sufficiently flexible, diverse, strong and autonomous to adapt and respond to the unpredictable shocks and stresses caused by disasters.

The most complex aspect in the implementation of resilience goals is the measurement of their impact. Resilience can manifest itself in the design of physical infrastructure, the nature of public policy, the provision of utilities and services as well as the general spirit of the community. The ‘Letter to Detroit’ by singer Eminem explores this key community aspect of resilience in a city that has come to define the very word:

There is a resilience that rises from somewhere deep within your streets
You can’t define it, but you can feel it
You can feel it overflowing from the people who call you home
From people who are always proud to declare, ‘I’m from Detroit’            (Matthers III, 2011)


Measuring the impact of natural disasters

While natural hazards are unpredictable both in their timing and scale, they are exacerbated by increased human activity and its impact on the environment. Human populations will congregate in areas where economic gains can best be achieved, usually amongst coastal areas, valleys and near rivers for ease of transport and communication. The exponential growth of cities and thus the concentration of humans in the past century has been staggering with over 50% of the population living in urban zones in 2007 as compared to 10% in 1900 and an expected 75% in 2050. (Soja and Kanai, 2008). This urban growth makes true resilience near impossible as this higher density of population and resources is leading to ever greater disruption on people and economic loss in property and earnings. In most Asian countries, between 65 and 90% of economic activities is concentrated in urban areas (Shaw and Sharma, 2011) making their exposure to such risk potentially catastrophic to the national economy. By forgoing resilience, cities can put the liabilities of the impact of such natural disaster on the nation as a whole relying on a national government to come to their aid, as was the case in New Orleans in 2005.

Between 1994 and 2013, EM-DAT recorded 6,873 natural disasters worldwide, which claimed 1.35 million lives or almost 68,000 lives on average each year. In addition, 218 million people were affected by natural disasters on average per annum during this 20-year period. (The Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED), 2015). In addition to which, the economic impact of such disasters can be devastating, hurricanes Katrina and Sandy have cost the US insurance industry over 150 Billion USD in losses and 80 Billion USD in infrastructure costs while Haiti will take generations and billions of dollars to return to its pre-earthquake economic state. Below is a chart of estimated such damages:


Building, nurturing and increasing resilience to natural disasters has become a key discussion point of the COP21 conference to be held in Paris on the 30th of November 2015. The conference will build on previous conferences that aim to mitigate the human-induced impact on climate change and provide means of combatting it through a reduction in global warming to 2%.

The Climate and Disaster Resilience Initiative (CDRI) was developed in 2008 with the aim of informing and educating stakeholders to the impact of natural disasters on the economy and its populations. It has since developed a number of key policy initiatives aimed at assisting low income countries to asses and developing mitigation strategies. While investments are increasing globally in the disaster assessments and management sectors, it is rarely carried out proactively and often not given sufficient weight or is carried out as a post-disaster reactive responses (i.e Nepal 2015). This is particularly true in those economies most at risk, namely the frontier and emerging markets within the ‘global south’.



The Mongolia Case Study

From Nomadic Resilience to Urban Vulnerability

Ulaanbaatar (UB), the capital of Mongolia, is an apt case study as it is attempting to build a sustainable city based on the western models of urban planning, often to the detriment of its own resilience. UB is a city that is home to over 60% of the national population and practically all of its skilled human capital and financial resources despite being extremely vulnerable to risks.

In terms of stresses, its commodity and pastoral farming dependent economy has deteriorated considerably over the past years as commodity prices have fallen, leading to an unstable legal and political environment as well as an eroding purchasing power. In 2000, 2001, 2002 and 2009 the country suffered from dzuds (extreme winters of up to -50 degrees celsius that kill off a significant portion of the country’s cattle) leading to severe “climate impact-induced migration” when ill prepared nomads moved to Ulaanbaatar for sheer survival through a life of subsistence, creating in the process a new class of “urban poor”. This has resulted in the highest levels of urban winter pollution in the world, inadequate waste management, contaminated soil and water as well as an erosion of the ability of the public sector to provide basic utilities and services to its ever growing population. Emergency services are equally poorly equipped or trained and its staff are often left unpaid for months as municipal budgets are reduced to critical levels.

As Ulaanbaatar heads towards this next winter, meteorological analysts predict another catastrophic dzud, this at a time of extreme economic hardship and poor levels of preparedness. It is likely that it is the informal urban settlements where approximately 45% of the population currently resides, known as the “ger districts”, who will be the most impacted. They will no longer be able to afford the essential coal to heat their gers, they will not be able to procure their meat from the countryside (their staple diet) and they would find themselves with reduced economic opportunities. A dzud in the winter of 2015 would further increase the transient population of the city who will drain the already very limited resources of the municipality, increase urban density in the most “at-risk” areas such as the steep slopes surrounding the city and the floodplains of its rivers. This forced mass migration would contribute to the extreme levels of soil, air and water pollution as well as risk landslides and increase social exclusion.

UB is also prone to considerable shocks. It is vulnerable to earthquakes as well as extremes in ranges of temperatures (-40 to +40 degrees Celsius). It is the coldest capital city in the world and its antiquated city infrastructure system dates back to the Soviet period (with scant maintenance since) when a centralised system was put in place for hot water, heating and electricity. Today the system is operating at full capacity and has no built-in redundancies. An event that would impact either of the remaining two power stations in winter, would shut off heating to the entire urban core of the city at -40 degrees celsius and either force a mass evacuation towards China or Russia or ironically back to the original Mongolian nomadic habitat, the ger, (which happens to be the optimal climate resilient abode, even if not adapted to the market demands of a modern life and the conveniences it entails).

As Ulaanbaatar pursues its unrealistic sustainability agenda by mimicking the initiatives of wealthier nations through mass urbanisation, ambitious urban renewal projects and a focus on developing a city adapted to ever larger motor vehicle, it ignores the increased vulnerabilities to risks it faces and thereby gradually reduces its own capacity for resilience. It is ironic that one of the historically most resilient and adaptive population (through its nomadic heritage) is rapidly becoming one of the most at-risk and least prepared countries. For this process to be reversed, Mongolia’s policy makers and urban planners must stop designing the city as they believe it “should be” based on archaic principles of projection-based top-down utopian urban planning but should instead realise that cities are a place for the people and must be designed with its population at its core.

‘[cities]… are set in motion by planners and leaders, but their flourishing [is] up to the people who inhabit them’. (Jacobs 1961).



What can Ulaanbaatar do to improve its resilience?

Resilience capacity development is centred around an understanding and mitigation of risks as well as a clear analysis of the vulnerabilities that may exist to climatic or economic events. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC 2013) defines vulnerability through the ‘examination of the exposure, risk and adaptive capacity’ of cities. This vulnerability assessment includes elements such as the physical resistance of buildings and infrastructure to disasters as well as the adaptive capacity of communities and systems to cope with such severe shocks and resulting economic loss.

The methods of resilience adaptivity and implementation are still ill defined and largely in their infancy. Within the process of increasing urban resilience, social and physical safety nets must be considered so that those most vulnerable are not negatively impacted. Barnett, J. and O’Neill, S. (2010) explore this concept in their editorial ‘Maladaptation’ where they state that ‘adaptation strategies may increase the vulnerability of other systems, sectors, or groups…’ Short term solutions may exasperate problems in the future or impact other groups. For instance the heat waves in Australia of 2009 lead to a mass purchase of air conditioning units which contribute to long-term greenhouse gases and lead to higher energy consumptions placing additional strains on the system. Within Mongolia, short-term political thinking has led to the creation of an unsustainable low interest mortgage policy in addition to electoral cash handouts which create a high opportunity cost for the state who is then unable to better utilise those resources. Price hikes on water, transport and other utilities so that they may become economically sustainable, disproportionally impacts the most vulnerable within in the informal housing sectors who already pay more for these services. Large scale donor funded projects focused on ger district urban renewal create path dependency as they lack flexibility in responding to changes in the social, economic and climatic conditions. They create a perception of sunk costs that has to be maintained for political reasons. Such projects are aiming to “urbanise” the poor from habitats which are well adapted to changing climate conditions and risks (the ger) to formal high-density residential structures that would provide access to utilities and improved livelihoods. Through doing so, the vulnerability to natural risk of those communities is increased and their adaptive capacity for resilience is diminished as it is moved outside of their control.

For resilience to exist, long-term risk mitigation strategies need to be developed which are well adapted to the urban environment. Both physical “resistance” improvements such as the ones currently carried out by the World Bank “earthquake assessment for Ulaanbaatar schools” project as well capacity building within the services responsible for emergency responses in times of disaster are required for a holistic and integrated approach to the issue. This includes building redundancies within key infrastructure systems, using urban policy to upgrade building code standards and their enforcement, create diversities and efficiencies as well as dictating adequate land use zoning.

Godschalk (2003) argues thattraditional hazard mitigation programs have focused on making physical systems resistant to disaster forces. This is reasonable, since immediate injury and damage results from their failure. However, future mitigation programs must also focus on teaching the city’s social communities and institutions to reduce hazard risks and respond effectively to disasters, because they will be the ones most responsible for building ultimate urban resilience.

A key tool in doing so is to create incentives for the community to adapt by themselves, often through improved education, empowering the ger district communities to become the key stakeholders in their own resilience strategies. ‘Adaptive capacity in fact implies the ability to learn from mistakes and to generate [the] experience of dealing with change’ (Adger, 2003). A key positive externality of such participative capacity building is the creation of a common social thread between the members of the community who have been removed from their tight-knit rural communities and find themselves living a privatised existence in an increasingly overcrowded environment. Stronger social ties amongst the urban poor reduces the threat of conflict and provides an essential support group post-disaster and at times of need. Without a strong and connected community at its foundation, social chaos reigns supreme and disasters are amplified. The creation of a sense of social harmony between the urban policy makers, the residents and the emergency responders allows for improved communication and the sharing of experiences which would ultimately lead to greater social resilience.



Should we focus on resilience to the detriment of sustainability?

Cities are complex living organisms that are made up of a myriad of interdependent technological, economical, political, social and environmental components. It is those elements that we most enjoy in cities such as the population density, the public places, the interconnected infrastructure system and its mixed use architectural convenience that also puts us most at risk of natural and man-made hazards. Sustainable urban development which utilises the tools and instruments of poverty alienation, environmental protection and capacity development cannot be successful without ensuring that the built environment can also absorb the impact of this increased vulnerability to natural risks and urban terrorism without permanent damage.

Achieving a state of total urban resilience to hazards is not possible and neither should it be a defining goal. We are only now beginning to realise the extraordinary magnitude and the complexities involved in developing urban resilience and its tentacular ramifications. Despite its complexities, physical and social resilience within the urban environment needs to be modelled and made publicly available so that initiatives, efforts, projects and actions can be measured, evaluated and shared. There is no ready made solution that cities can simply adapt to their own needs. It requires a long and concerted effort to evaluate the existing situation, the potential risks and the vulnerability to those risks and enact a disaster mitigation strategy that is feasible, affordable and adaptable. While there is no definitive single solution to improving resilience, the same basic principles that apply to natural disasters would equally apply to urban terrorism or other man-made events.

Resilience initiatives should be considered as tools used in enabling cities to better adapt to a fast changing environment but which must be carried-out alongside sustainability and poverty reduction objectives. Policies focused on resilience must be carefully crafted between all the stakeholders so that resilience policies works holistically in concert with other sustainability efforts. ‘Without proper planning, efforts to stabilise the impacts of climate change can undo decades of progress in lifting vulnerable people out of poverty’ (Anderson, 2015). A too great emphasis on building a resilient city to the detriment of a desirable city can lead to sacrifices in soul and identity, leading to a loss of community enthusiasm for their urban environment and a subsequent flight of population. Resilience should not come at the cost of sustainability, both are essential ingredients in making a city desirable and functional. It is after all often said that Detroit no longer wishes to be described as a resilient city as this gives other permissions to abuse it time and time again, excusing such actions by saying that Detroit is resilient, it will therefore pick itself up again.

A sustainable equilibrium in today’s increasingly vulnerable and interconnected world cannot be achieved without a true commitment to improved urban resilience. While the two concepts vary in scope and purpose, they include the same stakeholders and use similar tools. Only through a combined approach, can truly resilient sustainability be reached.

Sustainability is a seemingly laudable goal – it tells us we need to live within our means, whether economic, ecological, or political – but it’s insufficient for uncertain times. How can we live within our means when those very means can change, swiftly and unexpectedly, beneath us?’ (Cascio, 2009).





  • Adger, N. W. (2003). Social aspects of adaptive capacity. In: B. Smith, J. T. Klein & S. Huq (Eds), Climate change, adaptive capacity and development . London: Imperial College Press.
  • Anderson, M. (2015) ‘Rising temperatures could drive 100m into extreme poverty, world bank warns’, The Guardian; (Accessed: 14 November 2015)..
  • Barnett, J., O’Neill, S. (2010) Maladaptation. Global Environmental Change, 20, pp. 211-213
  • Cascio, J. (2009) The next big thing: Resilience. Foreign Policy, April, (online) URL: (Accessed: 10 November 2015).
  • Godschalk, D. R. (2003) ‘Urban hazard mitigation: Creating resilient cities’, Natural Hazards Review, 4(3), pp. 136–143.
  • Hallgatte, S., Bangalore, M., Bonzanigo, L., Fay, M., Kane, T., Narloch, U., Rozenberg, J., Treguer, D. and Vogt-Schilb, A. (2015) ‘Shock Waves: Managing the Impact of Climate Change on Poverty’  Climate Change and Development Series. Washington DC: World Bank Publications.
  • IPCC. (2013)  Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Stocker, T.F., D. Qin, G.-K. Plattner, M. Tignor, S.K. Allen, J. Boschung, A. Nauels, Y. Xia, V. Bex and P.M. Midgley (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA
  • Jacobs, J. (1961) ‘The Death and Life of the Great American City’. New York: Random House
  • Mathers III, M. B. (2011) Eminem’s letter to Detroit. Available at: (Accessed: 11 November 2015).
  • Shaw, R., Sharma, A. (eds.) (2011) ‘Climate and disaster resilience in cities’. (6 Vols). United Kingdom: Emerald Group Publishing.
  • Soja, E., Kanai, M. (2008) The Urbanisation of the World; The Urban Age Project by The London School of Economics and Deutsche Bank’s Alfred Herrhausen Society. Phaidon.
  • The Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED) (2015) The Human Cost of Natural Disasters 2015, A Global Perspective; Available at: (Accessed: 1 November 2015).
SOURCE: Christopher de Gruben

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