The politics of Urban Resilience: A critique.

*** This is a draft, unpublished version***

Antonis Galanopoulos [1] & Fotis Gaitanis [2]


Cities all around the world are growing fast. Already the urban share of global population is more than 50 percent and it is expected to climb to 60 percent by 2030 and 85 percent by 2100.In advanced economies, urbanization is even more extensive, with around 2/3 of the people living in cities. In today’s world, cities are substantial drivers of economic growth. OECD estimates suggest that metropolitan areas with more than 500.000 residents drive 55 percent of the world’s GDP and that cities of the near future will account for 80 percent of world’s carbon emissions as well as 75 percent of its energy production.Those factors make cities the most important economic, geographic and administrative entities in today’s world.

The upgraded role of cities in contemporary politics was underlined in Benjamin Barber’s book If Mayors Ruled the World: Dysfunctional Nations, Rising Cities. In this book, Barber argued that cities offer the best new forces of good governance. Later, he promoted the idea of a ‘Global Parliament of Mayors’ aiming to establish a new, nonpartisan global governance platform that empowers mayors to deliver viable cross-border solutions to global challenges like climate change, immigration, the refugee crisis, pandemic diseases, terrorism, nuclear proliferation, and volatility in global financial markets.

Cities have rapidly become a politically contested space of great importance as we witness the emergence of various initiatives and networks whose purpose was to shape a model for the future of the city.This fight for the future of the city is evident as networks, like Smart Cities, Resilient Cities, Green Cities, Rebel Cities, Fearless Cities and so forth, are trying to promote their own agenda and the political narrative for the future of the cities, through the set of policies that they favor as the optimum answers to the urban challenges of our time.

In this article we will mainly focus on the concept of resilient cities as we claim that it’s the most consistent political attempt, so far, to develop a model for the cities of the future, particularly through the 100 Resilient Cities program by the Rockefeller Foundation. It is also a project that gained great publicity as it is systematically promoted through media, academic and political channels, and it is of particular interest as it seems to originate from above, from the political and economic elites.Our aim is to explore what ‘resilience’ really means in its urban and social context and more importantly to highlight the underlying political logic behind the concept.

Resilient cities

Resilience has become the most recent answer to all urban problems, acting almost as a panacea. The term comes from the academic field where it was widely used mainly in the fields of psychology and engineering. It entered the political field recently and soon dominated it, becoming the key term of art for governing planetary life and changing the whole framing of the urban and social issues.It is a word with a variety of meanings. The vagueness of the concept allows the legitimization of different policies simply by reference to the desired“urban resilience.”

In 2013 the initiative 100 Resilient Cities came to life. Pioneered by the Rockefeller institute, this program chose 100 Cities around the globe and provided them small funding and access to a platform of private sector companies, NGO’s and technical support services, in order to develop a holistic resilience strategy. The program concluded on July 2019, after “growing and catalyzing the urban resilience movement,” according to its own words.

This organization defined resilience as “the capacities of individuals, communities, institutions, business, and systems within a city to survive, adapts, and grow no matter what kind of chronic stresses and acute shocks they experience.” According to their rationale, shocks are single event disasters, such as fires, earthquakes and floods, while stresses are factors that pressure a city on a daily or reoccurring basis, such as chronic food and water shortages, an overtaxed transportation system, endemic violence or high unemployment. Judith Rodin, president of Rockefeller Foundation during 2005–2017, in her book The Resilience Dividend argued that: “Building resilience –the ability to bounce back more quickly and effectively — is urgent social and economic issue, one that communities across the globe must focus on as these disruptions become more and more frequent”.

What these arguments seem to imply is that the city as a system, after a brief break, will bounce back to the previous status quo. It promotes the idea that citizens must adapt in order to gain the property of resilience and infrastructures must be redesigned in order to account for the permanent threat of disaster. The emphasis on adaptation could be interpreted as an attempt to maintain the current status quo. The problem lies in the fact that adaptation focuses on citizens and their way of life and does not touch at all the power relations and the current economic doctrine. The implementation of these ideas is accompanied by a new attractive word: resilience. The citizen of a resilient city can easier imagine a future where crisis is the new normal, rather than a future away from the economic reality that creates the global problems, like climate change, immigration and economic inequality.

The idea that crisis is the new normal for the cities in the 21st century promotes and legitimizes an almost permanent state of emergency. According to this, we have to be ready for a disaster (natural, political, social, and economic) that is imminent. As a result, it could allow the implementation of interventions in the urban landscape without the necessary consultation or legitimization.

If, as Robert Park has argued, “in making the city man remade himself,” then the struggle for the future of the city is a struggle for the future of man himself. The concept of resilient cities aims to form a new type of citizen that will become more resilient and will obtain new adaptation skills; an individual that will have the ability to sustain the crises. As a result, the human subject is reduced to survivability.

Bruce Watson argued that “the resilience movement is a global attempt to address two of the longest-standing and most vital questions facing theorists, planners and leaders. Namely, what is the purpose of society, and what is a society’s responsibility to its citizens”. While the future of cities is essentially a political issue and therefore involves both conflict and choice between alternative projects, resilient cities attempt to present themselves as an objective desirable goal, as the only road ahead. Following that path, municipal authorities or think tanks eventually come to impose, under a scientific mantle,policies, infrastructure projects and even social behaviors in a local society. Therefore, the question remains: Who setthe objective goal of resilience? Who will benefit from it? Who is excluded?


Recognizing the central role of the concept of resilience in the debate for the future of the cities and observing its wide acceptance from different theoretical and political groups, we believe that a critical approach is necessary in order to highlight that the idea is political at its core and therefore has important political implications. The future of cities is mostly a political issue; therefore we need to highlight the goals and values hidden behind the projects that attempt to shape a model for the cities and a roadmap for their future.

In our view, the concept of resilience is deeply political despite the fact that it tries to present itself as apolitical, as an objective, neutral, technocratic approach. It is political even by not talking about politics, about the political factors that shape our social environment and produces the various crises. By creating a realm of expectations desirable by all, resilience allows for an imposition of choices and behaviors. These pleasant appearances plastered over modern day nightmares are testament of the intention of resilience supporters to destroy criticism, introducing or establishing a one dimensional thought on the subject. By promoting the idea of bouncing back and presenting the crisis as an opportunity, leaders favor the social and political status quo.

Can we support, in the name of resilience, the survival of the existing system against a crisis, without questioning its role in creating this crisis or without exploring the consequences of its survival for society itself? In the words of Tom Slater, what proved to be extremely resilient is the neoliberal urbanism and “the most resilient community of all appears to be that of a cartel of politicians and financial executives, aided by think tanks and philanthropic organizations, who have “bounced back” from a crisis they created”. To put it bluntly, resilience tends to prioritize the needs of the elite over the needs of the people.

Ultimately, it is necessary that we rid ourselves of the preconceptions that we have about resilience that make it a desirable absolute horizon, to the extent of suppressing any debate. What lies primarily behind resilience are political choices. Resilience must always be analyzed as a political discourse that aims to impose choices that should, at least, be publicly discussed, whereas its use tends to shift the attention from political and social processes to technological and technocratic solutions.

[1]PhD Candidate, School of Political Sciences, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki.

[2]Civil Engineer, MSc Environmental protection and sustainable development.

PhD candidate, School of Political Sciences, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. Freelance writer.