Op-ed

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These are the world’s most fragile cities – and this is how they can turn things around

by Robert Muggah

World Economic Forum
September 15, 2016

Cities are redefining the trajectories of security and development in the 21st century. Owing to the relentless push of urbanization – especially in Africa and Asia – cities are increasingly shaping global responses to climate change, migration, governance and international security.

Yet while the world fixes its gaze on a few dozen global cities, surprisingly little is known about thousands of other cities around the world that are quietly expanding. Are these fast growing cities adequately prepared to face the monumental challenges of tomorrow?

Why cities matter

Whether in the developed or developing world, there is little doubt that urbanization is rewiring international affairs and changing the face of politics, economics and demographics. At least half of humanity already lives in cities and this share will grow to two-thirds by 2050. Just 600 cities are responsible for two-thirds of global GDP. And while the pace of urbanization is slowing in North America and Western Europe, it is approaching breakneck speed in Africa and Asia – parts of the world least prepared to handle such a massive transition.

There are examples everywhere of cities are stepping-up to solve major global challenges. City leaders are forging networks within and across international boundaries to address shared problems, including climate change. And not a moment too soon, since national governments and multilateral agencies are increasingly coming up short. The United Nations Security Council and Bretton Woods institutions such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund are still organized around servicing nation states rather than more nimble cities.

Though some cities are thriving and connected, there are signs that others are falling behind. In too many cases, the social contract binding urban authorities and citizens has unravelled. When a disequilibrium of expectations occurs between municipal leaders and urban residents, cities become fragile. It is possible to empirically measure the extent of fragility by examining the quantity and quality of basic urban service provision and access – whether to public security, basic health, transportation or electricity. In extreme situations, these services literally grind to a halt.

The consequences are far-reaching, with some cities crisscrossed with no-go areas and wracked by extreme instability. As the cases of Aden, Damascus, Mosul or Port-au-Prince amply show, hybrid and parallel forms of governance can emerge, with services issued by militia groups, criminal organizations and violent gangs. Of course, fragility is not a steady state: it is a dynamic set of properties. As such, all cities are fragile to lesser or greater degree. It is those exhibiting an accumulation of risks that are most vulnerable.

Understanding urban fragility

A consortium led by the Igarapé Institute, United Nations University, World Economic Forum and 100 Resilient Cities recently launched an initiative to better understand the distribution of urban fragility and resilience. The group examined the core characteristics of fragility in over 2,100 cities with populations of 250,000 or more. Cities were graded across 11 variables, including urban population growth rate, unemployment, income inequality, access to basic services (electricity), levels of pollution, homicide rate, terrorism-related deaths, conflict events, and natural hazards (including the extent of city population exposure to cyclones, droughts and floods).

Structured and unstructured data was collected from national statistical offices, international agencies and academic and private institutes. There were two criteria for determining the selection of fragility metrics: a statistically valid association with the breakdown of city institutions, and a significant number of comparative data points across cities. A shortlist of indicators was then assembled into an overall score on a scale of 1-4 (with 1 indicating low fragility and 4 indicating high fragility). All of this data was then reorganized into a visualization now available to the public.

At least five key findings stand out.

First, city fragility is much more widespread than previously believed. Of the sample of 2,100 cities, roughly 14% can be considered very fragile (scoring 3-4), including Mogadishu, Sana`a and Karachi. Another 67% of the cities report average levels of fragility (with an index score of 2-3), ranging from Baltimore to Manila. And just 16% of all cities report low fragility (1-2), including Oslo and Ottawa. Around 4% of all the registered cities had insufficient data to register a score at all.

Second, most fragile cities are clustered in Africa and Asia, accounting for 93% of all high risk cities. In fact, an astonishing 44% of all African cities are considered highly fragile and 51% experience medium levels of fragility. There are no cities with a low fragility score in Africa. By comparison, roughly 70% of Asian cities can be classified as experiencing medium levels of fragility, with a further 15% exhibiting the highest levels of fragility (3-4).

Third, the regions registering the “lowest” city fragility are in Europe, East Asia and North America. Significantly, there are no highly fragile cities in Europe, while 52% of its cities experience medium fragility (2-3) and 47% have low levels of fragility. The Americas – including North, Central and South America – features the highest number of cities with medium levels of fragility (78%) and just 4% with high rates of fragility.

Fourth, high levels of city fragility are not necessarily confined to low- or even medium-income settings. While there are no “high fragility” cities (scoring 3-4) in high-income countries, there are over 40 high fragile cities in upper middle-income settings, 194 in lower middle settings, and 50 in low-income settings. Even so, there is a comparatively strong relationship between high income and low city fragility and low income and comparatively higher levels of city fragility.

Fifth, fragility is not restricted to fragile states or conflict-affected countries but it is more likely to occur there. There is an increased likelihood of higher levels of fragility for cities located in a fragile or war-torn country. Roughly one-third of all cities registering a high fragility score are located in a fragile country. However, 93% of all cities located in one of the world’s 33 fragile countries report a high fragility score. Likewise, around 81% of all cities located in one of the 40-odd war zones also report higher levels of fragility.

Among many African countries, the most common factors driving up city fragility scores are chronically high unemployment rates and low access to electricity. In Asia, the key variables influencing high fragility scores are comparatively significant rates of terrorism-related killings and high levels of air pollution. In the Americas, the most influential metric is homicide rate. Meanwhile, countries reporting low levels of city fragility – especially those in Europe – also exhibit proportionately higher levels of electricity coverage and lower exposure to cyclones, floods and droughts.

How a fragile city can turn things around

The good news is that city fragility is not permanent. There are positive cases of highly fragile cities turning things around. They start with a clear plan and an enlightened leadership. They often require successive mayors to stick to an agreed strategy rather than developing new ones. Ideally, these cities establish agreements at the national, state and municipal levels to align policy strategy and implementation. In some cases, cities establish proactive partnerships with the private sector and purposefully build social cohesion across identify and income groups.

While there is no silver bullet, there are several strategies that help enhance resilience in even the most fragile cities. Cities that build inclusive public spaces and bring down barriers between wealthy and poorer areas tend to also register dividends in public security. Investment in predictable public transport – including bus rapid transit – and access to basic services, especially in areas of concentrated disadvantage can reap long-term economic dividends. Municipalities that adopt problem-oriented and evidence-based approaches to policing and create meaningful opportunities for at-risk young people are more resilient.

There is also growing awareness of what works when designing-in solutions for sudden onset and longer-term climate risks. City authorities that develop municipal natural disaster mitigation plans, upgrade zoning and building codes (including provisions for mixed commercial and residential housing), and cultivate new technologies to strengthen emergency response are more resilient. A key is to build in mechanisms for local engagement. After all, local populations are the first and last responders, and therefore crucial in helping a city shift from fragility to resilience.

Image: REUTERS/Omar Faruk

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