Understanding urban resilience, part I: Surat

We live in an ever-more complex and unpredictable world, marked by rapid urbanization, dramatic technological evolution, and climate change. As a result, policymakers and designers are increasingly focusing on the concept of urban resilience. Exactly what this means and how it relates to individual cities’ concerns, however, remains unclear.

For the past year, Arup’s International Development group — supported by The Rockefeller Foundation — has been working on the City Resilience Framework, a tool that aims to create an accessible, widely applicable definition of the term. Project director Jo da Silva recently launched the framework at the World Urban Forum in Medellín, Colombia; the full report is available here.

Jo and her team are now working on the project’s next phase, a City Resilience Index that will allow local governments to understand, assess, and target areas for improvement.

Over the next few weeks, we will publish insights from the project team and case studies from cities around the world examined as part of the framework’s development.

First up: perspectives from Surat, a city of almost eight million people on the west coast of India. Working closely with our local partner TARU Leading Edge, we held workshops and conducted interviews with representatives from different stakeholder groups from around the city, seeking to learn how they understood resilience and what they felt contributed to its presence or absence in their communities.

Here’s what we found.

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As the fastest-growing city in India, and despite its economic prosperity, Surat recently struggled to keep up with demands on its infrastructure and services. It has experienced several shocks over the last decades, including floods, social unrest, and an outbreak of the pneumonic plague. This has strongly influenced its successful efforts to enhance resilience, which has turned Surat into a model for other cities in India.

Surat is well-known for its flooding challenges. However, 20 years ago a chain reaction following a flood permanently changed Surat’s approach to flood management. After the 1994 event, poor sanitation in vulnerable communities is reasoned to have caused an outbreak of pneumonic plague. While the number of suspected cases was limited, the unexpected nature and fear of a relatively unknown disease caused panic, which started locally but quickly spread nationally and internationally.

Surat Fort

Surat Fort

Following this catastrophe, a municipal commissioner was put in place to lead the city back to normalcy and rebuild trust internally and externally. There was a recognized need for improved infrastructure, such as sewerage and stormwater drainage, as well as better flood management to reduce the chances of a recurrence. This event also raised awareness of public health generally, and the well-being of the workforce to contribute to economic prosperity. The local government put in place measures to prevent rapid disease spread, such as monitoring at the household level, and provided local health centers in the most vulnerable areas — particularly those housing immigrants — to anticipate and respond in a disaster.

It took longer to restore trust in the security of Surat after the disaster than it did to clean up the streets and control the disease. This lack of trust delayed residents from returning to the city and thus impacted heavily on business continuity. In light of this, the business community, led by the Chamber of Commerce, now contributes strong leadership in planning for disasters and being on the ground during emergencies, helping to disseminate information and resources. This complements government recognition of the importance of providing fast, reliable information to the public about emergencies and their management.

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