16. 01. 2019

Strengthening the resilience ‘lot’ for the little cities


Fine for the big; challenging for the small

Resilience has crept into the world of big cities, stimulated by an increasing prevalence of unfortunate incidents that tend to attract press attention – fires, floods, heatwaves, stabbings, terrorist activities, and multiple other forms of disruption. And it is heartening to see the increased attention from these larger cities on how they can address these challenges – a desire to stay out of the press, and more, thankfully!

There is an increased recognition that these very visible shocks are clearly to be avoided or mitigated, and that the less-obvious and yet potentially more damaging chronic issues like climate change impacts and societal change are also rather important to address. The shift from reaction to prediction, and an ever-increasing reliance on systemic integrated and intelligence-led approaches, gives us more confidence that the chances of, and implications from these untoward events will be minimised.

That is undoubtedly good – for the bigger cities. However, let’s pause for a moment and think about where most people actually live. And the answer is not in the big cities – for which there are few (thus a smaller and perhaps easier target to approach). in most European countries, and indeed most countries around the world, most of the population live in the smaller cities, towns, and indeed villages. What we consider as ‘big’ or ‘small’ is open to much interpretation, as indeed what we mean by ‘city’! So, for the sake of simplicity let’s assume ‘city’ as a generic term for a urban conurbation of some form; and small as perhaps below 300,000 population. That leaves many thousands of places and many millions of people to consider in most countries.

How much time and attention is placed on ensuring the ‘lot’ of these little cities is suitably catered for when it comes to resilience?

What does it feel like for a small city tackling resilience?

Smaller cities face a particular set of challenges when it comes to resilience:

  1. They rarely have the skills and capacity to select, apply, and manage the right interventions.
  2. Many of the approaches and methods have been developed with and for larger cities, and can be over-cumbersome or expensive for small.
  3. Typically, smaller places lack a clear or appropriate vision or strategy that addresses resilience; and thus lack goals and targets to steer and remind them about resilience.
  4. “Small city; big industry” – the multiplicity of smaller places lacks influence on a large market. They are one of many; it’s hard to get serious attention. Most lack the big industry behemoths that they can perhaps tap into for investment.
  5. Funding is undoubtedly going to be a challenge – either or both from a lack of access to public funds, or a lack of prioritisation to the ‘uncertain unknown’ when compared to obvious ongoing every-day investments.
  6. They may well have leadership and governance shortfalls, which things hard in many ways.
  7. If the city itself doesn’t have internal governance shortfalls, challenges are compounded by the complexity of multi-tier governance – decision power and competencies for things that affect resilience may well be at above-city level.
  8. Geographical presence – compounding the above; smaller cities have smaller geographical footprints.
  9. Lack of press interest – unless there’s a major disaster (like the 1988 PanAm Flight 103 bombing that put Lockerbie in Scotland on the map), the positive power of press interest that can stimulate investment in avoidance (resilience) is only modest.


On a more positive note – what ‘Small Giants’ can do about urban resilience

It’s not all bad for smaller cities though. They do have some potential advantages. The more progressive ones with passionate capable leadership can make decisions fast – those ‘Small Giants [1]’ can lead the way for others. Leaders of smaller cities also tend to be closer to their businesses and residents, so the all-important societal cohesion, which is a fundamental plank of resilience, can be more ‘tuned for action’.

Various standards bodies are now realising that they have a vital role to play to provide trusted guidance for city (political) leaders, infrastructure and service managers. A good example of this is the recent work of BSI that – with the initiative and leadership from the Cabinet Office – engaged with 50 cities across the UK to deeply understand their needs. This has informed the production of two documents – a guide for leaders, and a management toolkit for those that run the city. We must sing from the rooftops the merits of such initiatives, that help build capacity at the top, and ‘tool’ a (small) city for action.

And finally, and not unimportantly, EU-funded projects like RESCCUE are focused on developing a toolkit of methods and approaches that cities of any size can trust work and thus apply.

Interested in more?

  1. Consider yourself (or know of) a ‘small giant’? Touch base with trevor.gibson@opportunitypeterborough.co.uk
  2. Want to know more about the new BSI City Resilience material? It is imminently to be published!
  3. Want to see what’s emerging from RESCCUE? Contact us


Author: Graham Colclough, UrbanDNA, graham.colclough@urbandna.eu +44.771.031.3944

[1] ‘Small Giants’ is a specific initiative of the European Innovation Partnership for Smart Cities & Communities (EIP-SCC); that included resilience in the portfolio of focused issues – see here