America has a great legacy of institutions that foster the “do it yourself” ethic from an early age, from the Boy Scouts to Popular Mechanics.  In international development, this “DIY” attitude is more important than ever – and it begins with empowering the most vulnerable members of society. 

Currently, one billion people around the world live in urban slums, and according to the United Nations, that number is expected to increase to two billion by 2030. These are the same people who find themselves at the front lines of climatic shocks – from droughts to intensified storms – with little protection.

It’s unfair, to be sure. According to the U.N., the 100 countries most vulnerable to climate change contribute the least to total global greenhouse gas emissions. But

instead of pitying the people who are hurt most, we should empower them to make change. Because while reversing urbanization or climate change may be impossible, increasing the resilience of cities’ physical, social, and economic fabric is not.

 Through my work in India for CHF International, I saw firsthand how the urban poor lean into challenges together, and invest in bettering their own communities as a cohesive unit. In 2007, supported by a grant from the Gates Foundation, we used this community-centric approach in one of India’s largest cities to make lasting improvements to the resilience of their most vulnerable slum populations:

Near Mumbai, the city of Pune is the eighth largest metropolis in India with a population of about five million people – and 1 million of them live in slums. By 2025, the population of the Pune-Mumbai “mega region” is expected to hit nearly 50 million people.

Situated at the confluence of three rivers, Pune has experienced many floods over the last several decades, including an historic major dam failure in 1961.  Climate change is likely to increase the frequency of these floods. And slum dwellers in the region face additional challenges: 44 percent of them have sheet roofs containing asbestos, and thousands of them have no access to sanitation facilities. Like so many slum communities around the world, the poorest of the poor in Pune are living in hazard-prone areas, without rights to their land, with little savings, and without identity.

We wanted that to change.  And it did.

When the central government of India made funding available to major cities in the country, including Pune, to undertake slum-upgrading projects, we helped empower slum dwellers to create better housing solutions.  We did this in close partnership with city governments and locally based NGOs.

For example, instead of evicting, demolishing and rebuilding housing more quickly in the city outskirts, we helped residents develop housing on the same sites where residents had established their lives and livelihoods. We also worked with a collective of slum-based women’s savings groups chosen to administer a city contract to rebuild 700 houses across these slums.  Working directly with a team of architects, the slum residents developed housing designs and neighborhood amenities like open spaces.

The project left more than just new houses. It left a legacy of community dialogue, debate, engagement, and empowerment.

We also helped Pune implement a program that supports both local governments and their urban poor in exploring the conditions of their communities in order to take action – a skill that will be increasingly needed in the face of climate change. 

We engaged 5,000 volunteer slum dwellers to survey the socio-economic conditions of their peers across the city. Entering this information into a Geographic Information System (GIS) that we developed with the local government, we then gave back the data to community volunteers and taught them how to organize neighborhood action plans supported by their findings.

In two years, having mobilized their own resources and those of the local government, 130 slum communities in Pune implemented projects that they wanted, and on their terms. The improvements included a solid waste management program, better water connections, sanitation access, and the development of renewable energy sources.

The urbanization-fueled challenges faced by vulnerable communities in Pune are similar to those in many other mega-cities around the world.  As global citizens, we are faced with a choice: to plan for the poor in future-proofing these cities, or to plan with them.

In fostering the DIY spirit that Americans know so well, I choose the latter. The urban poor are incredibly resourceful, with their own resources, networks, and demonstrated capacity to save and invest in the betterment of their cities. We just need to give them the chance.

Anatomy of a Resilient City