At Resilient Cities 2011, the second World Congress on Cities and Adaptation to Climate Change, local government leaders from across the globe issued a bold message to international governing bodies and financing organizations: if you won’t take action to mitigate climate change, then help cities adapt to its consequences.

The congress, hosted in Bonn by ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability, was driven by the recognition that cities – the places where a majority of the world’s population lives – are severely threatened by the consequences of global climate change yet simultaneously offer the best opportunities for action via mitigation (GHG emissions reductions, clean energy sourcing) and adaptation (disaster planning, green infrastructures).

The centerpiece of the congress was a whitepaper, “Financing the Resilient City,” which outlines “a demand driven approach to development, disaster risk reduction, and climate adaptation.” The report emphasizes that urban resilience relies upon the success of the entire urban system, not simply its physical infrastructure. The document seeks to encourage the integration of “climate climate and other risk reduction measures in urban areas and systems,” offering resilience “as an economic and performance model with far reaching implications.”

The primary purpose of the report is to propose more effective financing mechanisms for urban sustainability and resilience measures by shifting the world’s attention away from top-down, international programs to bottom-up, demand-driven schemes. “Instead of relying on the top-down approach to climate financing, cities need to design infrastructure projects that are optimized according to a set of local criteria,” the report states. “Meanwhile, finance institutions need to fund what is needed on the ground rather than determine what local projects should look like.”

“Financing the Resilient City” also makes it clear that resilience is no longer a choice – it is a reality. Thus, resilience must become a central component of urban planning processes. To achieve this, the report asserts the need to develop institutional capacity at the local level. Local planning institutions must have the ability to assess vulnerability, leverage the proper technologies, and procure the materials need to for resilience projects.

This point was emphasized in the Bonn Declaration of Mayors, adopted unanimously at the Mayors Adaptation Forum, the culmination of the congress. The signatories of this document urge the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change to recognize local governments as stakeholders in environmental governance negotiations. The declaration repeats the whitepaper’s assertion of the need to mainstream “new adaptation and resilience standards into conventional urban development projects.” The Forum was convened by the World Mayors Council on Climate Change, chaired by Mexico City Mayor Marcelo Ebrard, who presided over the creation of the Global Cities Covenant on Climate Change, known as the “Mexico City Pact,” which now has 183 participants.

“Because world governments have not come to a reasonable way to stop the increase in CO2 emissions, we’ve now decided that we have to focus on adaptation,” stated David Cadmann, ICLEI President and Deputy Mayor of Vancouver. But there are significant challenges to adaptation initiatives, most notably the lack of capital. “It’s very hard to [adapt] as a city alone,” continued Cadmann. “You need senior levels of government, whether it’s the provincial government or the national government, to be a partner in this process, because the resources at the local level simply are not sufficient in most cases.”

There are political barriers to adaptation, as well. Cadmann noted that the relative brevity of electoral cycles in democratic nations poses a difficult choice for elected officials: “It’s the glossy new project versus preparing for an occurrence that may or may not occur in your term of office, hoping that you do not have to bear the consequences.” Missy Stults, Climate Director of ICLEI USA, presented a related political difficulty for the United States: Climate change mitigation and adaptation forces us “to work across our traditional boundaries…That’s not traditionally how we’ve operated in the U.S.”

With the emphasis on implementation and financing, the congress also afforded attendees numerous opportunities to share what they have achieved in their cities. The program featured dozens of presentations, panels, dialogues, and “reality check” workshops organized around several subthemes, including vulnerability mapping tools, urban adaptation planning, and adaptive infrastructure technologies.

These proceedings served to both share knowledge and inspire attendees. Stults noted that the United States has over six hundred local governments “who have made a commitment to reducing their greenhouse gas emissions and building resilience. [That] is a sign of leadership.”

The congress brings attention to the important role that local officials and urban planners have to mitigate – and prepare for – the effects of climate change. “Cities are not just an order of government closer to citizens, but also the place where transportation, waste, and water [is managed], and energy is consumed,” noted Martha Delgado, Secretary of the Environment for Mexico City. “Investments and policies [in cities] are very important for the future of the planet.”

Photo by Arvind Balaraman.