If humanity is going to survive and thrive in the future, it's going to need strong cities. Two-thirds of people are set to live in urban areas by 2050 (according to U.N. estimates), putting great pressure on city planners to cope.
How well are they doing so far? A new report scores 50 cities both for their "vulnerability" (for example, to climate change) and their "adaptive capacity" (their ability to react), producing an overall "resilience" ranking. And, in fact, the news for North America isn't bad—as long as you believe the rankings. The top three cities are Canadian (Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary), and six of the top 10 are from the U.S. (led by Chicago and Pittsburgh in fourth and fifth places, respectively).
The rankings are based on five categories of vulnerability (climate, environment, resources, infrastructure, and community) and five categories of adaptability (governance, institutions, technical capacity, planning systems, and funding structures). "Resources," for example, means a city's access to energy, food, and water. "Funding structures" covers the ability to borrow and tap into national and international money.
Generally, North America scores highly on the adaptive side. "The strong U.S. ranking is due to adaptive capacity, where resources, public accountability of elected officials, and the technology of the U.S. are dominating factors," the report says. "This suggests that U.S. cities will continue to see a pattern of effective public intervention, but often only after a major shock has occurred."
The middle-ranking cities are mostly European. London is 18th, Paris is 23rd, and Madrid 31st, for instance. The most worrying group is the bottom-ranked cities, which are all from the emerging world: places like Dhaka, Bangladesh (50th), Jakarta, Indonesia (49th), and Mumbai (46th). These are cities with huge and growing populations, which are both vulnerable and relatively unadaptive.
"So far, blistering economic growth has not fed through into the quality and long-term resilience of these cities," the report, which was developed by a U.K. real estate group, says. "The least resilient cities are the ones facing the greatest pressure to grow. High rates of population growth, while beneficial to production and culture in the long term, are likely to challenge improved adaptive capacity in the short term."
Of course, the U.S.'s high scoring isn't reason for complacency. Hurricane Sandy showed how a mid-severity hurricane could hobble a great city, despite its wealth. New York is 31st most vulnerable (scoring highly for climate) but number one for adaptability, making it 14th most resilient overall. In theory, that should leave it well placed to cope with future shocks, but we'll have to see if it really is prepared when the next major storm comes.