Our award-winning reporting has moved

Context provides news and analysis on three of the world’s most critical issues:

climate change, the impact of technology on society, and inclusive economies.

What works to build urban resilience – and what doesn’t?

by Shreya Mitra and Joe Mulligan | @intalert | International Alert - UK
Monday, 17 October 2016 15:07 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

It’s more complicated than you might think – but consulting people on what they want is a good start

This week heads of state will formally adopt a ‘New Urban Agenda’ in Quito, Ecuador. This will aim to set the narrative for development in human settlements for the next 10-20 years, and strengthen links between urbanization and sustainable development.

Most urban growth is after all expected in the developing world; in the expanding cities and informal settlements of Africa and Asia. A significant proportion of this urban expansion is occurring in fragile and conflict-affected places. Here, the risks of unplanned and poorly managed urbanization resulting in inequitable, exclusionary, fragmented, and violent cities are significant.

International Alert and the Kounkuey Design Initiative (KDI) have been working together to examine the interaction of environmental and conflict risks in Kibera, Nairobi’s largest informal settlement, and the impact of three major housing and infrastructure initiatives on building future resilience.

What lessons do these projects hold for the implementation of the New Urban Agenda? How can we strengthen urban resilience in contexts where conflicts, environmental risks, and disasters collide?


Kibera, located in the centre of Kenya’s capital Nairobi, is one of the largest informal settlements in Africa. Residents of Kibera face many challenges, often including poverty, unemployment, insufficient water and sanitation infrastructure, poor housing and high rates of crime and insecurity. Kibera was also a hotspot of the post-election violence in late 2007 and early 2008.

With the Ngong River and major tributaries running through the settlement, flooding is a significant risk, particularly for those living closest to the river banks. Due to poor drainage and inadequate solid waste management, Kibera residents living away from the river banks are also subject to localised flooding.

Global climate change is already aggravating the flood risk residents face across the city as the intensity of rainfall events increases in line with projections for East Africa.

New infrastructure and services developed in the last two years under a program delivered by the Ministry of Devolution and the National Youth Service (NYS) have already contributed to improving the living conditions in Kibera. Roads, power lines, health services, water and sanitation blocks, urban agriculture initiatives, and police posts have emerged. For the first time, people can easily catch a matatu, boda or Uber into the heart of Kibera to get from work to home, or bring supplies to their businesses.

The Kenyan government along with the World Bank and UN-HABITAT have also undertaken major housing efforts. Two projects are notable in this regard; Kenya Slum Upgrading Programme (KENSUP) and the Nairobi Railway Relocation Action Plan (Railway Project) that introduced multi-story housing to the largely single-story settlement.

These three projects will go a long way in determining the future development pathways and resilience of Kibera residents. Despite some successes, there have also been many challenges. Indeed, some of these initiatives are creating new and renewed tensions due to a lack of effective consultation and engagement with affected populations.


The successes and failures of these projects point to specific lessons for city and national level actors implementing development and slum upgrading initiatives. These lessons are relevant not only in Nairobi but also in other rapidly urbanising centres.

--Projects that are integrated and multi-sector in nature have a stronger potential to effectively address multiple risks, be it environmental or conflict risks, compared to single-sector projects. Of the three projects, only the NYS project is truly multi-sectoral in design, addressing infrastructure, basic service provision, employment and the causes of insecurity. Implementation challenges have however, hindered the project from reaching its full potential.

--Where the social contract is already weak, projects need to be particularly sensitive to the urban political context or risk facing obstruction. In the opposition stronghold of Gatwekera in Kibera, low levels of trust in government-led projects resulted in youth being incited to oppose the NYS projects. They set fire to ablution blocks and resisted the extension of the sewer line into the area.

--In such fragile contexts, projects need to strengthen the social contract in order to be effective. This requires meaningful consultation, transparency, and equity. In the Railway project, stringent criteria for eligibility, community-led listings, talks and consultation built trust and helped mitigate the risks of opposition and conflict from local residents. By contrast, lack of transparency in housing allocation and limited buy-in, led to owners opposing KENSUP via lawsuits. This lack of transparency and trust delayed project implementation and undermined relations between the government and project beneficiaries.

--In addition to strengthening the social contract, projects that build social capital have positive outcomes for resilience. Social capital and networks are important to Kibera residents, who rely on them to access information, jobs, and business opportunities. The relocation process under KENSUP disrupted people’s access to information and networks by moving residents significantly further away from their homes in Kibera. These residents struggled to continue their income generating activities at the same level, undermining their resilience.

--Effective action for climate change adaptation needs to be specific to the social, economic, and physical context at a local scale, as risks vary significantly from one area to the next. For example, planning for the NYS sewer line failed to take into account the variation in river levels through the settlement; this led to the flooding and failure of the sewer line at various points. Readily available local knowledge on flood levels or simple flood mapping were not used to inform good design in the rush to deliver the project. Opportunities to enable local facilities to connect to the sewer were missed and residents made illegal connections that have contributed to the blockages.

--Micro-scale and local improvements of physical and social resilience can reduce risk in and of themselves-if designed properly, but they can also amplify the effects of larger infrastructural interventions to build social cohesion and contract (i.e. by plugging info formal government infrastructure). For example, public space projects delivered by Kounkuey Design Initiative have connected to formal water and sewer systems and created an interface and interaction between the informal and formal cities.


With world leaders gathering in Quito this week to adopt a formative New Urban Agenda, city authorities and national governments in rapidly urbanising centres are making planning and infrastructure decisions that will lock us into development pathways for the next 30-50 years. Our research shows that meaningful participation and consultation is key to building social cohesion, and hence resilience, in fragile urban contexts. Finding workable and affordable ways to consult people on projects are critical to avoiding conflict and to creating responsive and flexible resilience development initiatives.

Shreya Mitra is a senior programme officer for environment, climate change and security at International Alert and Joe Mulligan is associate director of Kounkuey Design Initiatives. The two organisations will be publishing more detailed information on this research in the coming months.