"Social initiatives raising urban resilience to climate change have huge potential to bring about transformation in cities"
 Isabel Ruiz Mallén

Isabel Ruiz Mallén

Pablo Ramos
Isabel Ruiz Mallén, member of the UOC's Faculty of Psychology and Education Sciences and researcher in the TURBA group at the UOC's IN3


Global warming is a practically unstoppable phenomenon that will force us to make new decisions and adopt new strategies in every aspect of our lives. This is particularly so in cities, where almost 70% of the world's population live. The rise in risks and extreme events, such as heatwaves, flooding, drought or torrential rain, are thus going to test urban systems' ability to adapt and transform in order to maintain citizens' quality of life, particularly in the face of climate change.

This urban adaptability is the main focus of the recently published book Urban Resilience to the Climate Emergency, which aims to explain the transformative potential of both public institutions' and social organizations' initiatives in a context of climate change. The book's authors seek to carry out a nuanced investigation of citizen participation and governance in urban climate policies and provide a reasoned discussion of the transformative grassroots processes that enable social inequalities in urban planning for climate change to be addressed. Isabel Ruiz Mallén, member of the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya's (UOC) Faculty of Psychology and Education Sciences and researcher in the TURBA group at the UOC's Internet Interdisciplinary Institute (IN3), is the main editor of this book and has written two of its chapters.

How did you come up with the idea of writing a book on urban resilience and the climate emergency? 

As a result of the RESCITIES project, we started to explore the implications of different urban resilience plans and policies for hydro-climatic risks such as drought, flooding and heatwaves, which were some of the main risks we had identified in the two cities we studied: Barcelona and Seville. Based on this local vision for facing global challenges, including climate change, we wanted to go beyond expansive ideas of urban resilience and focus instead on the transformative strategies that are taking place in concrete ways in cities, both "top-down", i.e. from the municipal authorities, and "bottom-up", i.e. from social organizations. We then decided to extend our critical approach to experiences documented in other cities in order to analyse their transformative potential for the general public.

What has the compilation of studies entailed, and what subjects have you decided to address in the book?

We used the evidence we'd gathered to create a theoretical and conceptual framework on the study of urban resilience in relation to climate change from the points of view of political ecology, environmental justice and participatory governance, placing particular emphasis on climate resilience and urban transformation. In addition, the empirical cases documented enabled us to analyse the vulnerabilities, challenges, tensions and inequalities that can result from certain urban resilience policies both in the Global North and in the Global South, more specifically in Europe and Latin America, and the possible benefits for urban climate resilience of producing these policies in a collaborative manner between municipal authorities and the public or according to self-managed strategies, particularly in terms of social repercussions and their transformative potential, and always through social and transformative learning.

How would you define urban resilience?

There are many definitions of this concept in the academic literature and in political documents on urban resilience written from the point of view of different fields of knowledge, such as psychology, engineering and ecology. In a general manner, it can be defined as an urban system's ability to endure distress and reorganize itself, something that entails change, but with the ability to retain its essence in terms of structure, functions, etc. It's a concept that's often used without giving it a concrete meaning, as an empty signifier, similarly to the way the concept of sustainability is used. However, this ability of the system doesn't necessarily mean that it results in action or, when it does, that it necessarily determines the exact form of such action. 

How important is it in the context of climate change?

Today, resilience plays a key role and is highly important in urban planning and management. This is because, in addition to having a presence in, and dominating, the political and academic discourse, it makes us wonder whether the steps we're taking to try to adapt to climate change are sound and effective at different levels. And this analysis enables us to develop a conceptual and theoretical framework for analysing the various aspects of these policies and initiatives. In our case, what we want to see is whether they are successfully easing vulnerabilities and tackling inequalities and therefore reducing the vulnerability of certain groups, or whether, on the contrary, they are giving rise to new vulnerabilities and causing more inequality. 

What is the role of private, public and institutional initiatives in this change?

Any attempt to fight climate change is welcome. What we need to consider is how these changes and initiatives are carried out and what their impacts are: both wanted and unwanted. In other words, are they institutional initiatives and do they take into account the needs and interests of the public in general and its most vulnerable members in particular? Do they avoid "maladaptation", which makes people in those groups even more vulnerable to climate change following a particular action or the implementation of a particular policy? But they must also take into account that citizens and social agents are not a uniform group or similar to each other; they have different characteristics and may be affected in different ways.

Of all these, which one do you think is the most necessary? Or is it the sum of all the agents involved?

Climate change is something that we, society, have caused to a greater or lesser extent, and we all have to fight it together, so all efforts in this direction are necessary. In our book we reflect on various initiatives being carried out in a number of cities to improve and encourage more resilient cities in the face of the climate emergency. Over its chapters, the book discusses various aspects, some of which can be looked at from a more positive point of view and others from a more negative angle.

In relation to this, what possible limitations are faced by the various initiatives?

We've found that there can be specific limits to these initiatives' transformative potential linked to procedural equity matters. For example, we've noticed that, when designing plans, policies and other institutional actions relating to urban climate resilience, the public and social organizations may feel during participatory processes that public authorities are using their power to a certain extent to push pre-established agendas, which discourages them from continuing to be involved. In the case of municipal authority-led co-production processes, striving to ensure inclusivity without taking account of power relations can stop the most vulnerable from being heard because the voices of the most powerful are louder.

How have the models or strategies carried out so far influenced society and the response to climate change?

Specific actions to reduce the impact of certain hydro-climatic risks, such as heatwaves, have been carried out from the institutional sphere. Examples include increasing or facilitating access to green areas with water fountains, or replacing paved surfaces with other materials that have less of a heat-island effect. We've also seen that resilience plans and policies are often pushed by citizen groups and associations that have been demanding, and working in a self-managed way to create, community initiatives in specific neighbourhoods or areas that are sometimes then scaled up to city level. An example of this is urban allotments.

How could the design of urban climate resilience strategies be improved? 

The book provides a critical analysis of what's been achieved, what lessons can be learned and how each initiative could be improved. We believe that taking the historical perspective into account is key to achieving this. Approaching urban climate resilience from a historical point of view can reveal information that can prove to be valuable when it comes to overcoming barriers and limitations relating to collaborative governance, identifying "maladaptation" and harmful strategies, and envisaging routes to climate resilience that are more transformative in terms of inclusiveness and equity.

Could you provide some examples of success and failure in this regard?

For example, the book looks at the case of Barcelona's Eixample district, which was developed in the 19th century and was already transformative at the time, as it proposed the inclusion of green areas inside the district's blocks, although the fact that the plan was never carried out in this way is a failure in this regard. In Seville's case, on the other hand, the relevant chapter discusses how citizen mobilization has resulted in the creation of many green areas. We also analysed the potential results of the changes made to the schools of some European cities to adapt them to climate change, with particular focus on the many benefits, in terms of well-being, learning and coeducation, and others, of renaturalizing playgrounds.

What are your main conclusions as a result of producing the book?

In our opinion, approaches to the development of urban climate resilience are equally beneficial whether they come from the public authorities or from social movements. Both strategies are necessary. And they have to be proposed and implemented from a transformative point of view: retaining the status quo isn't enough: we must increase citizen engagement while taking power relations into account. The social climate resilience initiatives documented and analysed in the book can entail learning-based transformative processes for environmental and climate urban governance at different levels, ranging from school playgrounds to whole cities.

And what about institution-driven policies? 

As to policies, the case studies analysed in the book suggest that climate resilience initiatives, whether they are co-produced or led by the government, can benefit from the creation of collaborative networks with social agents to address the ever-present structural and procedural barriers and, therefore, promote social and transformative learning approaches while increasing public acceptance of innovative and transformative actions. The book doesn't provide a one-size-fits-all solution to the various challenges entailed in urban climate resilience. Instead, it teaches interesting lessons to help us make progress towards more socially inclusive approaches in a variety of urban contexts that can be extrapolated to other cities.


This book has been made possible by the funding provided by the Spanish Ministry of Science and Innovation under the RESCITIES project (The political ecology of urban resilience to hydro-climatic events in Spain) and by the Spanish State Research Agency through the Juan de la Cierva-Training (FJCI-2017-31723) and Ramón y Cajal (RYC-2015-17676) programmes. 

This research by the UOC supports Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) 3, Good Health and Well-being; 4, Quality Education; 11, Sustainable Cities and Communities; and 13, Climate Action.