Insights and Analysis

In Vietnam: Assessing City Resilience

September 26, 2018

By Michael R. DiGregorio

The violent storms that swept over the Philippines, China, and the southeastern U.S. seaboard earlier this month were a harrowing preview of extreme weather events that are likely to become more common as the 21st century unfolds. Cities in the paths of the storms lost power, water, and communications. Transportation networks were blocked. Homes and businesses were destroyed. Many who were affected by the storms may have to abandon their previous lives.

Like last year’s Hurricane María in Puerto Rico, the storms also laid bare the crucial necessity of effective governance for disaster preparedness and response. As cities grow larger and more complex, planners are beginning to focus on their ability to maintain the intricate urban fabric of interdependent systems, services, and social relations in the wake of a disaster, what they term resilience.

Motorcyclists move through heavy rain, high wind due to low pressure after tropical storm in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Photo/xuanhuongho /

This fabric of interdependencies includes not just basic infrastructure, but ongoing human needs such as education, employment, housing, security, health care, technical innovation, and social progress. In this way, a resilient-city approach addresses issues not normally within the scope of disaster preparedness, by including a range of variables that affect a city’s capacity to respond and adapt to shocks and stresses. But in order to devise sound strategies and effective investments to increase resilience, we need an empirical tool to isolate and measure these variables in any given city.

The Rockefeller Foundation granted The Asia Foundation and its partners, the Institute for Social and Environmental Transition and Vietnam’s Urban Development Agency, funding to develop an evidence-based tool for rapid, ongoing assessment of city resilience in Vietnam. This tool would yield two benefits. First, it would define a core set of actionable indicators that cities could use to monitor their progress; and second, by ranking cities within a national comparative index, it would create incentives for them to improve their resilience.

In June of this year, after an in-depth study lasting several years, The Asia Foundation released the results of this pilot project, Vietnam City Resilience Index (VNCRI). Project lead Dr. Michael DiGregorio, our Vietnam country representative, recently discussed the Index with InAsia.

How does the VNCRI take the general concept of “resilience” and turn it into something empirical, measurable?

In general, resilience is the capacity of an individual, institution, organization, business, or system to respond and adapt to shocks and stresses, many unanticipated. There are some specific qualities attached to this capacity, like flexibility, resourcefulness, diversity, the ability to learn from experience, and the ability to fail safely, among others. In a city, these qualities of resilience reside in systems and institutions as well as individuals.

At the institutional level, for example, we can see that there is something about governance and leadership that makes some cities more resilient than others. At a systems level, we might consider both natural and built infrastructure as playing a role in a city’s capacity to respond and adapt to shocks and stresses. At an individual level, a diverse, educated labor force, satisfying employment, and policies that support the ability of individuals to create new businesses might be important elements of resilience to many kinds of disruptions. So, you see, as we consider resilience, we move away from disaster response and recovery—which, by the way, are also extremely important—to the qualities, institutions, individual capacities, and systems that make it possible for cities, as a whole, to survive and thrive no matter what our new climate reality throws at them.

This is all well and good, right? But we need to move from an understanding of resilience to something a bit more actionable. Arup International, which developed Rockefeller’s City Resilience Framework, the CRF, used empirical evidence from cities around the world to organize resilience actions around 12 goals, like reduced exposure to shocks and stresses, diverse livelihood and employment opportunities, and effective management and leadership of city government. They then grouped these 12 goals into four larger categories, which we call dimensions. These are leadership and strategy, health and well-being, economy and society, and infrastructure and environment. I hope you can see where we are headed here.

So, we have these 12 goals in four major categories; we now want to consider means of achieving them. The CRF identifies 52 indicators—for example, safe and affordable housing, access to health care, a diverse economic base, community solidarity and mutual support, and widespread community awareness and preparedness for natural disasters. Our task with the VNCRI was to work our way through these layers of analysis to identify quantitative variables and qualitative scenarios that could be used to measure how well cities were meeting these goals and indicators. We did this in partnership with the Ministry of Construction, which has been charged with developing an urban adaptation database. This shifted our metrics more towards urban-planning issues than Arup’s CRF, but we remained generally within the framework.

How does the VNCRI differ from the earlier work on which it is based? How does it advance the state of the art?

The City Resilience Framework was developed as a tool for assessing the resilience of individual cities. It was never intended to be used in a national, comparative context. There are good reasons for this. Geography, climate, and history of settlement create very specific conditions that may make one city more vulnerable to natural disasters than another. Vulnerability is not the same as resilience, however. A well-prepared city that is vulnerable may be more resilient than a city that is less vulnerable but unprepared. In order not to penalize cities that may be more vulnerable through no fault of their own, the VNCRI focuses on indicators of resilience that are valuable for all Vietnamese cities. Focusing on these indicators allows for level comparisons.

This doesn’t mean that we’re not concerned with current vulnerabilities. We conducted vulnerability assessments quite effectively in our five pilot cities through participatory mapping exercises. These vulnerability assessments, together with results from the VNCRI, allowed the pilot cities to prioritize actions within their overall resilience strategies.

How is the VNCRI able to disentangle the complex interdependencies between so many factors that contribute to resilience?

We recognize that cities can be understood as a complex layering of political, economic, social, cultural, technical, and ecological systems. We look under the hood to see the component parts of these systems in individuals and institutions, but we don’t bother with systems interactions. We are more concerned that the components function. This is what we are looking at in the indicators and metrics.

Is this just a tool for Vietnam, or is it more universal?

The framework is universal, but as you dig down into the metrics, every country will have to go through a process of selection and substitution. One reason for this is that every country has its own system of data collection. We cannot say that the metrics we developed in Vietnam are relevant or even available to all other countries. Some may be; others will not. We struggled to find those metrics during a pilot phase in five cities representing different regions and economies. If our approach were applied elsewhere, that same process would need to be followed. Unfortunately, there’s no off-the-shelf formula for this.

What is the next step in this research?

We would like to apply our experience to a larger set of cities in Vietnam to create a nationally representative city resilience index. The VNCRI was only intended as a proof of concept. We are looking for funding for this while at the same time working with the Ministry of Construction to include indicators from the VNCRI within the National Urban Development Strategy. In addition, we are now in discussion with the Vietnam Chamber of Commerce and Industry to begin a process in which climate-change resilience becomes part of the Provincial Competitiveness Index. A city that can respond and adapt to climate-related shocks and stresses may prove to be a lower risk to businesses than one that is not. We think this will give businesses actionable information about climate-related risks.

Dr. Michael DiGregorio is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in Vietnam. He can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are his own and not those of The Asia Foundation.

Related locations: Vietnam
Related programs: Environment and Climate Action
Related topics: Disaster Management

1 Comment

  1. The tool looks very interesting and contextual since cities are under constant natural threat owing to increasing environmental degradation. This tool needs to be tested in the Vietnam context before scaling-up and replicating it to other Asian cities. I look forward to further educating myself on the resilience goals and indicators and their adaptability in the context of Asian Cities.

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