Cities are complex systems. Building urban resilience requires addressing this complexity by looking at the city holistically and understanding its connections, interdependencies, and broader networks.
At Helvetas, we emphasize the importance of designing and implementing urban resilience measures that also look beyond a city’s spatial and administrative boundary and focus on its surrounding periurban areas. These rapidly growing areas on the outskirts of the city are typically more prone to risk and home to more vulnerable urban populations, but often fall outside of city governments’ resilience building programs.
In our projects in Bolivia and Myanmar, we focus on the dynamic and rapidly growing periurban areas of two cities, Sucre and Yangon. In Sucre, COVID-19’s ongoing impact has detrimentally affected vulnerable families growing their own food and selling excess produce to urban markets. In Yangon, farming families affected by drought and floods are moving to the periurban areas in search of better opportunities.
Fair livelihoods for farmers, fresh food for locals
With a population of around 300,000, Sucre is the sixth-largest city in Bolivia. Climate-induced decline in agricultural production, in addition to the reduction in mining activities in surrounding regions, has led to an increased number of rural migrants moving to the city in recent years, searching for improved employment opportunities and better living conditions.
As the city’s population increases, the demand for agricultural products to feed the growing urban population increases. In Sucre, as is the case in many other cities around the world, the COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the fragile relationship between the city and its residents’ access to fresh and healthy food. Earlier in 2020, lockdown restrictions and the closure of informal markets made it especially hard for small-scale farmers cultivating crops in periurban areas on the outskirts of Sucre to sell their products in the city.
With the support of Helvetas, as part of our “Ciudades Resilientes” project, Alternativas Foundation, Sucre’s Food Security Committee, and the municipal government, in collaboration with urban and periurban farmers, joined forces to establish La Huertita de Sucre, or “Sucre’s Vegetable Patch.” The initiative ensures production chains supplying local markets in the city remain active by delivering products grown on the outskirts of the city directly to people’s homes.
Such a service has proven vital during the COVID-19 lockdown, but has a longer-term aim of building resilience in Sucre’s city-region food system by promoting local food production, shorter supply chains, and strengthening linkages between farmers and consumers in the city.
Building the resilience of migrants and their neighborhoods
Like Sucre, Myanmar’s largest city and former capital, Yangon, is also home to increasing numbers of rural migrants. The majority of these migrants move to townships on the outskirts of the city where the cost of living is cheaper compared to central Yangon. These townships were designated as special economic zones for industrial expansion following the liberalization of Myanmar’s economy, especially after 2010, leading to an increased availability of jobs for low-skilled migrant workers from the country’s rural areas.
Our project Aye Chan Thaw Ein, meaning “pleasant house” in Burmese, aims to improve the individual resilience of migrants living in one of these townships, Shwe Pyi Thar, as well as supporting decision-making processes for prioritizing infrastructural improvements.
Rural migrants arrive in Shwe Pyi Thar looking to diversify their family income and reduce the risk placed on farming activities, especially in areas prone to drought and flooding. In our research on internal migration in Myanmar, we found that a significant number of migrants get into debt when they arrive in the city and many lack the soft skills required to get a job.
In tackling these issues, the Aye Chan Thaw Ein project provides training on financial literacy as well as CV writing and job interview techniques. We also work with local partners at the migrants’ place of origin to disseminate essential information and guidance to prepare them for their move.
Many of these rural migrants seek affordable accommodation in one of the township’s informal settlements. These settlements typically lack essential urban infrastructure and basic urban services such as piped water, sanitation, and waste collection and are often prone to flooding.
In aiming to improve migrants’ living conditions, the Aye Chan Thaw Ein project facilitates neighborhood meetings between citizens, the private sector, and civil society organizations to discuss and prioritize water and sanitation and waste management issues.
Coordinating actions at the national level
Informal settlements and other neighborhoods on the city’s outskirts typically fall outside of resilience programs. City governments have limited financial resources and tend to direct funding to regeneration projects in the city center. Periurban areas such as Shwe Pyi Thar also lie outside the administrative boundaries of their larger neighboring city, in this case Yangon, and instead fall under the responsibility of municipal governments with fewer resources and capacities.
Strategically setting priorities and developing coordination mechanisms for building resilience at the national level not only aims to equip city governments with the necessary tools and capacities to adapt, prevent, absorb, and recover from shocks and stresses but also has the potential to foster intergovernmental collaboration and a broader territorial approach. This provides a more robust framework for ensuring periurban areas are included in resilience-building programs.
Bolivia launched its “Política de Ciudades,” or “National Cities Policy,” in October 2020. The policy highlights the issue of territorial imbalances within and between cities and introduces strategic goals that promote integrated processes of urban and territorial development.
The policy places an emphasis on improving resilience of informal neighborhoods like the ones located on Sucre’s urban periphery. Helvetas will support the next step of the policy-making process with the establishment of a Public Innovation Laboratory and Cities Observatory designed to monitor the policy’s implementation progress, including its targets on resilience, over the coming years.
A more holistic urban resilience agenda
Urban resilience measures need to look beyond the city’s boundaries to effectively mitigate risk. The outskirts of Sucre and Yangon, as is the case for many other cities around the world, are growing rapidly, often outside of formal planning frameworks and on land prone to risks such as landslides and flooding.
Preventative measures are most needed here, but periurban areas often fail to attract funding and investment, leaving them outside of resilience programs. National urban policies, like the one in Bolivia, have the potential to address this imbalance and strengthen coordination between different territories.
Periurban areas also offer room for innovation and potential. The periurban farmers of Sucre have played a vital role during COVID-19 and will continue to strengthen the resilience of the city-region food system in the future.
Through their flexible labor practices, rural migrants living in Shwe Pyi Thar support the wider economic development and resilience of Yangon. Supporting safe migratory practices, developing migrants’ skills and investing in the neighborhoods where they live, all support a more holistic, and inclusive, urban resilience agenda.
Visit the resilientfutures.devex.com series for more coverage on the practical ways cities can build resilience and reduce disaster impact. You can join the conversation using the hashtag #ResilientCities.