Urban resilience is a hot but complex topic.

According to the United Nations, “Hundreds of millions of people will be vulnerable to coastal flooding and related natural disasters as global warming increases. Moreover, it will be the poorest countries and people who will be most vulnerable to this threat and who will suffer the earliest and the most” as high housing costs push the lowest-income people into slums and areas that are prone to floods, landslides and other natural disasters. (UN-HABITAT, Global Report on Human Settlements 2009)

Yet, the prediction painted by the UN is already very much a reality. From the 2010 earthquake in Port-au-Prince, to the 2011 floods in Bangkok and to Superstorm Sandy in 2012 in New York, it is not hard to see the devastating effects that natural hazards have had on cities all over the world and their residents. In the face of these disasters, we are compelled to ask how these cities could have better mitigated these forces of nature.

Resilience not only means preparing cities to better respond to natural disasters, perhaps even more importantly, it also means taking steps to prevent disasters. Disasters like the recent Rio landslide are only partially the result of natural forces; they are also the result of failed urban planning and development. This places the imperative for urban disaster risk reduction squarely in the hands of municipal planners, politicians and the urban community at large.

Urban resilience can also refer to building a diverse economy that can weather economic downturns. For example, how can cities avoid a fate similar to Detroit, where the downturn of the lifeblood automotive sector has contributed to the discontinuation of basic infrastructure services to whole swaths of the city?

Whether aiming for physical resilience in the face of natural hazards or economic resilience in the face of uncertain times, urban resilience requires an incredible level of coordination across multiple levels of government and between government, multiple industries and humanitarian organizations. With limited capacity, resources and capabilities, governments and the humanitarian sector have increasingly recognized the necessity to turn to partnerships in order to tap into additional resources, including the skills and assets of the private sector.

Recognizing its potential to serve as a relationship broker between the many actors that can play a role in building resilience, the World Economic Forum helps cities and nations navigate the complexities of building resilience through two initiatives: the Disaster Resource Partnership (DRP) and the Future of Urban Development.

The Disaster Resource Partnership is a new model for coordinated private, humanitarian and public sector partnership in response to natural disasters. To complement the DRP, the Future of Urban Development initiative works one-on-one with cities around the world to address common urban challenges, including bolstering economic and physical resilience.

Authors: Robin Ried is Head of Urban Development and a Global Leadership Fellow at the World Economic Forum. Petra Demarin is the Senior Project Manager in charge of the Disaster Resource Partnership and a Global Leadership Fellow.

Image: People hold umbrellas in a flooded street in Wuhan REUTERS/China Daily