Urban Resilience: New Realities

2021, Pandemonium, Cities

Resilience has been an emergent theme in city planning and management in the 21st century and its relevance is both altered and underscored by our experience with COVID-19. How much can we apply from emergency and recovery planning efforts from other cities and other kinds of risks and disasters to our post-pandemic context? How much of the present pandemic demands a reconsideration of what it means to plan effectively for disaster? We address the new realities of considering urban resilience in the context of the pandemic and in the other slow emergencies still unfolding around us in climate, energy and other domains.

Part of Pandemonium: Urban Studies and Recovering from COVID-19, a lecture series presented by SFU Urban Studies in collaboration with SFU Public Square and financially supported by the Initiative in Sustainable Urban Development.

Wed, 24 Feb 2021

Online Event

Pandemonium: Urban Studies and Recovering from COVID-19

The scale of disruption from the COVID-19 pandemic is unprecedented, even for an era which has already been described as the age of uncertainty. It has affected the health of millions of people and forced billions to radically alter their movements and behaviours. At the same time, the struggle to manage the pandemic is taking place alongside the urgent need to respond to the additional global crises of climate change and social injustice.

In this context, what is the future of the city? If a city is first and foremost a place where people gather together to cooperate and create, can it function if there is a long-term need to maintain physical separation from each other as we live, work and travel to conduct our daily lives? If our societies can’t be urban, then what will they be?

As new shocks, restrictions and uncertainties sank in, the Pandemonium lecture series provided opportunities for dialogue and critical reflection on our urban alternatives during this time of change amid crisis.

Read a summary of the major themes and takeaways from the Pandemonium Series

Read Series Summary


Seth Klein
Adjunct Professor, SFU Urban Studies

Seth Klein served for 22 years as the founding British Columbia Director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, a public policy research institute committed to social, economic and environmental justice. He is now a freelance writer, speaker and policy consultant, and an adjunct professor with Simon Fraser University’s Urban Studies program. Seth’s new book – A Good War: Mobilizing Canada for the Climate Emergency – was published in September 2020.

Seth is a founder and served for eight years as co-chair of the BC Poverty Reduction Coalition, a co-founder of the Metro Vancouver Living Wage for Families campaign, and an advisory board member for the Columbia Institute’s Centre for Civic Governance. He also serves on the board of Dogwood.

A social change activist for over 35 years, Seth lives in East Vancouver with his partner and two children. Seth has been listed by Vancouver Magazine as one of the 50 most powerful people in the city, and by Homemakers Magazine among the “60 men we love.”  He does not know how he ended up on either list, but he humbly accepts the latter.


Sarah Moser
Associate Professor, Department of Geography, McGill University

Sarah Moser is Associate Professor of Geography at McGill University in Montreal, Canada where she is the Director of the Urban Studies Program. Sarah received her Ph.D. in Geography from the National University of Singapore and held postdoctoral fellowships at the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Center for Urban and Global Studies at Trinity College. Sarah’s research primarily focuses on Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Gulf states. She is interested in the global phenomenon of new cities being built from scratch, the transnational circulation of urban policy, and how religious and national ideology are manifested in the built environment, particularly in state-driven urban mega-projects.

Sarah has published articles in journals such as Urban Studies, Cities, Area, Social and Cultural Geography, Geography, ABE Journal: Architecture Beyond Europe, Urban Geography, International Development Planning Review, and Geoforum. She has a book coming out this year titled New Master-Planned Cities, Islam, and Identity (Routledge).

Laurah John
Founder & CEO, JUA KALI LTD., St. Lucia

Laurah John, founder and Chief Executive Officer of JUA KALI LTD., is a social & green entrepreneur with the colossal mission of changing the way WE view ‘waste’. JUA KALI LTD. provides sustainable Resource Recovery/Circular Economy based solutions to address waste management issues in Small Island Developing States. 

Being an entrepreneur in a developing country context has afforded Laurah certain opportunities to develop her professional capacity. In May of 2019, she was invited by the World Bank to present and be a guest panelist at their Understanding Risk Caribbean Conference held in Barbados. In May 2018, Laurah joined 999 Millennials (talents) in Singapore as part of the UNLEASH Innovation Lab, where they sought to create solutions to some of the pressing Sustainable Development Goals. Academically, Laurah successfully completed a Master’s in Urban Studies (Social Planning) at the Simon Fraser University in Canada from 2010 to 2012.

Anna Maria Bounds
Assistant Professor, Sociology, City University of New York

Anna Maria Bounds is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Queens College, City University of New York, USA. She holds a Ph.D. in Urban and Public Policy from The New School. Her new book, Bracing for the Apocalypse: An Ethnographic Study of New York's ‘Prepper’ Subculture, is a rich ethnography that explores the rise of urban preppers in her city. Her research interests focus on city subcultures, city tourism, and public space. She teaches courses on urban sociology and social science research methods. She has also earned an M.A. in Writing from Old Dominion University. Her sheltering in place hobbies include analyzing the books and photos displayed by others during virtual meetings, half-hearted decluttering and daydreaming about pet ownership.

Lilia Yumagulova
Program Director, Preparing Our Home

Lilia Yumagulova is the Program Director for the Preparing Our Home Program, an award-winning Indigenous community resilience planning program.

Lilia is a Bashkir woman, born and raised in the Soviet Union, in a low-income area of a large urban centre prone to recurring floods. It was witnessing these regular “disasters” affect her community year after year that influenced her choice of profession. Lilia holds degrees in Engineering (with a focus on emergency management), an M.Sc. in Risk Analysis (King’s College London, UK), and a Ph.D. from UBC with a focus on resilience planning.

Event Summary

Recap of Urban Resilience: New Realities

By Meg Holden and Aphrodite Bouikidis, SFU Urban Studies

In the latest session of the Pandemonium webinar series, on February 24, panelists shared experiences, research and insights about responses to the pandemic, emergency preparedness, recovery planning, disaster risk, and how these fit within a wider and more holistic understanding of resilience. The discussion also focused on the interconnectedness of social and economic conditions with disaster risk and vulnerability from the community to the global level, what it means to work on resilience in different parts of the world, and how the COVID-19 pandemic emergency relates to other crises, including social inequality and climate change.

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In the latest session of the Pandemonium webinar series, on February 24, panelists shared experiences, research and insights about responses to the pandemic, emergency preparedness, recovery planning, disaster risk, and how these fit within a wider and more holistic understanding of resilience. The discussion also focused on the interconnectedness of social and economic conditions with disaster risk and vulnerability from the community to the global level, what it means to work on resilience in different parts of the world, and how the COVID-19 pandemic emergency relates to other crises, including social inequality and climate change.

The panelists were Dr. Lilia Yumagulova, Program Director for Preparing Our HomeLaurah John, Founder and CEO of JUA KALI LTD., St. Lucia; Dr. Anna Maria Bounds, Assistant Professor, Sociology, City University of New York; and Dr. Sarah Moser, Associate Professor, Department of Geography, McGill University.

Moderator Seth Klein, Adjunct Professor at SFU Urban Studies and author of the recently published book A Good War: Mobilizing Canada for the Climate Emergency, opened the discussion with his reflections on the various dimensions of urban resilience and how our experiences during the current pandemic call on us to think about how we prepare for future crises. 

Lilia Yumagulova 
Program Director, Preparing Our Home

In her presentation on Caring Communities, Lilia Yumagulova focused on the importance of reimagining the “urban infrastructure of empathy” in planning equitable and resilient cities. We learn from the past to plan for the future, and Lilia reminded us of one notable lesson from the past: there is a dark side of resilience. People are resilient, but the oppressive systems that maintain control over their futures are also resilient. This is something to think about as we plan for the future.

The Preparing Our Home program works with Indigenous communities that are some of the highest-risk communities in Canada. Through this program, they come together to work toward community-led solutions for disaster preparedness. Lilia shared some key lessons and takeaways from her work with these communities and Preparing Our Home: 

  • resilience is holistic, so emergency management must connect more with other fields of practice such as public health and economic development;
  • intergenerational planning is important for bringing together the community and learning from the past;
  • culture is a lifeline for community resilience, as it brings people together;
  • resilience is context-specific, and it is important to approach emergency and resilience planning with this in mind.

Lilia also shared a brief overview of the web of theoretical frameworks for urban resilience that span several disciplines. This overview reveals a gap in thinking about resilience, as most work focuses on resilience to specific hazards, like floods, rather than general resilience, i.e., resilience to multiple hazards across multiple systems. Losing sight of general resilience leaves us less prepared to respond to unexpected events.

Laurah John 
Founder and CEO, JUA KALI LTD., St. Lucia

As a social and green entrepreneur, SFU Urban Studies alumna Laurah John posited that resilience is circular. Joining the discussion from St. Lucia, a small island developing state in the eastern Caribbean, she described how a circular economy model offers a pathway to long-term resilience, and shared some reflections from St. Lucia’s experience with the pandemic and other disasters. Her enterprise, JUA KALI LTD., focuses on two key areas: 1) creating ecosystems necessary to give value to secondary raw materials (which some would call “trash”), and 2) developing knowledge products, like waste audits, activity booklets for students, toolkits for hotels to help them eliminate single-use plastics, and more.

As a small island developing state, St. Lucia is existentially vulnerable. It is subject to volcanic and seismic activity, located in a tropical cyclone belt, susceptible to climate change (sea level rise, more frequent and intense weather events), and economically dependent on one main sector—tourism. The pandemic demonstrated that a more sustainable and circular local economy could have bolstered St. Lucia’s ability to withstand crises with fewer negative impacts.

Anna Maria Bounds
Assistant Professor, Sociology, City University of New York 

Turning to New York City, Anna Maria Bounds introduced us to urban “preppers,” their street smarts and survival smarts during the pandemic, and their role in community resilience. Preppers are people who prepare and plan to independently survive disasters without government assistance. Contrary to some perceptions and stereotypes of a white male lone wolf in the rural boondocks, urban preppers are community leaders and reflect the city’s diversity. Many are people of colour and many are also women. New York City has experienced many disasters and disruptions since the start of the 21st century, notably the 2001 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, Hurricane Sandy in 2012, and the current COVID-19 pandemic.

Forty urban preppers interviewed reported being prepared for the pandemic with food, first aid and personal protective equipment (PPE) in place by the end of January 2020, nearly two months before the shelter-in-place order was made in NYC. Their key philosophy of self-reliance was confirmed during the pandemic in 2020, as the US federal government proved unable or unwilling to help, and as state and local government efforts were marred by struggles over power and resources. Through emergency preparedness skills and competence, urban preppers helped their families and their communities, providing supplies to neighbors in need, organizing neighbourhood networks to deliver medications and groceries to the elderly or disabled residents, and more. Preppers’ love for their fellow preppers and their New York communities motivates their important role in community resilience in the city.

Learn more about Anna Maria’s new book, Bracing for the Apocalypse: An Ethnographic Study of New York’s Prepper Subculture.

Sarah Moser 
Associate Professor, Department of Geography, McGill University

Sarah Moser broadened the discussion further to the global scale, with insights from her research on the phenomenon of new cities built from scratch. There are more than 150 new city projects worldwide in over 40 countries—a wave of projects that started in the 1990s. In many cases, new cities are seen as an economic development boon, though there is a growing list of failed or delayed projects and ghost towns.

Sarah focused on the Gulf region, where countries face unique challenges related to sustainability and resilience because their economies are primarily reliant on oil and gas exports. The region is also highly vulnerable to climate change as it is already very hot and much of it is at sea level, and it is the world’s most water-scarce region, with fresh water supplies continuing to decline. In an effort to transition their economies away from oil, Gulf states are devising unique solutions, often at a monumental scale, in large part because of available financing derived from the oil industry.

One key strategy is to build new eco-cities with green industries—“ostentatious spectacles of sustainability that announce to the world a shift in priorities.” Sarah discussed the examples of Masdar in Abu Dhabi and The Sustainable City in Dubai (UAE), and The Line proposed in Saudi Arabia. Concerns with such projects include the fact that despite sustainability goals, they include golf courses that require tremendous amounts of resources and desalinated water, and they are built at sea level or on the sea on artificial land. Of the 150 cities underway around the world, she estimates that 30 to 40 per cent are built on the sea.

The irony that Sarah pointed to is the lack of impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on this major thrust of global economic development activity and swath of new cities being created out of oil money, for the furtherance of capital accumulation by leaders of the world’s petro-states and technology industry giants, in the name of a limitless view of sustainable development.  

Sarah’s forthcoming book is New Master-Planned Cities, Islam, and Identity (Routledge). Learn more about her work at McGill’s New Cities Lab.


One of the themes in the panel discussion was inspired by Arundhati Roy’s observation that the pandemic can be seen as a “portal, a gateway between one world and the next.” Lilia challenged us to think about how multiple portals are opening, not just one, noting that Indigenous communities talk about sustainabilities and resiliences – the words are plural, and they will be context-specific, determined by the community in place and context. The portal analogy raises another important question: how do our formal systems recognize and work with community organizers and citizens who can lead us into a better world? At the same time, Laurah noted that it is “somewhat of a privilege to think that this pandemic has the power to be some kind of global reset because for those of us who on a more consistent basis have to tackle disasters without new resources to do so, that hasn’t proven to be the case.”

The panel discussed the importance of social and economic resilience. In St. Lucia, the pandemic brings a renewed focus on the need to diversify the economy, though Laurah noted that while this is important, diversification alone will not necessarily address exploitation in the current system. Lilia emphasized the ethic of care, kindness and empathy that came out of the responses in Indigenous communities, and that we saw to some extent in mainstream communication by local public health authorities. Sarah cautioned about some disturbing trends as well, including nationalist policies being enacted within pandemic response and recovery policies in some countries, with foreign workers being particularly vulnerable in some Gulf states and other countries.

The tension between the idea that the government should help everyone during emergencies and mutual aid at the very local level was another theme in the discussion. Lilia shared some statistics for Canada about the reality of people relying on families, friends and neighbours helping each other:

"Canadians who experienced a major emergency or disaster turned for help to a family member (37%), neighbour (24%) or a friend (15%). Canadians affected by major emergencies or disasters less often turned to formal channels such as local government services (15%), first responders (9%), police (9%) or provincial government (5%) (Ibrahim, 2016)." (Source: Yumagulova & Handmer, 2021)

Profiteering versus solidarity in the aftermath of a crisis was another important theme of the discussion. Seth noted that history shows us that moments of crisis can be met with capitalist disaster responses of privatization. The scale of Canada’s fiscal response during the current pandemic, as well as Canada’s mobilization after the Second World War, has also shown that governments can find the money for extensive emergency support. 

Sarah observed that many new city projects are driven by the private sector, particularly large tech companies. As governments spend unprecedented amounts as part of pandemic response and recovery or future climate crises, their resistance to these kinds of projects may be weakened, and these private sector-driven new city projects or urban developments may proliferate.

It is important to note, as Lilia reminded us, that there are no “natural disasters”—this term is a misnomer. There are natural hazards, though even this is questionable considering the factors driving climate change. The impact of a hazard on societies and communities makes the disaster, and we can look at any disaster from the lens of gender, class, status, or Indigeneity, and vulnerabilities or development policies.

Seth closed the discussion with an observation about an important difference between this pandemic compared to other crises, and a hopeful thought. In the pandemic we are called upon to do things anathema to our instincts as sociable community dwellers: isolate, stay home, stay apart. In the face of other crises and the climate crisis especially, we are called upon to do the opposite: “get out there and do something grand together.” Despite the trauma of the COVID-19 pandemic, our inability at this time to get out and do something together also serves as a reminder that it is in our nature to do so, raising hopes that we will collectively rise to this common challenge when public health conditions permit, as we have not been able to do so far.


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Financially supposted by the Initiative in Urban Sustainable Development

Pandemonium Events