Environmental disasters, ranging from catastrophic floods to extreme temperatures, have caused more than 30,000 deaths per year and more than US$ 250–300 billion a year in economic losses, globally, between 1995 and 2015. Improved infrastructure and planning for extreme events is essential in urban areas, where an increasingly greater fraction of the world’s inhabitants reside. In response, international governmental and private initiatives have placed the goal of resilience at the center stage of urban planning. [For example, The 100 Resilient Cities Initiative (www.100resilientcities.org/); the Global Covenant of Mayors (https://www.compactofmayors.org/globalcovenantofmayors/); and the recent UN Habitat III (https://habitat3.org/the-new-urban-agenda)]. In addition, scientific and policy communities alike now recognize the need for “safe-to-fail” infrastructural design, and the potential role of green and blue infrastructure in mediating hydrological and climatic risks in cities.
Nevertheless, the social and political norms, values, rules, and relationships that undergird and structure the myriad decisions made by public and private actors—what we call “socio-political infrastructure”—are likely to be as influential in urban vulnerability dynamics as “hard” infrastructure and environmental management. Urban planning for enhanced resilience and sustainability is ultimately a complex social and political process. Socio-political infrastructure creates patterns of behavior and action that shape the built environment. Developing more sustainable pathways of urban development hinges on making this socio-political infrastructure transparent and legible in the tools and approaches available for risk management. We argue that sustainability science is in the position to create the tools, methods, and strategies to identify, represent, and communicate the significance of these social and political processes to decision makers at all levels. In doing so, we can help ensure that these underlying drivers of urban vulnerability become subject to policy intervention.