As you walk through a city – be it Hanoi, Houston or Hobart – it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking our urban environments to be invulnerable.

Beautiful buildings and impressive infrastructure rise and evolve around us, and for most, cities are a representation of hope, possibility and opportunity.

It’s our default to think of urban areas as living, breathing, self-sustaining organisms unto themselves, and in many ways they are. But as anyone who has fallen victim to one of Australia’s all-too-frequent extreme weather events will surely attest, our cities are delicate systems, and factors that can upset their fragile balance are just around the corner.

Sydney’s recent storms, Brisbane’s series of floods, and Victoria’s almost yearly heatwaves and bushfires are the kinds of events that throw our cities’ vulnerabilities into the sharpest relief. Yet failure to address the social and economic challenges facing them poses an equal threat to their long-term sustainability.

To build truly strong, sustainable and resilient cities, the first step is remembering that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Cities are a matrix of economic, social and environmental components, and resilience can only be achieved when investment is made across all of these areas.

The City of Melbourne’s Resilient Melbourne Strategy, which has been developed following the city’s induction into the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities program, has adopted this new, integrated way of thinking about urban resilience. Its strength lies in an acknowledgement that social and economic problems work to intensify the destructive impacts of environmental problems, and vice versa.

For example, the strategy says that while Melbourne is “liveable for those with easy access to essential services and a well-paying job, living in the world’s sixth-most expensive city presents major difficulties for many Melburnians, particularly in areas of entrenched disadvantage and those located furthest from the central business district.”

It recognises that unaffordable housing is a precursor to urban sprawl, which in turn gives way to congestion – a problem that Infrastructure Australia says will cost Australia $53 billion by 2031 if left unchecked. All of these issues amplify and compound other problems that individuals, families and communities are facing – problems like stress-related illness, mental health issues and community disengagement.

The strategy outlines actions for resilience across all of these areas. For example, the Metropolitan Urban Forest Strategy was developed to mitigate the heat island effect and improve soil moisture, while the Neighbourhood Project is creating public spaces that facilitate community cohesion.

At the same time, initiatives to make insurance more affordable for low- and middle-income earners in Melbourne foster economic resilience and bolster the city’s ability to bounce back when disasters do occur.

When you look at cities that have faced major environmental catastrophes, you can see how important these kinds of economic and social initiatives are to long-term sustainability. For example, studies have found that as few as 53 per cent of those displaced following Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005 had returned to the city one year later. More than a decade on from the disaster, many of the worst hit areas are still littered with vacant blocks where residents simply have not returned to the community to rebuild.

This has a lasting impact on the city from both a cultural and economic perspective, not to mention for the individuals whose community connections and networks of local support have been severed.

The Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council (ASBEC) has developed a fact sheet to help organisations consider how they can contribute to city resilience. ASBEC argues that resilient systems share specific attributes. They are flexible and can easily adopt alternative strategies in times of crisis. They are reflective and use past experiences to inform future decisions and actions. Resilient cities have robust and integrated systems that have spare capacity when an acute shock hits. They are also inclusive and resourceful – fostering a sense of shared ownership, and looking for better ways to use existing resources in both good times and bad.

Here in Australia, there’s a real focus on housing affordability as a pathway to enhanced urban resilience. For example, the affordable housing levy program at Green Square has seen more than 100 affordable rental housing units built, with a target of 230 more for the suburb.

Similar initiatives in Ultimo and Pyrmont have added 450 affordable rentals to the city’s inner-western fringe, while the Glebe Affordable Housing Project by Housing NSW will see 20 new social housing dwellings and 90 new affordable housing units built.

When you consider that median rents in these suburbs can be upwards of $675 per week – a whopping 45 per cent of the average Australian’s weekly wage – it’s easy to see how important investment in initiatives to alleviate housing stress are to Sydney’s resilience.

It’s encouraging to see that efforts to create communities of economic, social and environmental resilience are not limited to our capital cities. In fact, this integrated approach is a key driver for the many Green Star – Communities projects that have been popping up all over Australia since 2012.

Take the 5 Star Green Star-rated Ecco Ripley development in Queensland for example. Recognising the need to attract people of diverse ages, professions and income-levels to create a sufficiently diversified local economy and a truly workable community, developer Sekisui House made an early commitment that one quarter of Ecco Ripley’s housing would be affordable for first home buyers and key workers, with a further 10 per cent allocated for accessible accommodation and five per cent for social housing.

While government- and business-led initiatives should be celebrated and emulated, actions for urban resilience need not necessarily be large-scale, nor funded by the public sector or big business. The Urban Food Street in Queensland is a great example of how relatively small actions can have a big impact at the grass roots level, and how individuals can be empowered to make a difference.

The residents of Buderim on the Sunshine Coast have pooled their resources to transform nature strips at the front of their houses into factories of fruit and vegetable production. These street gardens are collectively tended, propagated and shared by an active and engaged community of gardeners. Access to fresh, locally grown produce with zero food miles attached is an obvious benefit for the residents of Buderim.

“No longer are we prisoner to the relationship between the car and the broader social and structural context of our urban environment, which makes it near impossible to manage even the simplest of tasks without four wheels, a road way and an hour round trip,” said one resident. “We always distribute (our produce) to our aged, infirm and pensioner community first, and from there we reward continuing contribution and effort.”

Local food production is bringing the community together and fostering meaningful intergenerational relationships. These kinds of relationships ensure older people aren’t disproportionately represented among the victims when disasters occur, as they were during Hurricane Katrina. They also ensure that cultural knowledge can be shared with younger generations.

As we’ve seen in the wake of disasters the world over, without healthy communities built on collaboration and communication, even the strongest economies are vulnerable. And without robust urban economies that provide citizens with opportunities to prosper, the natural environment suffers. With Australia’s four largest cities expected to double in size over the next 15 years, ensuring that our standard of living remains among the highest in the world will hinge upon our ability to build cities that are resilient to the environmental, social and economic challenges that are a growing part of life in the 21st century.