A resilient city can cop a beating and bounce back – but let’s look beyond acute shocks to the host of chronic stresses playing out in our cities, says an expert panel ahead of the Future Cities Summit.
Resilience –once a psychology term used to describe the ability to cope with adversity or trauma – is now an accepted principle underpinning how we tackle disaster management, climate change policy and terrorism responses.
But as our planet becomes populated urban denizens, resilience has become a chief goal for cities.
The Rockefeller Foundation – which just last week announced it intends to wind down its funding for the 100 Resilient Cities program – defines a resilient city as one that can survive, adapt and grow regardless of the chronic stresses and acute shocks it experiences.
It is these chronic stresses – high unemployment, expensive housing, congestion, inefficient public transport or extreme heat waves for example – that weaken a city’s fabric and so are increasingly under the microscope.
Understanding resilience beyond the “narrow definitions of ecology or engineering” is important, says Professor Pauline McGuirk from the University of Wollongong. While ecological resilience is about how something “bounces back and maintains equilibrium” our cities are always adapting to social and environmental change, and resilience must acknowledge that.
Poor planning risks city resilience
Property icon Greg Paramor AO wonders whether resilience is even the right word in the context of cities, but says our urban centres are undoubtedly in a state of flux. Australia’s population has grown dramatically over his lifetime, he says, from eight million in 1950 to 25 million today. The 37 million population predicted by 2050 “is at the low end, I think”.
There “isn’t a single person” living in cities who isn’t worried about how they are evolving and responding to issues like affordability, inequality, congestion, green infrastructure, safety and air quality, Paramor says.
After decades of under-investment in infrastructure and poor planning, our cities are now case studies of the “boiling frog syndrome”. We’ve adapted to the incremental temperature rises until it’s too late to jump out of the boiling pot.
“We realise we’ve probably squandered best part of 30 to 50 years of poor planning. It’s snuck up on us – but it’s suddenly arrived,” Paramor (pictured right) says.
Without property planning we have a rocky road ahead, Paramor warns.
“Disruption in the world will occur and places like Australia will be keenly sought out because we’ve got water, weather, wealth and work.”
Resilience, then, is about learning to look ahead. “We need to look forward together – not in five or ten-year bites, but 50 or 100 years into the future.”
Putting people at the heart of resilience
Frasers Property Australia’s chief executive officer Rod Fehring likes to look at resilience through a “people-focused” lens.
“Australian cities are characterised by a strong social fabric which produces an enormous latent energy when disaster strikes,” Fehring says, pointing to the recent Townsville floods and drought in the Murray-Darling which underscore the “reservoir of care embedded in our communities”.
“But the real test of a resilient community is its capacity to respond with equal force to the thousands of small events that confront our values daily.”
The “crucial ingredient” in any resilient community is “a deep connection between us all” – familiarity between people and an “identification with a place that evokes memory and emotion derived from experiences there”.
“The more extensive these ties, the stronger the sense of care and belonging. They are the source of our motivation to respond to adversity and, ultimately, these ties represent the measure of our resilience,” Fehring says.
Towards radical resilience
McGuirk, who heads research at the University’s School of Geography and Sustainable Communities and is director of the Australian Centre for Culture, Environment, Society and Space, or ACCESS, warns against the idea that withstanding and bouncing back from city stressors isn’t necessarily something to strive for.
“There are a whole range of things we shouldn’t withstand – such as ongoing inequity, pollution or untenable commuting times”.
McGuirk says we need a “political understanding” of resilience.
“We need to ask: ‘the resilience of whom and to what?’. And that puts values into the conversation,” she says. This recognises that resilience is about more than community self-reliance. It also acknowledges the structural challenges that make some people more vulnerable to shocks and stresses than others.
“Academics call this radical resilience. How we address resilience is always a political choice – the costs and benefits will be differently distributed across the community. We need to recognise and work with that.”
McGuirk points to Participatory City in the borough of Barking and Dagenham, an area characterised by disadvantage, which is tackling resilience by developing neighbourhoods with community connection at its core. A ‘demonstration neighbourhood’ is trialling and testing new ideas, from making spaces and community gardens, communal meals and shared childcare, to help people become creators, collaborators and co-producers in the places they live.
“Urban design is really important because people need the spaces to come together in the first place. But projects like Participatory City are of themselves not enough. If you have the underlying challenges of shoddy infrastructure and unaffordable housing then they will always be band aids,” McGuirk warns.
Complex cities demand collective action
Caroline Squires, director of Ethos Urban, emphasises the scale of the challenge ahead.
“Our cities are complex and the interrelationship between different drivers and systems is a key challenge in building resilience. No single organisation can deliver a ‘resilient city’ – a unified effort is fundamental.”
Collective action can have a big impact, and Squires likes the Western Sydney Regional Organisation of Councils’ Turn down the heat strategy, which she says is a “great model” that the property industry could harness to “unify around a particular resilience challenge”.
Arup’s regional sustainability leader Joan Ko is also keen to emphasise the importance of inclusion and equity in the resilience conversation. Inclusive growth is the “only way that city shapers can retain the community’s trust, as we ask people to adapt to climate change, population growth, new technology, and economic transitions,” Ko says.
Buildings, of course provide the “backbone for shelter, services and responses during disaster,” but the property industry’s bigger call to action is to foster the “human connections,” Ko says.
“Lots of research shows that the more diverse and the deeper your connections with other people, the better off you are when disasters occur. When the property industry makes spaces for people to connect it makes society less fragmented and more resilient. And that’s the end game.”
Join Greg Paramor AO, Professor Pauline McGuirk, Rod Fehring, Joan Ko and Caroline Squires as they explore resilience at the Future Cities Summit in Sydney on 24 May. A limited number of tickets are still available.