Friday, May 2, 2014

The Resilient Cities and their Transformation

Cities are the lifelines of society serving as the centers of technology innovation and knowledge. They preserve the living evidence of our cultural heritage. Rapid and accelerated process of Urbanization has however made them vulnerable for risks to various disasters.  Resilience is rapidly emerging as an appealing concept for urban planners. Using resilience thinking in planning is appropriate in the short term, but fundamental changes in the future such as evolution and adaptation process of different species requires the integration of transformation as well as resilience.  

Transformation substantially differs from resilience, where resilience maintains a current state, and transformation moves to a new one.  The problems facing urban systems are complex and complicated.  Wilkinson viewed cities as complex adaptive systems, similar to ecosystems, because they are constantly self-organizing and respond in varied ways to both internal interactions and the influence of external factors.  This similarity between urban environments and ecosystems is particularly evident when examining social stratification and inequity in urban areas. 

For example, housing developments are built to specific price ranges, creating income homogeneity within neighborhoods that fosters income inequality across metropolitan areas.  As if naturally, these patterns are reinforced or broken down by the dynamics of social composition, with residential neighborhoods becoming gentrified or ghettoized, based on preferential differences among their populations.  Aging neighborhoods go through a type of triage process. In system dynamics, this process known as "success to the successful" whereby certain neighborhoods are either well maintained or gentrified and others are left to deteriorate. Those that lose out tend to do so rapidly.

At first flush, resilience seems a clear lens for addressing the problems of cities, suggesting – unlike "sustainable" or "livable" – a fairly inclusive standard of measurement. Resilience reflects a city's ability to persevere in the face of emergency, to continue its core mission despite daunting challenges, and is as appropriate to discussions about Venice's rising tides as Medellin's corruption, Detroit's unemployment as Budapest's floods.

Urban and policy planners sometimes respond to these observed patterns with deterministic plans and programs.  For example planners typically respond to poverty concentration in cities in one of two ways.  Either planners intentionally distribute low income housing evenly through a city, or promote owner-occupied housing developments in renter-occupied districts.  Both these strategies have met with varied and inconsistent results (Musterd and Anderson 2006; Joseph 2009).

In this example, the actions of planners and policy makers may be overemphasizing the significance of urban form without addressing the deeper socio-cultural and environmental forces that drive the urban system.  These policies take neighborhoods and isolate them from the city and sever them from the ecological environment that hosts it.  This denies the neighborhood its place in a city properly conceived as a complex social-ecological system.

Understanding urban environments as a social-ecological system implies that many of the rules that govern ecological systems play a role in urban systems.  For example, evolution is a governing rule that is present at multiple environmental scales.  As the environment changes, species that can adapt evolve.  As the city changes, neighborhoods that can adapt evolve.  Integrating the “rule” of evolution will require urban planners to approach cities as complex social-ecological systems that change and evolve. The current literature on resilience is mired in diverging definitions however.  Some planners utilize definitions of resilience from engineering while others utilize definitions from psychology.

Walker proposed operationalizing resilience with urban design features such as designing the road system to enhance the removal of water from the area in case of flooding, and using trees, parks, ‘green rooftops’, and other vegetation could be introduced to enhance cooling of urban environments.  Each of these strategies is beneficial to the environment, society and may improve the resilience of a city. Many of the strategies that operationalize resilience are worthy of action, and will provide positive impacts in urban environments. Also these actions can support transformability. Many strategies to promote resilience and transformability will overlap.

Resilience, for social-ecological systems, is related to the magnitude of shock that the system can absorb and remain within a given state; the degree to which the system is capable of self-organization; and the degree to which the system can build capacity for learning and adaptation. Management can destroy or build resilience, depending on how the social-ecological system organizes itself in response to management actions and how the city as a system is studied based on inter-disciplinary aspects.

Policies should be formulated to provide incentives that encourage learning and build ecological knowledge into institutional structures in multi-level governance and also providing and strengthening the local bodies especially for the developing countries. Policy should invite participation by resources users and other interest groups and their ecological knowledge to optimize various resource usages. While building and planning for resilient guided development, transformation should be studied at various levels. Transformation is a process undergoing every moment that passes by and hence it can't be ignored to create the better human settlements of tomorrow.

Image from hothd


  1. Rachel in California06 May, 2014 20:17

    This is a fine idea; I am hoping to see more elaboration and development of the last two sentences. "While building and planning for resilient guided development, transformation should be studied at various levels. Transformation is a process undergoing every moment that passes by and hence it can't be ignored to create the better human settlements of tomorrow. "

    1. Thank you Rachel. I'll try and bring to light various factors and levels related with the transformation process of the urban settlements in my future posts. I would also love to see more elaboration related with the concept in the coming times from the concerned fraternity since the complexity of cities is ever-increasing with the advancements made in Science and Technology becoming intense and sophisticated and hence the resilient approach may not prove to be a complete approach to plan for sustainable human settlements of tomorrow.

  2. Good read and premise, I recommend reading works by Roggema et al. Or just Roggema. Did my thesis on resilience as a new paradigm for planning.

    1. Thank You. I'll definitely have a look at your suggestion.