Designing city resilience summit | Julie Plichon

Report written by Young Urbanist Julie Plichon, Project Lead, Urban Desk

June 16th and 17th 2015 at RIBA, London

Designing City Resilience: Report Summary:

The two-day summit was organised by RIBA to “foster and support an international exchange of ideas between organisations, professions, sectors and city leaders to bring world-class thinking to the current and future challenges faced by cities around the world”.

The summit started with an attempt to define resilience from Dr Nancy Kete, managing director of the Rockefeller Foundation, who with Judith Rodin, the current president of the foundation, has been working on the concept of resilience for the past 10 years through the Resilient Cities Network. For Dr Kete, resilience should be considered from a multi-faceted viewpoint – one that takes account of psychology, science, social aspects, and ecology. It is about absorbing shock or stress within an inclusive framework. Dr Kete states that the opposite of resilience is failure or collapse: when the city stops working or fails to handle new elements. Resilience is then not about controlling things but rather about “embracing the mess”. This creative vision set the scene for the remainder of the summit.

Jo Da Silva, director of international development at Arup, continued with this definition. Resilience provokes a proactive attitude for facing natural disasters and is part of the risk management paradigm. Yet risk and crisis can be considered in a positive way for urban design: they are opportunities for structural change as they have always shaped cities, illustrated perfectly by the Blitz in London.

Da Silva identified the basic requirements for resilience:

  • Accessing basic infrastructure as services and how we organise and act collectively to improve sociability
  • Infrastructure and environment: how we protect, serve and connect.
  • Leadership and strategy: inclusive consultation in decision-making.

Ricky Burdett, professor of urban studies at LSE, focused his talk on how slums and informal neighbourhoods have been tackled differently. In Medellin, Colombia, inclusiveness is promoted by mobility with cable cars. While in Bombay, vertical social housing was created to relocate (previously horizontally organised) slum dwellers, an act of idealistic urban design which has become to be considered a failure. Burdett highlighted transportation as a key element to resilience. Thanks to the success of its integrated transportation system, 93% of the Hong-Kongese dwellers take public transport and have short commutes (less than 30 minutes).

Many ‘city spotlights’ invited resilience officers from different cities to highlight how they deal with the problems they face: Chennai, New York, Rotterdam (with a focus on rising waters), Melbourne, Glasgow and Rome.

In Barcelona, Manuel Valdés Lopéz, the deputy manager of infrastructure and urban co-ordination, explained that in spite of a severe and testing social context between 2007 and 2015, social cohesion has not been disrupted. His work with the municipality rose first from risk awareness, then political commitment to trigger transversal actions, to the process of building up local alliances. At the end, ideas were formed into tools to absorb shocks, resist adversity and instil resilience.

George Ferguson, mayor of Bristol, presented his motto for the city: “let’s keep it complex!” A delicious contrast to Mies Van Der Rohe’s architectural view that “less is more”. Bristol, the EU Green Capital for 2015, has developed an open data policy designed to empower citizens and provoke integration with the universities. This collaborative and more democratic approach puts the universities at the heart of city governance, which, Ferguson says, has defused tension between citizens and power making bodies. The green city is embodied through programmes such as ‘One Tree Per Child‘, where each child at the age of 11 is given a space to grow a tree, the promotion of active, independent travel and…fun! Ferguson believes that an inspiring and resilient city must be, above all, enjoyable.

Saskia Sassen, professor of sociology as Columbia University, identified the environment as an opportunity to help foster resilient cities. However, increasing the use of land for the natural environment, as well as developing our knowledge and biological innovation, is primarily the responsibility of public institutions. She pointed out the inherent risk to this approach posed by private corporations owning evermore of our cities.

Technology is an interesting paradox: an outstanding opportunity that can easily shift to a risk, particularly as personal freedom becomes an evermore-scarce commodity. Many tech investments made in our cities are no of public good, insisted Kelvin Campbell from Smart Urbanism. On the other hand, some initiatives have managed to link communities and smart cities: Campbell quoted the Cognicity Challenge as an example of good practice in London. Dan Hill from the Future Cities Catapult explained the importance of information for shock absorption. When a Tube line stops working, clear instructions within stations removes the stress and anxiety of passengers.

This summit was inspiring and allowed a diverse range of speakers to take position and reinforce the theoretical and practical framework of resilience. Yet, it is sometimes hard to distinguish resilience and risk management. The examples were rich and insightful about how to tackle problems in an uncertain world, proactively and with limited resources – “killing several birds with one stone.”


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