planning, design, urbanism, landscape and resilience blog

Source: Daily Telegraph

You’ve probably heard about resilience. You may even have read something on the subject. If so, you’ll almost certainly have encountered a variety of resilience definitions: some say it’s about bouncing back from adversity, others define it as the ability to maintain essential function in the presence of disturbance, whilst there are those who see it as how a system adapts following shock. These are all useful conceptions of resilience, whilst there are many more out there, and I suspect a few are still being formulated.

However, if asked, I say that resilience is the new sustainability.

On the one hand this flippant answer recognizes that resilience is simply the next buzzword that is bandied around in policy and development circles, usually with a diminishing understanding of what it actually means (other than that resilience is apparently a good thing). However, I also believe that the transition from one term to another is reflective of the changing significance of environmental considerations to our society.

In 1987, the publishing of the Brundtland report brought the concept of sustainable development (and of course sustainability) to international prominence, and provided us with a working definition:

 “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.

I would argue that this definition, which is still in use to this day, locates environmental concerns sometime in the indistinct future.  However, recent incidents, of which the events in New York caused by Hurricane Sandy are only the latest, demonstrate the critical need to protect communities from environmental hazards now. This requires a resilient approach. To give some context to these assertions, Thomas Fisher’s recent book, “Designing to avoid disaster: The nature of fracture-critical design”, notes the significant increase in “natural” disasters over the past century (based on UNISDR figures). In particular, he highlights how “hydrometeorological” events, which include storms, droughts and floods, have increased worldwide by over 400 times between 1900 and 2005. Coincidentally, this exponential increase in international disasters also roughly correlates to the increase in atmospheric carbon. However, I would argue that the primary concern is not whether climate change is manmade, but what the hell are we going to do about it and how do we protect lives and societies around the world. As an aside, I think climate change sceptics have confused the public debate between the ability to prove the causes of climate change and whether there are actual changes occurring in global weather systems.

Importantly, the changes in world climate are not the only reason why we are seeing this increase in disasters; in parallel to this problem, recent patterns of development have exacerbated the vulnerability to potential hazards. Typical failures in the design and planning of our settlements includes the development of land in flood prone areas, inadequate building standards in areas susceptible to earthquake and a lack of sea defences. Thus a key priority for future development is to build cities and buildings that are better adapted to their own environmental context. In this respect the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) has been leading the way in research and implementation of proposals to make settlements more resilient, particularly in the developing world where a lack of infrastructure makes them especially vulnerable to disasters. To crudely illustrate this, whilst Hurricane Sandy caused widespread damage and loss of life in the United States; in Haiti (a much smaller country) there were similar number of casualties, 20,000 people left without a home and there are fears of a new cholera epidemic as a result of the damage to water supplies and sewage systems (see BBC News article). In the recent past, much of the Western world has been insulated from these climatic occurrences by our superior manmade resources and infrastructure, although this may fast be changing.[1]

More positively, an understanding of resilience also provides us with some means to tackle the multitude of threats and hazards currently facing global society. In contrast to sustainability, resilience actually emerges from a school of science, pioneered by ecologist CS Holling. Principles derived from the study of how natural systems persist and thrive in response to adversity, can be used to make cities and society more resilient. New theories on the subject, such as “social-ecological resilience” and “ecological resilience”, offer us ways of understanding how communities and their environment interact and how they can successfully work together to produce cities and communities that are more resilient.

In parallel to these theory driven conceptions of resilience, a pragmatic approach has also developed which learns from previous disaster incidents as a means to inform future development. The European DESURBS  (Designing Safer Urban Spaces) programme, which I am a member of, has looked at a spectrum of natural and manmade disasters and identified a series of common weaknesses in the design, planning and management of urban spaces, which increases their vulnerable to  a range of threats. The aim of DESURBS is to provide professional end-users with tools that will help them identify, mitigate and eliminate potential hazards.

As a final point, I would suggest that despite my flippancy, we should not forget about sustainability. I would argue that resilience has become a necessity, at least in part, due to the continued political inaction on environmental issues (or lack of sustainability in recent years). Ultimately, resilience and sustainability are highly compatible in their objectives to ensure that societies are protected and provided for both today and in the future.





[1] I have a sneaking suspicion that a key characteristic of a modern society is an ignorance of the environmental consequences of its actions, and in particular the belief that the environment is of secondary value to the primary concern of securing monetary capital. By contrast, I would argue that every earlier society has understood, to some extent, that mans livelihood is dependent on his environment and thus good stewardship of environmental resources is essential to his continued survival. Interestingly, the “ecosystems services” approach attempts to re-establish this critical relationship between man and his environment as the basis of future planning.