Urban Resilience: Portraying a Need
According to an often-cited UN statistical figure, 80 % of the human population will live in cities by the year 2050.
Cities are vast and complex — some of them are very resilient (being permanently inhabited for thousands of years), some appear to be fragile. Traditional resilience thinking that was developed for social-ecological systems is not completely applicable in this environment. What is urban resilience, after all?
The main difference between ecological and urban systems from an abstract point of view is politics and technology. These two factors immensely complicate the question “resilience of what to what?”. What is a city? Is it population? Infrastructure? Services? Is a power plant a faraway part of the system? Is the global supply chain part of it? Are commuters a part of it? And tourists? The answer is never obvious since all these questions are ultimately political; but it gets worse: resilience against what? Infrastructure failures? Political turmoil? Change in transport modalities? Change in the employment structure of the inhabitants? Many changes that occur in a city are good for some and harmful for some others. So, should we build resilience against them, or should we encourage these changes?
The city is always political; thus, it is not realistic to build a cool-headed resilience strategy as it is possible in a protected area or other natural habitats (although these seemingly simpler cases are also often contested).
From a practical point of view, specified resilience is more approachable in an urban system; still, this would be more complicated than an ecosystem as the number of slow variables and cascading effects is much higher.
The challenge of urban resilience is therefore first and foremost political. If there is some level of consensus about a threat (e.g., climate change) and the “system” that is to be protected is more or less defined, then there are methods to develop a structured adaptive response to the threat.
Most methods use GIS or some form of network analysis to model the potential spread of a problem and to map consequences. Analysing supply chains, flows of traffic, people, products and analysing roadblocks and critical usage cases is the main goal for most studies.
From a theoretical resilience perspective, this approach is understandable but shallow. These models, even if they apply nature-based solutions — such as the oyster reef protecting initiative in New York City — are protecting the status quo in terms of economic output and the dominant social structures. However, these models rarely address the real challenges of making cities sustainable — that is, aiming to realize a cooperative approach towards nature and all social groups.
What would a city look like if it were designed to absorb disturbances and retain its basic functions and feedbacks? Complicated as it is in a technology-dependent context, ultimately viewing the city together with its natural support systems and its impact on them is the first step towards true urban resilience.