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Making cities and regions more resilient

Flooding in Downtown Brisbane earlier this year. Photo courtesy of Phil Heywood.

This is an exciting time. There is a new confidence in economic geography and regional science. We are seeing the emergence of a set of concepts and propositions that have strong and direct implications for policy makers and practitioners. One of these is the notion of urban and regional resilience. It has been described as a “steering model” for urban and regional development. It offers some pointers for planners and regeneration and economic development professionals.

There is growing international interest in the idea of resilience, particularly in Europe. Last year I used the concept in writing the First ESPON 2013 Synthesis Report. This argued that “While competitiveness remains vitally important, new concepts are emerging: energy security, adaptation to climate change, regional resilience and capacity to bounce back.” Leading academics debated “The Resilient Region” in a special issue of the Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy and Society in May of last year. Then this week I received a copy of the German Annual of Spatial Research and Policy, 2010, which has as its title “Urban Regional Resilience: How do cities and regions deal with change?” Practitioners often find the writings of academics other worldly: however, the annual is a refreshing little book which shows how “resilience” can be interpreted and applied. The Annual also illustrates how research and practice in Germany is tackling climate change and the challenges of “shrinking cities”.

What does it mean?

Like other important ideas, such as “sustainable development” or “territorial cohesion”, there is some ambiguity about just what “resilience” means. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Fuzziness and debate can create innovation. Much of the argument is about whether a concept from environmental science can be extended to encompass social and economic situations. The basic idea is that a system can return to an equilibrium state after a disturbance. Resilience is about the ability to absorb change. Use of “resilience” as a way of thinking can help in managing and reducing the risk that places face from natural hazards or climate change. The UN International Strategy for Disaster Reduction has led the way on this. It’s a pity then that the UK is cutting its funding to this body, as I argued in a recent blog. Through design and planning it is possible to reduce the vulnerability of buildings and places to identifiable hazard events such as floods, heat waves, hurricanes, earthquakes etc. The photo above illustrates only too well how floods, for example, can disrupt a busy city centre, causing economic as well as physical and social damage.

In their chapter in the German Annual, Thomas Naumann and his colleagues, explain how to do vulnerability analysis with particular reference to flood risks. This involves following a sequence that goes “Source – Pathway – Receptor – Consequence”. The findings then inform the design of mitigation measures, so that, for example, when buildings are flooded they can be reoccupied quickly and at low cost. Urban and Regional Resilience

So far, so good, but can we apply the resilience concept to cities and regions, and particularly to the place-based aspects of the management of social and economic risks? The US-based Center for Resilient Cities certainly thinks so. Another US body, the Building Resilient Regions Network concurs. It poses four questions:

• How well can and does the region assess its vulnerabilities to disturbances and its capacity for responding to them?

• How well can and does the region ready itself to respond to assessments and potential disturbances?

• How effectively, in absolute and relative terms, does the region respond to actual disturbances?

• How effectively, in absolute and relative terms, does the region recover from the disturbance and learn from its lessons and insights?

Others working in this area include the Stockholm Resilience Centre and the Association of European Schools of Planning’s group on “Resilience and Risk Mitigation Strategies”. Research in the USA has found that a number of older industrial cities have weathered the economic crisis surprisingly well. Their resilience seems to be explained by their diversified economies, including small advanced manufacturing industries as well as educational and health institutions. Furthermore, precisely because they were rather unattractive to speculative housing development, they managed to avoid the kind of property crash that so damaged “consumption belt cities”.

Resilience and Energy Security

One of the examples given in the German Annual shows how integration of energy issues into urban planning can created greater resilience in the face of energy shocks. It points to a study carried out by the German Ministry of Transport, Building and Urban Affairs (BMBVS) into the use of urban open space to generate renewable energy. It argues that there is untapped energy potential in brownfield sites, conversion sites, vacant lots and land held in reserve. Thus large vacant sites can have a temporary use as short-rotation plantations, or be a place for photovoltaic installations.

Gelsenkirchen shows how an integrated approach can be made to work. Even in this densely populated city in the Rhur, land could be found and turned into a location for energy generation. This leads Fabian Dosch and Lars Porsche to conclude that “The use of renewable energies in built environments requires a new mindset”. They say that “the use of renewable energy will lead to a changed cityscape”. The challenge is to match up energy concepts with urban development concepts. Dosch and Porsche say that there is a great opportunity to capitalise on synergies between urban planning and economic, social and ecological demands. They contend that there is no alternative to a compact and dense city, and that dealing with the spatial aspects should be an obligatory part of all renewable energy funding measures.

Planning to make places more resilient

The German Annual gives a fair picture of where we currently stand in translating the resilience concepts into a set of practical planning actions. It shows that the idea supports innovative interventions in fields like urban energy generation or flood management. However, the underlying prescriptions remain underdeveloped. Diversity and redundancy in network provision seem preferable to reliance on single large spatial concentrations or network connections. As one chapter in the book demonstrates, the idea of resilience is rooted in complexity theory. This provides a useful reminder of how one small and distant event can trigger widespread damage elsewhere. But just to argue that everything is massively complex does not help practitioners much. Perhaps the main message for practice is about the importance of learning and adaptation. Dialogues between research and practice are needed, backed by a willingness to innovate, experiment and share the lessons. The Germans are doing this: others should be.

The German Annual of Spatial Research and Policy 2010 is edited by Bernhard Muller and is published by Springer.

8 Responses

  1. Dear Cliff!
    We have just had our mid-term conference in the “Trans in Form” project. As project manager I had the pleasure of doing an introduction speech on Change?
    In one of my foils I stressed the importance of change in thinking, and thus change in the use of words! We are getting used to the concepts of “sustainable development” and “territorial cohesion”, however, they are still ambiguous and strange to most of us, and as I think, more ritual political correct, than tools for change. We are probably already past sustainability or post-sustainable. There is for sure nothing that can be called a European identity, neither what we can call a common understanding of “sustainable development” and “territorial cohesion”!
    I agree that there is also some ambiguity about what “resilience” means. However, I think the concept of “resilience” is more interesting to investigate than the other two! First of all because, that is, how I understand the concept, it is ambiguous and thus can be used both for cities and regions AND for people. Resilience is about the ability to absorb change and that is probably more sustainable than sustainable development!
    Resilience deals with survival in a changing world!

    • Thanks for this comment. I think the real challenges are firstly to follow through the environmental logic of “resilience” and put it into action; then secondly, to develop the idea in relation to economic and socail aspects of places. I am currently in the USA so have become more aware of the very real damage that flooding is doing down the course of the Mississippi. The economic costs are put iin billions of dollars. So, following through the environmental logic of “resilience” means that policy makers need to engage much more strongly with natural and man-made hazards and risk management. The socail and economic side remains under-researched. The economic crisis that began in 2008 provides us with a living laboratory to look at economic resilience. That should have high priority, rather than envisaging recovery as a return to “business as usual”.

  2. Hi Cliff,

    I think resilience is an interesting concept with application to cities and regions. I think it is important, however that the various spatial challenges particular cities and regions are responded to individually rather than conflated. A region may be resilient with respect to flood risk but lacking in relation to its capacity to deal with demographic change or economic cycles.

    I would also have some reservations about an approach that rests on an idea of returning to equilibrium or restoring balance. Maybe the concept needs to be understood in terms of the capacity to respond to change and crisis and to lead to a new point of balance or stability?


    • Mr. Cormac, Your comment was quite insightful. I have been thinking along the same lines and am writing a manuscript about “structural adaptivity” for cities and regions – to be able to absorb any number of possible unpredictable changes, including climate change but also many additional “wild cards.”
      But I have not yet addressed the issue of whether or not, once absorbing a “round” of changes. the cities and regions should try to return to the most adaptive patterns we should be starting with – or look for some newer adaptive patterns which better reflect a new reality of the times. Any suggestions?
      Bill S.

  3. Hi Cliff
    After observing so many disaster in last few years; either those were call of mother nature or were caused by the type of cities we are developing, I think beside sustainable development and territorial cohesion we also need to focus on how much our cities and regions are resilient.

  4. Dear Cliff!
    “The social and economic side remains under-researched. The economic crisis that began in 2008 provides us with a living laboratory to look at economic resilience. That should have high priority, rather than envisaging recovery as a return to “business as usual”.

    I agree, however, I just read an essay on the writings of Gregory Bateson and his studies on flexibility. The concept of flexibility has a lot in common with resilience. He sees flexibility in perspective of ecology. The concept of resilience should be studied and adapted in a more trans-disciplinary way in research, and then, perhaps new knowledge could be developed on how regions and cities might build capacity to respond to change?

  5. […] Cities makes extensive use of the concept of “resilience”. This is a theme that I discussed in a previous blog a couple of months back. However, as far as I know, the South Africans are the first to use it as a building block for […]

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