Monday, July 7, 2014

Resilience and Sustainability

Montepellier, France
Hello Everyone:

As the World Cup winds down, I can finally get back to real life.  I do have the very latest on my post last Monday June 30, 2014, regarding the latest design proposal for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art but first today's post is about the connection between resilience and sustainable cites.  The basis for today's edition is an article by Timon McPhearson titled "The Rise of Resilience: Linking Resilience and Sustainable City Planning," for Sustainable Cities Collective.  Urban resilience around the world has become the latest trend in urban planning and design.  Mr. McPhearson wonders, "Resilience to what and for whom?  Additionally, many cases as a replacement for sustainability, which it is not."  They're two different things that are connected. They need to be defined with clarity and precision.

The Statue of Liberty during Hurricane Sandy
Sandy Nadine Di Ninno
Resilience, as a top urban planning and management issue, is growing among non-governmental organizations, architects, designers, social scientists, ecologists, and engineers. These individuals have taken up the drum beat of resilience, evidenced by the most recent conference in Montepellier, France this past May.  The conference, Resilience 2014, drew over nine hundred attendees and featured an overwhelming diversity of topics.  Mr. McPhearson observes, "If you only look at the Twitter activity under the hashtag #Resilience to see how the research community is grappling with concepts that vary from social justice unsustainability."  Resilience, like sustainability, has been a topic of conversation for more than a decade with scant attention given to meaning, often used as a sort of catch-all for pre-existing extending.  So much so, that it has replaced sustainability as the main topic in the urban discourse.  One example is a story printed in the New York Times follow Hurricane Sandy which described the new train of thought in the United States.  However, what exactly is urban resilience and how does it relate to current discussions among planners, government officials, natural resource manager, and others.
One thing is certain, a clear definition is necessary.

Coastal New Jersey after Hurricane Sandy
 There is a large overlap in the meanings of resilience and sustainability that threatens to weaken both ideas.  Mr. McPhearson is concerned that we are losing our grip on the specificity of these important concepts, thus the power of resilience as a strategy to improver human well-being within an urban setting.  This concern is echoed by other scholars.  Mr. McPhearson writes,

I came away from the Resilience2014 conference with the realization that we still serious work to do to understand how all this research and discussion on the benefits of urban nature and ecosystem services relate to the  rapid rise of resilience planning, resilience design, and resilient cities initiatives.

Therefore, how do we define resilience?

Typically, resilience is defined as "bouncing back from a disturbance."  Timon McPhearson cites the post-Sandy resilience report, "A Stronger More Resilient New York" published by the New York City Special Initiative for Rebuilding and Resiliency, as his example for this common definition.  The report chiefly focused on rebuilding and recovery, from a pointedly engineering resilience point of view.  By contrast, the ecological take on the subject is not just about "bouncing back" and recovery but also about adaptability-adaptive capacity.  In this sense, resilience can be defined as "...the capacity of a system to experience shocks while retaining function, structure, feedbacks and therefore, identity."

Definition of sustainability and resilience concepts
after Folke et al. 2010 and Tuvendal and Elmqvist 2012
  If we accept the idea that we need to build in social-ecological resilience, then urban planning has a long way to go toward defining or comprehending the idea of a resilience that goes beyond recovery and rebuilding after a natural or man-made disasters.  Further, resilience has to be linked to sustainability so that the type of resilience we are trying to achieve actually moves toward a desired future of sustainable systems not the opposite.  Mr. McPhearson notes his concerns over the fact that current resilience planning and management activities are leading our urban systems down the wrong path, away from sustainability.  For example, in the aftermath of the damage sustained by the New York/New Jersey coastline following Sandy, much of the post-disaster discussions were centered on large technical infrastructure solutions for dealing with future storm surges and coastal flooding.  Some of the solutions floated during the conversations were operable sea gates at the narrow portions of the entry to New York Harbor.  A passable idea but those proposed sea gates could bind New York City to a resource that is potentially economically unsustainable long-range maintenance costs that could have serious ecological impact.

Sea gate proposal
"A Stronger, More Resilient New York"
NYC Special Initiative for Rebuilding and Resiliency
Motivated by the fact that cities and towns need to plan and design ways to avoid Sandy-level devastation, the Rebuild by Design program was established to give voice to ideas for climate change resilience in the New York City region.  The foundational idea of "rebuilding" is not contradictory to resilience, rather, it underscores the focus within governments at all levels to consider resilience as a response to catastrophic events from a mainly technical and and infrastructural perspective.  Timon McPhearson points out that improving social-ecological resilience is not a simple task, especially in a highly complex urban system such as New York City.  Yet, we need to be aware about the way which we make use of resilience as a strategy, planning and management priority, if our best intentions direct us toward an unsustainable future.  In this case, perhaps a more modest resilience goal might be better.

Resilience can also be understood as the ability to latch onto a specific path.  The generalities of this concepts imply that it can be adapted and adopted to multiple types of systems.  It can also mean that resilience can both help us attain a desired future, lock institutions, political structures, ecosystems, or cities into undesired unsustainable states.  One example, corruption and organized crime are very resilient-not part of a sustainable future.  On this point, I have to wonder why Timon McPhearson chose  corruption and organized crime as an example of undesired unsustainable states.  By the same token, given the monumental inequities of our cities, we need to consider the resilience of what, to what, and specifically, for whom?  Going back to the proposed sea gate installation for the moment, an operable sea gate in New York Harbor might mitigate storm surges and flooding for some residents of Manhattan and Brooklyn but for others, it could have a negative effect.  One negative side effect would be a decrease in resilience for the residents and ecosystems in Staten Island, New Jersey, or Long Island.  Therefore, urban resilience planning and management has to have a serious social-ecological perspective so that the results contribute to the equity, human well-being, and ecological integrity of a place.

View of the Manhattan Bridge from DUMBO
Sustainable city initiatives focus on maximizing efficiency, minimizing energy, redundancy and material use.  However, redundancy is a hallmark of a resilient system. Sustainability and resilience goal, if not carefully studied can appear completely in opposition to each other.  One vexing puzzle that scholars and planners need to seriously address is urban density as the key to a sustainable future.  The problem is that the more dense our urban cores are, the more susceptible they are to disease, flooding, political unrest, or economic disruption.  The tight connection within  dense urban systems: population, infrastructure, social ties, biogeochemical, and economic-can contribute to resilience or increase vulnerability.  Let's not assume that density is a good or bad thing, rather, carefully consider on a case-by-case basis, how urban planning, governance, and management for a resilient and sustainable future ensuring goals that overlap and support sustainable goal.

The point to all of this is understanding that urban resilience and urban sustainability are two ideas that promote plurality and diversity of remedies to social-ecological issues which urban planning needs to deal with in a new context for transforming cities.  Resilience and sustainability are not mutually incompatible, rather, they can support each other toward a more desirable future.

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1 comment:

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