In The Media

Creating resilient cities

by Giles K Bailey and Stefano Mainero (feat. Robert Muggah)

December 20, 2016

This year, the UK was hit again by adverse weather conditions with heavy rains and snow with the - unfortunately usual - consequence of having transport infrastructure and services disrupted. Trains were cancelled, roads were impassable and the Channel ferries struggled to reach the Kent harbours.

Every time these disruptions occur millions of pounds are lost in restoring broken systems and value is lost through missed journeys, missed working hours and poor performance from local businesses.

These are the effects of the ongoing evolution of our climate via climate change and cities cannot afford anymore to live with a constant risk of seeing their activities disrupted and ongoing planning action put randomly at risk.

But, disruption isn’t only about bad weather. In a changing and challenging world we are facing disruption from political, economic, social as well as environmental changes. Cities are finely tuned and complex organisms that are often little understood in totality. A successful city is, it seems, an incredibly robust organism and one that is able to withstand a range of shocks and challenges.

For example, from the loss of major employers, or a change in global commodity prices, disruption to transport, water or energy infrastructure as well as the effects of bad weather. Is a former industrial area that bases its regeneration around a single new “golden” employer really considering a resilient economic base? Alternatively, is saving public expenditure by not investing in a range of multi-modal transport options that include alternatives to private car travel creating a realistic resilient transport system?

Robert Muggah, research director of the Rio de Janeiro based Igarapé Institute, has combined into a single platform data collected from 2,100 cities worldwide each with populations in excess of 250,000. London, unfortunately still appears as the fifth most fragile city in Europe due to high risk of flooding and social inequalities. The ongoing Brexit debate puts further strain on the city’s economic resilience.

This recalls the concept of resilient cities that is becoming every day more popular and widely recognised by local authorities, politicians as well as urban investors, businesses and academics. A city cannot be “smart” if it is not resilient and, vice versa. However, the need for resiliency goes far beyond the "technical” requirements for IT infrastructure and the adoption of smart and connected technologies.

It is also about the whole concept of reviewing and preparing your city for the potential shocks that it may one day have to face, whether these are likely scenarios or events that are more unusual. While smart technology can assist in this debate, it also requires the leadership and foresight to consider, plan, discuss, debate and prepare for a series of eventualities and plan for these eventualities.

Examples of the need for resiliency include the regular winter flooding seen in locations such as York and Carlisle over the last few years, the economic impact on Cornwall of the Dawlish railway landslips a few years ago or the potential for air pollution crises to affect and disrupt our large conurbations.

This is potentially a daunting task for local authorities in the UK. Typically, these authorities are smaller institutions with up to a few hundred thousand residents. While agglomerations are occurring in combined authorities, most authorities still need to consider many of these issues as independent entities. Resiliency planning can be viewed as an expensive “diversion” in an era of perpetual austerity and declining support for local authorities from central government. Meanwhile, local pressures continue to build to protect front line services such as adult care, public health, education and clean streets.

Ideally, a smart city would have all devices and digital infrastructure needed to forecast and reduce the disastrous effects of severe weather conditions as well as other local social and economic shocks. However, such a city would need to spend a remarkable amount of money to roll out and/or upgrade these cutting edge solutions, money that currently local governments do not have.

What would a resilient UK local authority already be doing or about to do? There is certainly not one plan or checklist and the situation for each city needs to depend on its local needs, resources and priorities. The plans need to be locally relevant but, based on some best practice seen in other cities in the UK and more widely.

Fundamentally, it is suggested that this is about not trying to reinvent the “wheel” in every case, but looking above the parapet and seeing what is being done in other jurisdictions and what would be a good set of practices for one’s own location. Do not be seduced by the excitement or technology of grandiose technical systems that sound nice, but are expensive – to buy, let alone maintain - and may not actually deal with the resilience weaknesses of your location.

Local weaknesses may be more about economic, social or administrative issues. A strong and diverse network of partners, it is suggested, remains the best way of understanding the robustness of your plans and seeing and considering alternative approaches. There are a range of national, European and global groups to be considered.

This is where being part of a European project (funded by the European Commission Horizon 2020, in particular) can become important. Cities can not only could discuss and exchange best practices with their peer partners in the consortium, but also develop consistent solutions that can be effectively replicated in other areas of Europe with consequent resource efficiency.

Beyond seeking assistance and discussing your local needs with comparable local authorities in other jurisdictions in the UK and more widely, resiliency planning is an opportunity to generate innovation in your own community. This has the added benefit of generating new economic growth and tapping into the growing global knowledge economy. In fact, this can accelerate the links between your city and forward thinking cities around the world. This needs not be a gimmick or outside the capability of a non-knowledge based city, but a realistic way of ensuring that rather than old expensive approaches, contemporary modern techniques to resiliency are adopted.

For example, in your smart system thinking how much open source and open access system architecture is being adopted? Are you considering the latest means of social community engagement that bring the best of virtual reality to local debates? There are a range of partners who can assist UK local authorities in this work.

Doing nothing is not an option for a modern city or city region when it comes to resiliency planning. The world is increasingly an interconnected, diverse and challenging place and stability and robustness of your local community depends on the public sector taking a lead and planning for a range of potential, or even, unlikely outcomes. This goes well beyond, but includes the agenda of a smart city.

A city doesn’t need to feed that their resiliency planning needs to be unique or original, but it needs to be locally relevant and specific and take into account best practice from comparable jurisdictions.

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