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Prepare for the best

Richard Hyams

Cities looking to secure their futures are putting resilience to stresses on the urban landscape at the top of their agendas. An international RIBA summit jump-started the process

Credit: Duncan Smith

From faceless politicians telling us we have enough to make it through austerity, to football managers explaining their team lost because they didn’t, resilience, it seems, is everywhere.

And with the UN Department for Economic and Social Affairs estimating that continuing population growth and urbanisation will add 2.5 billion people to the world’s urban population by 2050 – nearly 90% of this increase concentrated in Asia and Africa – resilience is becoming ever more important in the design of buildings, neighbourhoods and city master-planning.

Defining city resilience

But what is city resilience and what role do key stakeholders – architects, designers, urban planners and citizens – play in ensuring a city is resilient? At a stimulating international event in London last month, leading exponents of the subject enlightened the audience at the RIBA’s Designing City Resilience 2015 summit.

They asked whether city resilience is the capacity of individuals, communities, institutions, businesses and systems in a city to survive, adapt and grow, despite stresses and shocks. Or is it fundamentally a design problem? Can it be addressed by considering the interdependence of a wide range of factors and systems, professions, foresight, leadership, technology and design creativity, that can create cities resilient to the physical, social and economic challenges they face in a fast-changing world?

It is the former for Dr Nancy Kete, managing director of the Rockefeller Foundation, which is leading the charge on resilience and set up the 100 Resilient Cities Network in 2013.

Speaking at the event, Dr Kete said a city should ‘engage all its stakeholders, and embody complexity and the idea that the future will be different from the past’.

It is this complexity, says Jo da Silva, director of international development at Arup, which has written the handbook of City Resilience – a critical definition. ‘We live in cities that are phenomenally complex and resilience is about how we allow them to innovate. The capacity of individual communities, institutions, businesses and systems to survive, adapt and thrive, no matter what chronic stress they are under, is also key,’ she adds.

  • Credit: Duncan Smith

Community engagement

While common problems for cities include leadership and strategy, health and wellbeing, economy and society, infrastructure, and the environment, the qualities of resilience – reflective, robust, redundant, resourceful, inclusive and integrated – also play important roles in shaping how they adapt and survive.

Involving a city’s citizens is therefore critical to creating resilience, says Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the RSA, as it directly affects their quality of life. As a result, devolving power to cities, particularly to a more local level, is a critical step.

He points out that people are more likely to become engaged when their neighbourhood is affected, and it is certainly easier for municipalities to mobilise citizens to tackle a common cause, such as inequality, obesity or education, on a local level.

Places and people

Architects, says Professor Helle Søholt, founding partner and CEO of Gehl Architects, need to remember that cities are for people: ‘We cannot have resilience without community. Architects have an obligation to make sure they are for everyone. In Denmark, for instance, a quarter of all property development must be social housing and owners must live in their properties to avoid speculation and ghettoisation.’

She adds that while urban environments have always had different communities and cultures, the concept of resilience takes a long term view. It is the job of architecture to join the dots, she says, so a cohesive community can emerge, grow and mature.

However, cities are complex and incomplete systems and those with high levels of outside investment are at risk of collapse. Saskia Sassen, professor of sociology at Columbia University, argues that they should be understood as a type of socio-ecological system, one with an expanding range of articulations with the biosphere’s ecologies.

Today, most of these articulations produce environmental damage. The conundrum for architects and other stakeholders is how to use them to help cities contribute to environmental sustainability.

But urban environments need to optimise liveability and improve societal outcomes for citizens, argues Sascha Haselmayer, CEO of Citymart. Human interaction and the integration of existing characteristics into planning and design are central to the resilience of a city – which should be designed around its citizens.

  • On the front line: city resilience officers lay out their challenges. From left to right: Arnoud Molenaar (Rotterdam); Toby Kent (Melbourne); K S Kandasamy (Chennai); Alastair Brown (Glasgow); Alessandro Coppola (Rome).
    On the front line: city resilience officers lay out their challenges. From left to right: Arnoud Molenaar (Rotterdam); Toby Kent (Melbourne); K S Kandasamy (Chennai); Alastair Brown (Glasgow); Alessandro Coppola (Rome).
  • A questioning, collaborative and convivial atmosphere reigned at the summit.
    A questioning, collaborative and convivial atmosphere reigned at the summit. Credit: Duncan Smith

Long-term value

In the past five years, interest has grown in the potential for digital technologies such as smart phones, cloud computing and open data to contribute to urban development and resilience, through improvements to services and infrastructure.

These technologies are creating long term value, through moves such as innovative investment strategies in people, places, transport and infrastructure. Combined with business and social innovation these can bring new opportunities to strengthen our cities.

Access to government data, explains Accenture’s director of global cities Jen Hawes-Hewitt, is allowing digital entrepreneurs to support urban problem solving. The development of apps such as Streetbump, in which citizens become the ‘sensors’ that direct city hall to fix pot holes, is just one example of the interactivity of technology and people in effecting change in their local communities.

In the commercial sector, she adds, companies like Uber and Airbnb are just outliers of a service-led, more circular economy – which has the potential to make our increasingly dense urban environments do more with less.

Many will argue, however, that this citizen-led ‘bottom up’ approach to city resilience and development needs to engage with the ‘top down’ approach to governance, planning and architecture from city hall. It is at the interface of the two that city resilience must grow and evolve, to avoid the risk is of creating two distinct, disruptive elements.


By 2050, 68% of the world’s population (6.3 billion people) will be living in cities. Many of these are in coastal areas and are threatened by floods, storms, earthquakes and other natural hazards – important factors to consider when planning resilience strategies.

Preparedness is key to effective resilience. With this in mind, in March 2014, mayor of New York City Bill de Blasio established the Office of Recovery and Resiliency (ORR). The organisation leads implementation of recommendations laid out in A Stronger, More Resilient New York and 2015's One New York: The Plan for a Strong and Just City.

Daniel Zarrilli, director of the mayor's office of recovery and resiliency, says: ‘Our neighbourhoods, economy and public services will be ready to withstand and emerge stronger from the impacts of climate change thanks to these strategies.’

However, factors such as location, population and assets mean that each city responds differently to stresses.

Sarah Toy, Bristol’s strategic resilience officer, says the city is working to ensure its policies and actions create a healthy, safe and flourishing environment.

‘Using a resilience lens will ensure, for example, that our transport schemes deliver social, environmental and economic benefits and do not inadvertently impact negatively on other parts of the city system – such as food growing or child poverty. It gives us a practical way to understand city complexity and plan and design for uncertain times ahead,’ she says.


Resilience is a complex issue that requires positive engagement between all the key stakeholders – architects, designers and urban planners and citizens. Only by working together can these groups help cities successfully grow, evolve and respond to the challenges they face. The alternative is a chaotic and disruptive city that fails to survive.


At the heart of the summit was the City Resilience Challenge, a workshop based initiative in which participants came together to study real figures from cities around the globe and address the real life challenges faced by four imaginary cities, collaborating to establish a concept for city resilience, alongside a strategy for achieving it.
At the heart of the summit was the City Resilience Challenge, a workshop based initiative in which participants came together to study real figures from cities around the globe and address the real life challenges faced by four imaginary cities, collaborating to establish a concept for city resilience, alongside a strategy for achieving it. Credit: Duncan Smith

Tales of the city…

New York’s specific set of stresses prompted the Mayor's Office of Recovery and Resiliency to develop OneNYC: The Plan for a Strong and Just City. ‘We have been tested in many ways,’ says the office’s director Daniel Zarrilli, ‘prompting us to determine what resilience means to us.’

Past threats and tests include Hurricane Sandy, 9/11, ghettoisation and infrastructure failure and underinvestment, while future threats include climate change, a growing population, increasing inequality and aging infrastructure. This plan is organised across four strategic sectors: for growth, equity, sustainability, and resilience. Investments will be made in buildings, infrastructure, coastal defences, and strengthening community, social and economic resilience.

Disaster preparedness is at the heart of the plan, with both government and the private sector supporting community groups, businesses and infrastructure to withstand climate change threats, including rising temperatures and rising sea levels.

It requires leadership, says Zarrilli, but, by launching OneNYC, the city has expanded its commitment to resilience to prepare for the city’s fifth century.

‘Implementation is never easy, but we can meet this challenge by collaborating and working across domains to achieve success,’ adds Zarrilli.

Daniel Zarrilli presented his city’s resiliency plans as part of the Designing City Resilience summit alongside city resilience officers from Chennai and Barcelona. 


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