Resilience – isn’t it just good plan making?

Resilience means subtly different things to different organisations, academics and practitioners. Ben Smith, AECOM Director of Sustainable Development, Europe, Middle East, Africa and India, goes beyond the jargon to uncover its true meaning.

As a tagline for cities, ‘resilience’ has been hugely successful over the past few years, generating massive profile with city mayors and raising significant funds internationally.

The 100 Resilient Cities Fund (pioneered by the Rockefeller Foundation) is widely known to be worth $100 million, and further investment is pouring in through campaigns such as the UNISDR’sMaking Cities Resilient, UN Habitat, World Bank and from all spheres of the private sector.

Of course, resilience is nothing new; it encompasses issues that planners and city governments have been thinking about for centuries. Resilience is about organisation, having a clear strategy, raising money, investing wisely in the right priorities, as determined through a proper planning process. It is about knowing the risks and taking action to mitigate adverse impacts, about understanding the baseline, testing and selecting the best plan options for the future.

But the current focus on the resilience agenda is important because it mixes up the conversation and brings together practitioners from traditionally different silos to start to consider the impact they have on one another within an integrated city system.

In the last few decades sustainable development and climate change adaptation have created similar dialogue. Raising the question: Is this a bolt on or is it at the core of everything, traversing all the silos? Do cities need resilience plans or should they update the city plan to cover resilience? Or both?

The interesting thing is that the slight shift in focus – or change in language – draws new people to the table, and creates a fresh challenge. Planners are introduced to people with disaster risk reduction experience, or who understand the security risks associated with some types of city data. Emergency services professionals begin conversations with transport and IT consultants about intelligent street lighting (‘smart’ being another important city tag); and air quality specialists begin exploring how they can collect and respond to real time information to improve health outcomes.

There are many more tangible examples of sustainable or resilient outcomes that can be realised by bringing together people with different training, experience and perspective to focus on a common problem. The real challenge is how this interaction can be tied into a single framework that cities can work with, one that is easy to communicate and establishes a vision for the whole city, across all silos.

Of course there is useful work that can be – and is being – done within individual silos and there are numerous points of entry for a plethora of practitioners. The Holy Grail is to be able to articulate a vision of how all these ideas and initiatives can hang together within an integrated city plan.

New York recently launched its new City Plan,One New York,which includes resilience as one of four visions, and cities like London and Barcelona are working hard to deliver integrated strategies. However, those that have been close to this process recognise it is hard work to cover all the ground, to achieve the necessary consensus and to establish forward motion.

Through AECOM’s work to create plans for cities such as Jeddah, Dubai, Bucharest and London* it has refined a traditional planning approach which allows it to conceptualise and plan all the critical aspects of a city in an integrated and inclusive way.

This process is loosely called the ‘city spine’, but it does not have a registered trademark or any logo because it is constantly evolving and flexes enough to properly respond to the challenges of the cities in which AECOM works.

AECOM’s work in Jeddah began because of an issue with city flooding and a desperate need to reorganise the approach to storm water management. A powerful and positive outcome of these emergency works was the opportunity to restructure the city. The environment led the approach, but then environmental improvements works created opportunities in other urban systems.

So, a network of green space will now provide the opportunity to attenuate flood water, as well as linking communities and regional recreational opportunities. The green space networks will in turn fit into broader city-wide framework for new transport infrastructure which will redefine the city form and change the way in which residents interact with the city.

In Dubai, the starting point was different. City planning work there began shortly after a huge economic collapse; a key driver was to stitch the city back together to create hubs as a focus for investment and growth. In fact, the solution was to start with plans established in the 1980s and 1990s which properly considered the city form in respect of community structure and environmental potential, rather than just speculative investment and development.

Irrespective of the entry point, it is vital to keep coming back to a framework that takes the broadest possible view of the city as a whole. This will drive genuine collaboration in the right areas to arrive at the best possible outcomes for cities and their communities.

The framework has to support innovation in all the key streams (i.e. energy, water, infrastructure, architecture etc.). It also has to be able to accommodate new indicators and KPIs, as more is learned about how to embed and monitor the benefits of aspects such as green infrastructure, climate-resilient infrastructure, future-proof communications networks and community cohesiveness.

In plan making, as in life, there has to be compromise. The ultimate aim is to optimise a city plan against an agreed set of objectives that are relevant to the city. It is important to establish indicators for resilience, just as it is for sustainable development, for ‘smart’, for environment and for economic performance. But, most importantly, there is a need to better understand how – just beneath the rhetoric – all of these things are completely intertwined and overlapping.

Over time, those organisations and practitioners with a wide geographical outlook, plus an end-to-end appreciation through design, build, finance and operation, are going to be best placed to monitor the success of city plans and strategies. They will be equipped to capture lessons, communicate innovations and feed this back to continually evolve and improve the outlook for the significant proportion of the global population now residing in cities.

*Ben Smith did not work directly on the Jeddah or Dubai projects. Marc Stringa and Charlie Ledward – both of whom did contribute to these projects – will also attend the City Resilience Summit in June.

Designing City Resilience will be held on 16 and 17 June 2015, 66 Portland Place, London. For more information and to book a place at the event, visit Visit the Facebook page and follow the summit on Twitter: @rescities; connect via LinkedIn; or see the Youtube channel.

Participating cities include:

Barcelona, Spain

Barcelona has a history of energy and transport-related infrastructure failure, as well significant pollution. More recently, Spain’s financial problems have meant the city has experienced high levels of unemployment which have sparked a break-down in traditional family structures, affecting social cohesion. Manuel Valdes Lopez, Manager of Infrastructures and Urban Coordination, will discuss the city’s plans to address these challenges.

Bristol, UK

Bristol is experiencing rapid growth and is investing significantly in renewing its infrastructure to meet the needs of its expanding population. Plans for more decentralised governance structures are being put in place, with the aim of empowering citizens to minimise risk and becoming increasingly resource efficient in the long-term. Sarah Toy, Bristol’s Chief Resilience Officer (CRO), will share what the city is investing in, how it is doing it and the value that it aims to unlock. She will be joined by Bristol’s Mayor, George Ferguson, who will outline the city’s plans for a more decentralised governance structure, with the aim of empowering citizens.

Chennai, India

South India’s coastal city of Chennai is currently the fourth most populous metropolitan area in the world. The city suffered damage from a Tsunami in 2004, is prone to flooding and lacks the infrastructure to meet the needs of its growing population. Chennai will present its plans to minimise future risk and how the city is using public private partnerships (PPPs) to achieve these aims.

Glasgow, UK

Glasgow has come a long way in building resilience since its days of heavy industry but continues to grapple with high levels of unemployment and a severe lack of social cohesion. The city’s CRO Alastair Brown will talk about the plans being put in place to tackle these challenges and create future opportunities.

Melbourne, Australia

Melbourne is affected by severe weather events and its future is likely to be impacted significantly by climate change. Complex governance structures and fragmented infrastructure management present barriers to building resilience. Toby Kent, Melbourne’s CRO, will discuss how the city is adapting and adopting a more coordinated approach to city management and resilience.

New York City, USA

New York City (NYC) constantly battles resilience on two fronts: fighting the stresses that large successful cities face daily and ensuring it is prepared for shocks that, as Hurricane Sandy proved in 2012, are all too prevalent.

NYC published its plan for implementing sustainability and resilience initiatives in April 2015. One New York: The plan for a strong and just city, includes plans to have the cleanest air in 50 years; to plant 950,000 trees and install 6 million square feet of reflective rooftops; to upgrade building codes to prepare for floods, wind and extreme weather; and to reduce carbon emissions by 80% by 2050, compared with 2005.

The aim is to ensure policies are in place to promote a better quality of life for New York’s citizens, support economic success and tackle social inequality, while also mitigating the risks of climate change.


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