Resilient cities are the next big thing

The true test of how ready a city is to tackle all threats is how well it operates in storms as well as in sunny conditions.

Urban resilience has long been the desired goal for urban planners and city dwellers alike.

Now, such resilience is a must-have because deep-pocket corporations and investors are saying they want to move their assets only to cities that will not be shaken easily by sudden or prolonged shocks, whether they are flash floods, smog or a dearth of younger skilled workers.

That’s according to global government and education chief Jeffrey Rhoda of technology giant IBM, the company that has long been a champion of the idea of smart cities.

In fact, Mr Rhoda said, the United Nations’ new International Strategy for Disaster Reduction secretariat will soon introduce a resilience scorecard to assess how well cities respond to serious stresses such as a thick wind-blown haze or continued mining that strips nutrients from land inhabited by 1.5 billion people.

He said it was now no longer enough to be a smart city or one brimming with bright people, big-name universities and spanking-new systems to capture and crunch data on patterns of urban life. “Investors are looking beyond skills and education to really resilient cities,” Mr Rhoda told delegates on Thursday at the Future of Urban Living meet here.

The day-long powwow was organised jointly by the Ministry of National Development’s Centre for Liveable Cities and the Eisenhower Fellowships chapter in Singapore. Its president is Ms Lim Soo Hoon, the permanent secretary for performance in the Ministry of Finance.

The trick is knowing exactly when and how to strengthen a city against new threats, said Mr Jordan Schwartz, the World Bank’s Singapore-based manager for infrastructure policy.

Mr Schwartz noted that responding decisively to uncertainty needed intuition and experience. He likened it to his 10-year-old daughter, who knew exactly when to jump into the middle of two skipping ropes being held and swung in opposite directions by her two friends.

Mr Schwartz was speaking in a pre-recorded video after being recalled to the United States before the start of the conference.

He added: “That is how a city must function today - understand the moving parts of any situation and jump in at the right point. But urban planners want to be able to predict and replicate things. So they turn to models.”

But life was not static like modelling, which is about thinking up scenarios and predicting their likely outcomes.

He suggested that urban planners should instead test their ideas by taking “slices of the system”, that is, observe how everyone in their city responded to crises and formulate policies based on those real-life experiences.

In the meantime, Mr Schwartz suggested three ways in which city planners could improve resilience.

The first involves stopping urban sprawl. People used to think that crowding people into cities meant poor living conditions. But Mr Schwartz noted that the increasingly popular view today was that the wealthy and talented loved living in cities. This was why money, jobs and information brokers were now concentrated there.

So city planners should encourage many uses for a single plot of land, including mixed developments. “The opposite of density is not rural bliss, but a widening of the carbon footprint and the loss of economies of scale,” he pointed out.

The second way to improve resilience, Mr Schwartz said, is to invest heavily in improving public transportation networks. This is because transport delivers the single largest boost to health and happiness by enabling commuters to get to and from work quickly and smoothly.

His final suggestion: monitor the climate more closely. Mr Schwartz urged urban planners to develop a better understanding of why and how local climates may change, and design their urbanscapes for their most extreme instances.

Fellow speaker Peter Ho, the former chief of the Civil Service here, said the sporadic crises that cities face more often these days were “wicked problems”, a complex problem with no easy solutions. Indeed, different stakeholders may have very different views on what the solution should be.

Mr Ho, who now chairs the Urban Redevelopment Authority and is senior adviser to resilience think-tank the Centre for Strategic Futures here, considered Boston in the United States the epitome of a resilient city. It re-invented itself three times between the 16th and 21st centuries.

Citing urban economist Edward Glaeser, Mr Ho noted how Boston started out as a busy port and centre for learning in the 1600s but was eclipsed in the mid-1800s by the port of Philadelphia. Boston surged again during the Industrial Revolution, but sank during the Great Depression.

It got its third wind in the 1990s, transforming itself into a global information hub. “Boston teaches us that nothing is forever,” Mr Ho mused.

Mr Rhoda said that at least one mainstay of smart cities, that is, electronic sensors, would help cities be more resilient in future.

Noting that there were now more cheap, top-quality sensors “than grains of rice”, he said that sensors would help everyone detect and deal with threats much quicker.

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