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October 15, 2015

It's the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine: Against the “resilient cities” bandwagon

By Alastair Donald

Competition amongst the scaremongers predicting Doomsday has intensified recently. The last month alone has brought predications of obliteration via an earth-smashing giant asteroid, and an apocalypse given impetus by the celestial alignment that created the Blood Moon lunar eclipse. And while the planet slaying giant fire anticipated by the eBible Fellowship didn’t come to pass, it didn’t stop them defiantly asserting annihilation would come “soon”.

The cranks of recent weeks have been widely ridiculed. But Doomsday scenarios today are not always the property of eccentric conspiracy theorists: more frequently, they’re the results of fearful speculations of an unknown future by those claiming authority and expertise.

Scientists musing that humans will be extinct in “perhaps” in 100 years; researchers predicting societal collapse from catastrophic food shortages; environmental commentators predicting mass extinctions – all are likely lauded for setting out potential threats and warning of the need for extreme caution. The advance of technology has overtaken our capacity to control the “possible” consequences says Oxford University’s Future of Humanity Institute.

The credence given to the expert imagination of disaster was nicely captured earlier this year in Channel 4’s End of the World Night where leading academics and scientists were invited to analyse the outlandishly apocalyptic scenarios of Hollywood sci-fi movies – not as means merely to dismiss them, but to speculate on an “even scarier” truth about how the world might really end.

Given that cities have long provided a focus for society’s fears, it’s no surprise that the imagination of disaster is having a significant impact on how we think about and plan for the urban future. This is captured in the rapid growth amongst think tanks, social policy gurus, NGOs and corporations of “resilience thinking”, and in the planning and urban design solutions of the Resilient Cities movement.

The Rockefeller Foundation, which is leading the brand development of Resilient Cities, is typical of the new outlook, stating that “crisis is the new normal for cities in the 21st century”. For others, Avian Flu and SARS show that cities are the places where “infectious diseases have spread horrifyingly fast”. They also play a major part in chronic illness: “Heart disease, stroke, diabetes and cancer rates are rising, fuelled by unhealthy lifestyles; fast food restaurants proliferate in our cities.” 

Not too long ago, cities were seen as a progressive form of social organisation; now, through the prism of resilience, they are interpreted in potentially terrifying terms. For the Rockefeller Foundation the future must be planned on the basis that “cities can’t predict which disruptions will come next”. Whether rising sea levels or heat waves, terrorism or pandemics, energy shortages or crime, cities are now widely perceived as permanently “under threat”.

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The upshot is planning shifts from taking account of probable risks to possible outcomes

This projection of risk is having significant negative consequences including an emerging stasis in development and new constraints on urban freedoms.

Speaking on Chanel 4’s End of the World Night, Astronomer Royal Martin Rees suggested that “an important maxim is the unfamiliar is not the same as the improbable”. This invitation to speculate on dangers that we don’t yet know, but which may create future problems that we cannot yet calculate, is cut from the same cloth as Donald Rumsfeld’s famous “unknown unknowns”.  

Rumsfeld took his lead from the US military’s “scenario planning” exercises which used simulation games to speculate on outcomes of conflict. One of the major recent innovations in urban planning has been the adoption of scenario planning to catalogue alternative urban strategies.

But unfortunately, with planners currently infatuated by “future-proofing” – the avoidance of unspecified hazards that may or may not be around the corner – solutions inevitably gravitate towards a precautionary approach that seeks to take account of the unknown or uncertain. The upshot is planning shifts from taking account of probable risks to possible outcomes. 

Take earthquake zones. Scientific monitoring of the earth and atmosphere has helped our understanding of plate movements, allowing designers and engineers to build based on the probability that – within a certain likely range of events – structures will absorb the energy of an earthquake.

But the recent shift to a more speculative approach has led us to replace development decisions based on a calculus of probability, with those based on outlandish possibilities, in an effort to ensure “no harm shall come”. Consequently from nuclear power in Japan to fracking in the UK, development potential is stifled. 

Today, the presence of human development within the landscape has come to be seen as part of a problem rather than the solution: there’s a sense that, rather than bringing nature under our control, it creates greater uncertainty.  Nowadays, from flood plains to the green belt, environmental assessments are used to dictate that development be constrained lest there be adverse consequences.

At the heart of the emergence of resilient cities is society’s newfound understanding of itself as vulnerable and “at risk”. The recent retreat from development as a means of securing our interests has gone hand in hand with the idea that individuals must be empowered to make “better” life choices.

The upshot is an impetus amongst urban planners and designers to shape behaviour. Designers planning for an increase in mobility, for example, are guided to think about how to insert “cues” into the urban environment that prompt better decisions – to make us travel by healthier or more sustainable modes – regardless of the inconvenience it may cause.

And yet, even as we live longer and healthier lives, innovations and advances in technology make us better equipped than ever before to manage adverse situations.  At a time when disaster looms large in the imagination, the real disaster is the widespread adoption of the ideas and techniques of resilience thinking. It presents itself as the exercising of responsible choices – but it holds society back from realising a better future.

Alastair Donald is associate director of the Future Cities Project and architecture programme manager at the British Council.

He is speaking at From tsunamis to terror attacks: do we need resilient cities? at the Battle of Ideas festival on 18 October. CityMetric is a media partner for the festival.

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