Resilience and the Future of Cities

Last summer, the 100 Resilient Cities network of resilience practitioners, partners and experts gathered in New York at our Global Summit to assess the state of urban resilience, and our progress toward helping cities adapt and evolve in the face of 21st Century challenges. During our opening program, I invited Ede Ijjasz-Vasquez, Senior Director for the World Bank Group’s Social, Urban, Rural, and Resilience Global Practice; Michael Kimmelman, architecture critic for the New York Times; Chris Michael, editor of Guardian Cities; and Zahira Asmal, Executive Director of The City, to consider the future of cities, anticipating the most pressing challenges, opportunities and dynamics to prepare for in the decades ahead.

I followed up recently with Ijjasz-Vasquez, who leads a team of over 600 technical experts across the world focused on tackling some of the most complex urban development challenges, including those of rapid urbanization and natural disasters. He and I reflected on several emerging trends and scenarios which could influence how cities function in the future.  His perspective offers a few key lessons for resilience professionals.

Bryna Lipper

History is not a good predictive tool for the future any longer

Planning must always allow for a certain degree of uncertainty. However, two major trends make past precedents especially hard to rely on as we design for the future. Climate change and technological innovation continue to disrupt city systems in unpredictable ways, and at a faster pace.

Ede noted that while the patterns of climate change can be predicted at the global and even national level, their effect on the local level is far more uncertain. He, and the World Bank generally, are thinking about how a city can build major infrastructure, sanitation and drainage systems, transportation networks and even housing, that can be flexible and robust enough to hedge against this uncertain future as weather-related disasters become stronger and more frequent.

In the next 50 years, the built environment will expand to keep pace with rapid urbanization. By some estimates, close to 60% of the infrastructure needed to serve the population projections  has yet to be built or planned for. As cities accommodate these trends, the decisions they make now and in the next several years will be very difficult to change. Our strategies for building resilience today must form the basis for our cities becoming more adaptive to the unanticipated risks of tomorrow. They must account for the uncertainties of climate change and intended and unintended consequence of new technology.

Coping with systemic risk in adaptive and flexible ways to hedge against this future volatility is a skill cities must build to ensure their resilience.

Decisions cities have made historically are “sticky”

One of the most critical decisions cities can make is about their shape and form. We must contend with decisions that cities have made decades or even centuries ago that have fixed them spatially. Along with the challenges these pose, they also serve as a reminder of just how consequential those kinds of decisions are. The World Bank emphasizes to its partners that the physical form of cities is one of the most important things they must consider. Especially in rapidly expanding urban centers, the challenges include not only the inefficient use of existing resources but the growing vulnerability to shocks because of these exacerbated stresses. Unchecked urban expansion is thus even more harmful, and its consequences more intractable.

Juxtaposed with the legacies of fixed dimensions of shape and form is the need for flexible design. Ede stresses that we need to support decision-makers in cities to create new flexibility in housing, in major infrastructure, in mobility, and make sure we are all asking: how can we integrate a buffer that can hedge for uncertain conditions in projects created today?

How we handle public space provides some of the clearest guidance. For instance, when a city is expanding, what kinds of decisions is it making around bodies of water – is development allowed to continue unabated to the edge of a river, or are the consequences anticipated for developing in an urban landscape that will become increasingly inundated? Cities are acculturated to optimize every area available as they grow, including the continuing conversion of natural assets into commercial or residential real estate. Critical to a more flexible design then is accounting for the resilience value of protecting and mitigating these natural assets, such as wetlands and mangroves. Other steps can be taken to reverse incentives to develop to the boundary, many of which are not technocratic solutions but ones of policy. For example, in Colombo, in Sri Lanka, the city has invested in upgrading parks to serve as sophisticated flood management systems that also serve as public places for recreation. It is the kind of buffer for the uncertain future that cities must recognize within their built environment.

Technology can be a game changer

For Chief Resilience Officers, and other city leaders, building resilience lies in influencing how a city grows, in how it chooses to build in a way that can allow it to adapt and strengthen amid this uncertainty. Technology, while presenting some of its own unpredictability, also provides valuable tools for doing so.

As Ede reflects, technology can enable a city to integrate flexibility into systems – like housing and transportation — that seem especially impervious to adaption to unforeseen change.  technology can provide cities with essential information for articulating these new needs and projections, and then design new interventions that integrate them. For example, rapidly changing technology for early warning systems in flood and earthquake disasters will be critical to enhance the resilience of cities. Technology to improve the efficiency of natural resources such as water is fundamental for cities in water stressed regions of the world. Technology alone is not the solution, but it is a critical component of any resilience plan.

Ultimately, technology can help cities hedge against uncertain futures by creating options – designing for the flexible versus trying to engineer a perfect solution that is forever fixed in time.