Municipal Postcard: Resilient by design

For Andrew Walker resilience should be about looking at the whole context of a place and then thinking about urban design, infrastructure, economic growth and community engagement in radically different ways. He found examples aplenty in  New York.

Last week I was in New York for the Cities for Tomorrow conference, hosted by the New York Times. Many aspects of what makes cities resilient were unpacked and discussed in depth and in the context of New York City itself.

We’ve been thinking a lot about resilience at LGiU recently.

It’s a sign of the times that there should be global interest in a concept that stresses recovery and survival. We feel that many of the issues bound up with resilience could be deployed in a more positive way in order to shape and build strong places that thrive, rather than merely survive. This could help us to think about urban design, infrastructure, economic growth and community engagement in radically different ways.

These conversations were threaded throughout Cities for Tomorrow and it was encouraging to see how many key players understand the need for thinking clearly about who actually uses cities, how people move around them and how they access services.

Interesting examples were raised that demonstrate the potential of city infrastructure to deliver on its technical requirements without creating physical barriers for the people who live there.

The Dry Line is a planned flood protection scheme for lower Manhatten in New York, following the disastrous impact of Hurricane Sandy in 2012. The lead architect for the scheme, Bjarke Ingels, described it as “the love child of Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs” because it incorporates functionality as well as a wider social function. Infrastructure doesn’t have to be “caged and/or caging” as many highways and flood-walls are. It can help to facilitate and represent community. The dry line will include plants, parks, cycle lanes, and seating and activity areas.

There were discussions about how we use data and how government at all levels might learn from the innovations going on in the sharing economy, looking particularly at new companies like Air BnB and Uber. San Francisco, for example, was raised as an example of a city integrating aspects of the sharing economy into its resilience plan.

There was also a lot of talk about the extent to which change should be directed by policy makers. Many felt that government should create the conditions for innovation and new ideas: “You can’t push rope” said one expert on transport planning, but we have to work with people so they use streets as effectively as possible, whilst helping to make the case for transport as a public good.

Though several models of “community engagement” were raised, including budget consultation in Washington and various housing programmes in New York, I couldn’t help thinking that we were missing the ways in which participation and dialogue could be integrated into urban resilience planning from the outset.

It was particularly encouraging to hear the argument that we shouldn’t be looking for one model or one framework to solve the resilience question, however. There are many issues and we require multiple responses. This is particularly important as resilience necessitates looking at the whole context of a place, taking into account the complexity and interconnectedness that exists. Focussing on any one issue in isolation is not satisfactory.

As we plan for a more integrated picture of resilience in our cities, we could do a lot worse than look overseas for inspiration.

Andrew Walker is a policy researcher at LGiU.

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