Medium__mg_7470_klein Resilience: New buzzword in crisis?

14 Nov 14:03

Eva-Maria Stumpp

New TURAS editorial: New in Town? Resilience is the buzzword in urban planning. What could this actually mean for those in the business?

New in Town?

Well-known already and applied in fields such as IT, material science, psychology and ecology, the concept of resilience definitely has made its way now into planning and politics. And somehow, this development seems to be urgent: at the annual congress of the “Association of European Planning Schools” (AESOP) in 2009, only two of the more than 400 presentations were referring to the term resilience in their headline. In 2010 this number had already risen to 15, in 2012 more than 30 presentations and several special sessions were held on this topic. Therefore, it doesn’t cause surprise that the 2013 AESOP annual congress will be held under the title “Planning for Resilient Cities and Regions”.

Following sustainability now resilience seems to be the new buzzword in urban-regional matters. But what does this actually mean for those who are working on and planning for our living environment? And if any, what are the implications for their on-going endeavours?

On Resilience and Resilient Cities

One starting point to answer this question can be seeking a hypothetical trail from sustainability to resilience, and going back on it shows us possible traces of a paradigm shift. This seems to have started already more than a few years ago, and can be nicely illustrated by the example of another organisation that has been rather active lately in the field of resilience planning:

Founded in 1990, the “International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives” revised its mission, charter and name to “better reflect the current challenges local governments are facing” in 2003. So it became ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability, as it is still known today. After this broader mandate for sustainability issues, ICLEI then added the topic of adaptation to its strategic plan in 2006; and in 2010 it officially introduced the term resilience when launching the first Global Forum on Urban Resilience and Adaptation, which will enter its fourth year with Resilient Cities 2013.

As an organisation that has its roots in practice, ICLEI reflects the change of urban environmental matters during the recent decades. Perception and approaches underwent an evolution from protective-conservative and in this sense static, to continuously more systemic and cross-linked and in this sense more dynamic:

Thus the environmental concept of protection and conservation subtly begins to “oscillate” when more process-related ideas like harvesting and growth are (re-)infused; and such accompanied by social and economic aspects, the concept of sustainability ascends as the new star in the age of growth. Similarly and shortly after, the concept of climate change mitigation (not implying much dynamic from its literal interpretation) seems to give in and acknowledges the phenomenon of change followed by the necessity of changing our own behaviour; and with this more flexible as well as pro-active twist climate change adaptation soon complements the picture of the urban development discourse.

In retrospect, this process may seem trivial. Even worse, sustainability appears to be the “soup of harmonisation” that feeds all those who have run out of ideas. And just now resilience comes around the corner, and brings along the chance to spice things up again. But rather than overindulging now on this ostensible new and foreign taste, we should grasp at the opportunity that opens up each time a new idea or concept enters the urban stage. And as with any new citizen in town, we should take our time to get to know it – find out what it’s like, where it comes from, what it may mean to us – to maybe finally integrate it in our reality, our everyday life in a sustainable manner, rather than showing it off as a new attraction.

The story resilience has to tell is an interesting one, and it picks up where we left the plot line before: Where sustainability talks about linear or circular processes of growth and long term consumption, resilience comes up with ideas of networks and self-renewal; when sustainability seeks continuity of performance, then resilience wants survival. Adaptation in the context of sustainability refers to continuous change and to sensitivity and vulnerability; in the context of resilience it refers to sudden disturbances, catastrophes, and to recovery and renewal. In the context of sustainability adaptation deals with the unknown by planning for possible futures, in the context of resilience it tries to prepare for the un-projectable, the impossible-to-imagine. Sustainability can be made, resilience happens – and in such moments we need to trust the system we created to maintain its elements and functions. In summary, the evolution in environmental planning towards resilience thinking is far from trivial – resilience as a concept is more dynamic, it is non-linear and cross-linked, complex so to say, and it embraces uncertainty.

This latter aspect could be a reason for planning science to have entered the resilience discussion rather late. Planning and uncertainty, almost by definition, don’t match very well. On the other hand, the problem to plan for the “unknown unknown”, “the uncertain uncertainty”, sometimes referred to as the “planner’s paradox”, already has been recognised and can’t be discussed here in depth (even if it certainly feeds into the resilience discussion some other time).

For whatever reason, politics and practice seem to have been quicker. One could even say that the concept of urban resilience has its roots in politics, an assumption strengthened by the topic’s given proximity to disaster (risk) management. Natural disasters, as high-impact incidents, have always been strong on the political agenda, but especially in damage-intensive urban areas. And they got even more present there in connection with the climate change debate. On the other hand, the climate change debate’s attractiveness seems to have worn off. The strong relations to the paradigms of sustainability made its context look unchangeable, its approaches restrictive if not moralistic and the debate as a whole somehow tiring. Resilience with its change of perspective (from diminution of disturbance to the promise of indestructibility) has the potential to positively emotionally re-charge the political arena.

But within all this happiness there is one looser. Sustainability has lost its job to the promising new colleague and probably finds itself in a serious crisis of meaning, wondering what it did wrong. What has happened is that it failed to deliver. We kept it so busy, “party-hopping” from one political event and one discipline to another, that it missed the chance to get something done. But it is even harder to participate “meaningfully” in the urban everyday life if you do not know who you are. And this is actually the fate a few voices already now predict for resilience, too.

At the first ICLEI’s “Resilient Cities” conference the dispatching message was to begin “to cooperate and collaborate”, the following year it was to “develop visions”, gain a perspective. This year, at the conference’s third turn, it was to “get things done”, implement what you envisioned. But how do we get there? Criticism on the current course spans from “under-theorisation” to “abstract academic discussion”. The probable truth is: They are both right. What is needed is high-quality secured research and sound theory, to finally operationalise such generic abstract terms as sustainability and resilience in the urban context, to come to concrete advice and measures and their implementation, involving local actors from political, entrepreneurial as well as private background. Integrating these two activities as well as the well-established political circle is a task of its own. But the good news is that planning and especially urban planning always has been a multidisciplinary activity. And with its pending unease felt at the “new uncertainty”, the disciplines of planning might well have found their new task here, in theory and practice.

The host being an association founded by mayors, it is hardly surprising that 42% of the “Resilient Cities 2012” participants belonged to the category governmental/political. Only 22% were from companies (17%) and non-governmental organisations (5%), with the remaining 25% coming from universities or research institutions. But if ICLEI takes its own message serious it will hopefully do its best to somehow level these shares in the future. Furthermore, we all will have to look beyond our accustomed horizon, be open to fundamentally new, at first glance maybe even unsettling encounters and ideas – without necessarily having to ignore all former acquaintances or principles.

So after “gaining a perspective”, as Dr. Marcus Collier wrote in the first TURAS editorial, we always, in the best “resilient manner”, have to come down again to our urban realities and implement what we envisioned. And when we land we better hit the ground running – as being prepared even for being unprepared is what resilience is about after all.