How can we transcend urban resilience to make our cities safer?

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Practice Leader—complete communities | Associate urban designer

“回復力” Kaifuku-ryoku- Resilience

I discovered there is a term in Japanese for food and nutrition education called Shokuiku. According to Mimi Kirk from City Lab, “In 2005, with more children battling eating disorders, the government enacted a law on Shokuikuthat encourages schools to educate children on good food choices." School advocates in the country tackled the lunch program by turning it into an educational experience instead of a recreational one, preparing the younger generation to be more independent and resilient. Shokuiku teaches kids how to properly handle food, improve table etiquette, eat healthy and well-balanced meals, and clean up after lunch. 

As I look at Japan’s social resilience through the cultivation of better food planning and practices in their cities, it made me wonder how other cities and urban environments fare with their resiliency?

“Resilience isn’t a single skill. It’s a variety of skills and coping mechanisms.” - Jean Chatzkys

Even though Jean Chatzkys’ definition of resilience relates to entrepreneurship, it’s also relevant to our built environments. When we talk about urban resilience, we conventionally focus on three distinct threats: climate change, natural disasters and terrorism. While there are economic problems such as rising energy prices and global demand, outstripping supply and financial struggle to replace aging infrastructure, the impacts of these threats vary across continents and developmental scales. 

However, no matter where, we urgently need cities to function as highly complex adaptive systems, and in turn, we must better position and equip them with a variety of best practices and coping strategies to build urban resilience. 

According to the 100 Resilient Cities initiative by The Rockefeller Foundation, “Urban Resilience is the capacity of individuals, communities, institutions, businesses, and systems within a city to survive, adapt and grow no matter what kinds of chronic stresses and acute shocks they experience.” Organizations like this have also been known to collaborate on a larger platform to achieve the global sustainability goals on climate change, disaster risk reduction and other urban agendas. For example, the 2014 Medellín Collaboration for Urban Resilience, launched in Medellín, Columbia, boasted “a new alliance between nine of the world’s largest UN and non-UN organizations joining forces to build urban resilience and to strengthen the social, economic and environmental fabric of the world’s urban spaces.” 

Chaired by the UN-Habitat, the Medellín Collaboration for Urban Resilience included many prominent social enterprises such as 100 Resilient Cities, the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, the World Bank Group, the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery, the Inter-American Development Bank, Rockefeller Foundation, the C40 and the ICLEI Local Governments for Sustainability and Cities Alliance. The Medellín Collaboration established the baseline of a city’s resilience, providing an array of tools designed to improve city-level resilience and producing a guidebook to help cities with design, planning and managing building resilience. Interestingly, the City of Medellín is no stranger to building urban resilience, transforming from the murder capital of the world (remember Pablo Escobar, who headed the city’s drug cartel back in the early 90s?) to a total-urban social integration equipped with the world’s first modern urban aerial cable car transport system called the Metrocable.    

Instilling resilient practices in children can also transform how communities and cities survive, adapt and grow after environmental disasters. In 2013, massive flooding struck Southern Alberta as natural waterways breached banks, spilling into streets and homes. Since the flooding, Alberta Innovates Health Solutions has supported a new research project at three universities in the province called the Alberta Resilient Communities (ARC).  

Similar to Japan's food and nutrition education Shokuiku, the ARC hopes to understand better how social, economic, health, cultural, spiritual and personal structures factor towards child and youth resiliency—helping prepare their communities for future disasters. Led by the faculty of social work associate professor Julie Drolet, professor Robin Cox from Royal Roads University and Mount Royal University’s assistant professor Caroline McDonald-Harker, ARC aims “to inform and strengthen child and youth mental health and enhance disaster preparedness, reduce risk and build resilience in Southern Alberta.” Since then, they nurtured and tapped into the creativity and commitments of youths and students, resulting in remarkable solutions, both technological and social. These solutions include a game-structured app and social media campaign, highlighting positive social and environmental actions. 

As urban planning and design professions, we have the social obligation to instil urban resilience in cities and promote such awareness and information within our community. ResilientCity.org—a useful resource for planners and designers—has a working definition that explain how “a Resilient City is one that has developed capacities to help absorb future shocks and stresses to its social, economic, and technical systems and infrastructures so as to still be able to maintain essentially the same functions, structures, systems, and identity.” Also, most design principles for resilient cities are generally consistent with those of Complete Communities (i.e. designed to reduce economic and environmental costs while enhancing community livability). These principles include the following:

  • Dense mixed-use neighbourhoods to allow for energy-efficient functioning between social, cultural and business activities, thus increasing the resilience of these neighbourhoods: LIVING. 
  • Improved economic health and elimination of all wasteful and harmful bi-products to allow for the preservation and prosperity of communities: WORKING.
  • High walkability and sustainable public transit systems and reduced car-oriented urban patterns to allow for stronger independence from fossil fuels: MOVING.
  • Positive placemaking approaches such as vibrant public realm or heritage preservation to allow for an improved city-life and keen sense of identity: THRIVING.

I also believe a fifth principle should be added to this list: PROTECTING, which looks at smarter ways to protect our homes from being damaged by environmental or climatic causes. For instance, looking at the recent forest fires in Canada (like Fort McMurray and Slave Lake), we should encourage more defensive planning mechanisms within our communities such as higher flame-resistant standards, Asset Protection Zones (APZ) and development of inter-agency strategies for quicker response time.  

What kind(s) of resilience do you think your city should invest in for the future?

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