Reporting on the Resilient City

 By Dr Peter Rogers

As a social scientist one of the constant pressures we face is translating our, often esoteric, work into a publicly accessible format or, more often, into something relevant to policy makers and practitioners in their host organisations. I have not always been particularly good at this – a long standing joke amongst one group of my colleagues is that the first draft reads like it was written by one of those dead white men you hear so much about in social theory courses – so it is a joy to me when a major publication or influential non-academic organisation takes an interest in one of the ‘soups’ I am ‘stirring’.

The round city of Baghdad in the 10th century, the peak of the Abbasid Caliphate. Illustration: Jean Soutif/Science Photo Library

The round city of Baghdad in the 10th century, the peak of the Abbasid Caliphate. Illustration: Jean Soutif/Science Photo Library

For some time now the Guardian newspaper has devoted an entire section of its online presence to reporting on the resilient city, giving this area of research an easily accessible public face very different to the rapidly spreading glut of academic publications that engage with urban resilience, climate resilience, green infrastructure and a host of other related ‘keywords’ and ‘search terms’. What we see in this emporium of interesting articles are a suite of easily digestible exemplars of contextually embedded projects and commentaries on the tensions emerging around the contested landscape of resilience in a rapidly urbanising world. It is a safe space for rethinking some of our assumptions about what resilient urbanism is and might be, offering a range of debates over what makes a city resilient. Whilst a bold attempt to engage with the wider themes of resilience it can also at times appear a little like a stone skipping across the surface of deep water, we know not what the pattern of these ripples signifies for wider thinking or for research and policy, nor what depths lie below the waters into which these articles may sink. Perhaps the value lies in the range and scope of examples and challenges documented from around the world, written up in a way not beholden to a research agenda or a policy platform. Articles range from flooding waterscapes in the public plazas of Copenhagen to the coming suburban health crisis in Houston appear next to discussions of flood defence and high rise development in Tokyo and tracking the impact of new public transport networks in La Paz, and more.

These exemplars show the breadth of interpretations one can draw around an urban resilience portfolio, where themes may not directly connect but the polysemy of the resilience concept allows for its use across a number of areas. It helps show not just the scope of different challenges, but also to highlight the nuance of place (the meanings attached to locations by those using them) and of spaces (the physical fabric of the location) as well as how the form and focus of building resilience can change over time and in different contexts. We must remember that cities are made for the people who live there not for the extraction of financial gain from the resources that move through them by private profit seeking entities. How people use these resources (power, clean air, water, food and yes, money) and how they see the challenges they must manage in their day to day lives – be it getting to work on time, finding a soulful location in which to contemplate life or engage with strangers in a distrustful world, and of course gain access to vital services where access is uneven (from basic utilities – shelter and so on – to ubiquitous ones – like internet access)– these are central to building inclusive, collaborative, meaningful resilience. Such resilience thinking has the potential to close the gap between the governor and the governed whilst empowering both to act in the interests of the whole population. What a capital and profit oriented city cannot do is help us move as one, and we are strongest by far when we do so. Not just in terms of our well-being but in terms of the democracy we inhabit.

The story of cities series also draws together a range of lessons and ideas from cities not just spread across the world but also spread throughout history, to tell creative stories of the role cities play in our changing world. This wide angle lens ranging from the birth of Baghdad was a landmark for world civilisation to how Canberra’s vision of the ideal city gets mired in ‘mediocrity’ gives a wider context for thinking about specific projects on a broader world scale that transcends the here and now or the specific locale project, but still inform our thinking about resilient cities in exciting ways.

Resilience projects can be designed in many different ways, and can be reported in as many different ways. But is not the goal to avoid forcing the citizenry to comply with external, expert-driven standards and to help inspire people to think about where they live in new more resilient ways? Expert driven thinking can often be too narrow, outside the interest or frame of experience of the general public. Bringing resilience down to tangible outcomes in stories of change that the citizen can read (jargon-free), that they can see, feel and use, that inspire people to rethink how they live in an urban world are important aspects of how we communicate the benefits to a wider audience. Through common interests and tangible interest stories, we can document the gains and dividends of resilience in ways that inspire – this can only be a good thing. Stories can help push the trajectory of building resilience away from expert-driven think tanks subject to subversion by the policy agendas of organisations, or academic research tied to project funding schemes and towards something accessible to a broader public readership. This can open a door to deeper engagement, help build a greater trust and wider understanding, and perhaps inform that sense that all are working towards the same goals. Perhaps this is something we might have lost from many modern constituencies in many democratic countries. Connecting the dots between different types of activities that fall under the banner of resilience is not entirely necessary, but such repositories of information as that provided by the Guardian raises the profile of the agenda rather well, and to a much broader audience than think tank white papers or peer-reviewed journal articles. A greater appreciation of the lessons to be learned from each example also allows experts and lay persons alike to reflect on a common understanding of resilience, to seek out ideas relevant to their own locale from the stories told about others, creating an opportunity for all to amend one’s own thinking. The freedom of the journalist to document ideas and lessons in different ways to practitioners and academics can be something informing our own work, showing examples embedded in exciting new and different contexts with potential to rework these ideas for our own locale, and if not then talking to those local to us to create new ways of working that empower our own resilience from these examples.

YOU CAN FIND THE GUARDIANS RESILIENT CITIES PAGES HERE: http://www.theguardian.com/cities/series/resilient-cities

Peter Rogers is a Senior Lecturer in the Sociology of Law at Macquarie University. He is the former Co-Director of Climate Futures research centre at Macquarie University and author of two books on urban resilience.

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