A Global Virtual Roundtable on How to Measure, Why to measure, Cities Resilience

Since more than a decade, urban resilience has entered political agendas worldwide, academic debates, and within this blog specific interest, planning debates. The Joint AESOP/ACSP conference titled “Planning for Resilient Cities and Regions” (Dublin, July 2013) already explored and addressed the possible linkages between resilience and planning (Kieran Donaghy and Michael Neuman provided a brilliant synthesis of the confere here) after AESOP YA been introducing such debates among young scholars within the Annual Meeting in Vienna.

While after few years debating on resilience the most of the scholars, from different disciplines, agree on resilience to be an inspiring metaphor, multifaced concept that goes beyond risk mitigation and potentially overlapping (or even substituting) sustainability, resilience has also been  highly criticized, since deeply susceptible to Risk-washing labeling business as usual development strategies. However, on the ground, city resilience practices, agendas and plans increasingly growth and sprawl among practitioners, NGOs and multilateral agencies, producing an astonishing diversity of interpretations and approaches in framing and addressing it. Maybe because of that, the global virtual magazine and discussion site “The Nature Of Cities” (TNOC) organized in May 2015 a Global Virtual Roundtable titled “Taking resilience out of the realm of metaphor. How do you measure resilience in cities?“. Twenty invited responses from academia, practitioners and  multilateral agencies addressed such issue from different point of views.

While I’d invite everyone who’s interested in taking a look to the discussion happening and to contribute to this (until June the 8th there is the comments section open for debate and feedback), herewith I think it’s worth spending few words on the main learning from these 20 responses. The timing of such discussion in addressing the measurement of cities resilience it’s strategically set and could not happen in a most appropriate moment. After Rockefeller launching its City Resilience Framework, and worldwide cities struggling to be one of the 100 receiving the founding and support in building city resilience strategies, resilience seems indeed to be clearly framed within measurable (or at least accountable) indicators. However, notwithstanding the wonderful work developed from ARUP for Rockefeller (in my view, and I was among the critics about measuring resilience, the City Resilience Framework is but the most comprehensive framework, based on evidences and workshops, and trying to frame all the potential facets contributing to resilience in cities), such “normative” aspect of building and measuring the performance of resilience seems not that clear and agreed, still.

If you ask me, I’d say that among the 20 responses you could distinguish at least 3 main groups of responders : i) people proposing specific resilience best practices and solutions, ii) people highlighting the usefulness of the assessments (or self-assessments) in order to learn how to shape priorities among different strategies for building resilience and finally iii) the measurement skeptics, highlighting the danger of framing resilience as a normative concept to measure in order to evaluate the performance.

In particular, Prof. Lance Gunderson reminded the differences among engineering, ecological and  community resilience, mentioning that “attempting to measure or index resilience (-) creates a spurious certitude that is likely to drive maladaptive actions and constrain creative and productive actions that may help change unwanted trajectories“. In line with this, Prof. Thomas Elmqvist also shared his preoccupation on resilience metrics, stating that “resilience represents a systems approach (non-normative) to meet the challenges of sustainable development. Only is we view resilience as being a non-normative systems approach where cities are viewed as open systems connected to the rest of the world in many ways, may we be able to design appropriate indicators of urban resilience and measure some of its components”. Tom Henfrey was the most clear in criticize resilience, stating that “all talk of resilience these days is highly politicised” and “the essence of this neoliberal discourse is to conflate resilience with persistence”. In his view “urban resilience, therefore, is presented as the ongoing existence of cities in something like their present form: nonwithstanding either its desirability or wider consequences“.

But if one steps out from the academic point of views, to read the institutional perspectives, the answers were not really so much different, and positions less concerned. Although not directly criticizing resilience or measurements, all the other answers shared the notion that resilience is not the bouncing back or “maintaining” the system properties, but should be oriented through “change and transitional patterns”. Dan Lewis and Patricia Holly (UN-HABITAT) jointly argued that since “Planning in the 21st century hasn’t changed since the beginning of the 20th century, and the inertia is enormous” we should understand “that if there is demand for creating more resilient cities and towns, is indicative—not conclusive—of a desire for change”. Cezar Busatto (Porto Alegre) indeed pointed our that resilience should be seen as a “new holistic approach that tries to reconnect knowledge that has been imprisoned in silos in the last centuries”. The way of reconnecting such knowledge is framed across social networks and communities resilience enhancement in different answers, presenting sharp solutions and experiences through people engagement and empowerment within city resilience building. People-centered approach is key, as emerge from this roundtable, and actually this focus help in framing the scale through which resilience should be operationalized: Franco Montalto proposed “to design resilience, we need to think small, and diffuse, not big and centralized” and “we can measure it by interacting with urban people“.

I could pick-up dozens of bright and sharp quotations form such roundtable, and I thing this is not the aim the post. I hope, on the contrary, to have just woke up your interest in go though it, and find among the excellent point of views the ones you agree on, or the perspective you don’t, and engage the debate. After the Medellin Collaboration on Urban Resilience launched at the World Urban Forum in 2014, and being one step to the adoption of the Sustainability Development Goals, the Paris Climate Summit later this year, and the World Humanitarian Summit and the Habitat III conference, re-shaping the global goals for urban development from 2016, I think that who’s interested in urban resilience should find now the right time to enter the debates and shape and disseminate his-her points of view.

Link to the global roundtable: http://www.thenatureofcities.com/2015/05/19/taking-resilience-out-of-the-realm-of-metaphor-how-do-you-measure-resilience-in-cities-how-would-you-know-if-your-city-or-your-community-was-resilient/

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About Lorenzo Chelleri

Lorenzo Chelleri is a multidisciplinary Postdoctoral Fellow in urban studies at the Gran Sasso Science Institute, GSSI Cities. With a background in urban and regional planning, environmental policy and urban geography, his research addresses the critical overlaps among smart,sustainable and city resilience paradigms. Lorenzo co-founded the international networks UR-Net (Urban Resilience research Network) and OURS CITIES (Operationalization of User-driven Resilience for Sustainability transition in Cities).
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