October 14, 2013

The Dark Side of Urban Resilience

Segregated Distribution of Resources.   Photo: Sutika Sipus 2012, Turkmenistan.
Resilience is a much loved subject these days. I have written extensively in the past about the over reliance on trends in the field of urban planning, including the notion of resilience. But of course there are times that these concepts can be useful, if at least, as a point of reference when exploring a problem. There is also some excellent work out there on the subject, most notably the research undertaken by Diane Davis. Recently, I was discussing with a client the overlap between escalating gang violence the over-burdened transportation system in Tegucigalpa, Honduras when a very simple, but overly ignored notion, occurred to me. The same systems of resilience that are believed to improve cities are also the same systems that undermine their progress.

Before I explore this further, I feel it is necessary to give some background on my understanding of resilience. Earlier this year, in June 2014, I was invited to attend a two-day event entitled The City Resilient, in New York City. Hosting a diverse collection of experts to explore the role of resilience in cities, it was clear that no universally agreed upon definition exists for this concept. I'll never forget when the question "what is needed for resilience" received a response from one guy of "dog parks." I understand his point (nodes for social interaction etc), but if I were to tell the Mayor of Kabul, Mohamed Yunis, to build a dog park... lets just say I'd rather not.

Resilience theory was first introduced in 1973 by Canadian ecologist C.S. Holling and is founded on the premise that humans and nature co-evolve as a single socio-ecological system and this system is constantly in flux. Resilience does not consist of a linear pathway but is composed of interrelated feedbacks, is self organizing, and adaptive. To assess the how a system can engage and absorb stress is to establish not only a series of measurements for a singular system, but to also measure the interaction of micro-systems. Within resiliency theory there is no true homeostasis; rather resilience entails flexibility and turbulence.

From an urban planning perspective, I suspect resilience is a difficult concept to use because a resilient urban system is not necessarily the most efficient. Resilience is about decentralization, a concept frequently at odds with city budgets, management practices and the politics of city government. Constant flux also goes against the grain of the planning profession. The inability of urban planners to implement the concept of resilience is in many ways the fault of the disciplinary structure, as planning is a positivist discipline that attempts to solve problems by implementing empirically organized procedure, and is most often exercised through the construction of large-scale projects such as sports stadiums, shopping centers and residential housing complexes.

In the end, we are left with old school empiricists trying to embrace a fluid concept. Or we might have more dynamic thinkers limited to antiquated tools. Or maybe the tools - dog parks - appear trivial but it is impossible to measure the impact? In many ways, this problem summarizes much of what I find frustrating about the planning profession - the problems are engaging, the empiricism is satisfying, but the tools and the objectives are constantly outdated or are actually irrelevant. Unfortunately, like any discipline, the perception of the participants is restricted by mastery and engagement with discipline itself - this it the same reason thousands of kids go to art school every year to be uniquely creative but as an aggregate, churn out art that all looks the same.

Anyway, the interaction of fragmented, seemingly disparate urban phenomena within the built environment is critical to the sustainable wellbeing of a resilient settlement. To intervene in a manner that adds more pieces to the problem, more micro-systems, is to congest the city and undermine its resilience. I believe this problem can be dealt with in many ways, if we were to adopt a more Bayesian and sequentialist approach to the problem, such as embraced by my own Integrated Planning Process™. But regardless of the method, we can identify that observable benefits and improved health of one site is often due to the offset conditions of other locations, one location enjoys business growth yet an adjacent market weakens. This is not to imply a zero-sum scenario but merely to identify that overall capacity toward sustainable development is not improved. In contrast, the increased resilience is actually a redistribution of existing resources, but often not.

This is where the role of resilience becomes more complex when utilized as a method to improve cities. This also how resilience can harm a city. When an urban environment is healthy, there is a multitude of linkages, and a multitude of "spaces of flow" (to borrow from Castells), which allow the circulation of resources. Yet when an environment is insecure due to crime, war, or insurgency, the instigators of conflict appropriate the micro-systems that contribute toward urban health for their own means (either directly or indirectly). Roads and irrigation systems that once supported the local economy now become systems for the production and shipping of drugs, facilitate the proliferation of arms, and mobilize insurgent fighters. Adjacent micro-systems respond to these changes and the overall urban fabric of the settlement takes on a new shape. The more linkages and circulatory spaces, the more success a broadly distributed network of illicit activity will be able to succeed. The faster the disease spreads and embeds itself, the more resilient it becomes. Eventually the landscape conforms to the demands of the disease - the farms fund the bad guys, the streets serve as their delivery routes, and the cops work for them.

The negative influence of bad guys does not exist in a vacuum. To be clear, an ongoing socio-economic and cultural transformation of the community under the power of the militant group is reflected within the built environment. Drug cartels in Latin America are dependent upon the same transportation, agricultural, and economic systems as everyone else. Understanding the built environment within a conflict is to recognize the nuances of the multi-tiered stage on which conflict is played out. Those who understand the terrain and can connect the terrain to the community will have an advantage and will be resilient to change. But those who have the power to reorient the shape of the urban fabric and restructure the resilience of the site will control the outcome. So by this argument, if I tackle the traffic problem in Tegucigalpa (nowadays considered the most dangerous city in the world), I have the potential to also impact the complex criminal networks that presently dominate the landscape. But to do so, I must identify precisely how the traffic functions within the criminal system.

If the resilience of crime functions upon the same systems of resilience that help communities, establishing security and stability for socio-economic growth is more than a simple matter of removing the people who initiate violence. Security and positive urban resilience requires interventions into to the built environment to reshape the urban fabric so as to maximize local resources, not just redistribute them. But what we do call an intervention designed to remix the building blocks of resilient systems and transform them into socially productive components? I like to call it nothing but good planning.

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