While many point to robust disaster defences, others claim social cohesion is what makes a city great. They're both right, and new projects aim to unearth dozens of other factors
When it comes to addressing civic problems, one of today's buzzwords is "resilience". The United Nations office for disaster risk reduction recently launched a Making Cities Resilient programme; in Wisconsin, the Centre for Resilient Cities opened a research lab just last year.
At the Rockefeller Foundation, the 100 Resilient Cities project is highlighting urban hardiness around the world, while the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives is hosting its resilience series. Companies like Siemens are getting into the act, as are organisations like the World Bank. Books are being published, conferences are being held, and, around the world, resilience is being encouraged.
At first flush, resilience seems a clear lens for addressing the problems of cities, suggesting – unlike "sustainable" or "livable" – a fairly inclusive standard of measurement. Resilience reflects a city's ability to persevere in the face of emergency, to continue its core mission despite daunting challenges, and is as appropriate to discussions about Venice's rising tides as Medellin's corruption, Detroit's unemployment as Budapest's floods.
The concept also extends beyond disaster preparedness. At a recent clearinghouse on resilient cities, Thomas Frieden, director of the US Centers for Disease Control, noted that "Resilient systems are everyday systems that can be scaled up. Managing in an emergency is like managing normally, except more so." In other words, as cities work to build resilience, they should develop procedures that enable them to carry out their daily mission, whatever that mission may be.
One strength of the resilience lens is that it can address life expectancy in Glasgow, population retention in Dakar and religious clashes in Ramallah. This, however, could also be a weakness, as the needs of individual cities are not only varied but might be contradictory. As the notion of resilience is carried across cultures, and applied to hundreds of cities around the world, varying ideas about the purpose of cities, and of the individuals who reside in them, becomes a potential stumbling block.
For a westerner schooled in the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, the purpose of a city might be the preservation of life, and "a more contented life thereby". For one who follows his compatriot John Locke, the purpose might be the preservation of "life, liberty, and property." But, as the emergence of factory towns or frontier communities suggest, cities are built for numerous reasons other than the needs of their citizens. And, while the rights of the citizens and the needs of businesses, or the defence of national security, often go hand inhand, they do not always do so.
The Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena, renowned for his work on socially inclusive urban designs through his practice, Elemental, explains the concept of resilience in terms of "magnets," which draw workers to cities, and "bombs," which push them away. As the global workforce becomes more mobile, cities that offer the best amenities and resources will draw the most workers – and will be the most resilient. Alternately, he notes, cities that are unable to maintain a high quality of life will be less resilient.
The question of the purpose of cities, and their responsibility to their citizens, is at the centre of the Rockefeller Foundation's 100 Resilient Cities programme. Designed to promote urban resilience around the world, the programme will award grants to 100 cities that "have demonstrated a dedicated commitment to building their own capacities to prepare for, withstand, and bounce back rapidly from shocks and stresses". The Foundation's support will include hiring a "chief resilience officer" for the city, as well as providing aid to develop a resilience plan and access to services to begin implementing that plan.
More than 1,000 cities registered to take part in the Resilient Cities programme, and almost 400 formally applied for inclusion. On 2 December, the foundation announced its first 33 honorees. Arrayed across six continents and 21 countries, the selected cities range from thriving megacities like Mexico City to struggling regional hubs like Rotterdam, relatively young metropolises like Porto Alegre to some of the oldest occupied areas on the planet, such as Rome. All have experienced significant setbacks that have tested their resilience, and they have all attempted to design programs and procedures to help them come to terms with their vulnerabilities.
According to the Rockefeller Foundation's president, Judith Rodin, the intention is to circumvent the problem of conflicting civic and cultural philosophies by focusing on solving specific problems, using flooding as an example She says: "Your city's vulnerability to water may require an 8ft-tall dike, while another city requires natural infrastructure like archipelagoes and oyster beds. Those are very different practices, but they represent the same resilience principle, which is that you've got to figure out how to deal with water in a way that really works."
Ultimately, Rodin hopes, the programme will form the basis of a "set of systematic resilience principles that are generalisable". And, eventually, she says, the project hopes to help all cities learn to view their specific problems "through a resilience lens".
But is it possible to trade a specific regional lens for a worldwide one? To some extent, this conflict emerged when the mayors of two of Rockefeller's honored cities outlined the problems that their communities face. Noting that New Orleans has, in recent years, weathered two devastating hurricanes, a financial crisis, and an unprecedented oil spill, its mayor, Mitch Landrieu, highlighted the city's historic relationships with cities around the globe, and suggested ways that it could leverage its web of economic and cultural connections to develop solutions to its problems. On the other hand, Khalifa Sall, the mayor of Dakar, Senegal, noted that his city's relationships with other areas is part of its problem, as more economically robust regions have been siphoning off Dakar's young workers.
By placing the question of resilience in the hands of 100 cities spread around the world, the Rockefeller Foundation is effectively outsourcing the question. The answers are likely to be pragmatic and ad hoc, a collection of best practices for dealing with a variety of crises. More broadly, however, the resilience movement is a global attempt to address two of the longest-standing and most vital questions facing theorists, planners and leaders. Namely, what is the purpose of society, and what is a society's responsibility to its citizens.