What is Resiliency and Why Is It So Important?

As the global pandemic overwhelms healthcare systems, disrupts supply chains, and exacerbates longstanding problems like inequality, more and more attention is being paid to the concept of resiliency.

Right now we’re seeing that much of the economy, especially in the US, has prized efficiency over resiliency. In contrast, sustainability experts and urbanists have been advocating for resiliency as a key element in planning for the future.

But what does resiliency have to do with sustainability and cities? How can working with nature instead of opposed to it improve urban spaces?

Wetlands are an example of resiliency efforts from parks and cities
Once considered by many a waste of space, wetlands are now being intentionally incorporated into parks and cities to make them more resilient against flooding and rising sea levels.

What Is Resiliency?

The ability to bounce back and recover from a setback or shock is the defining feature of resiliency.

People who put their life back together after a loss or personal tragedy are called resilient. A building that can withstand extreme conditions like an earthquake or hurricane force winds is resilient. A country that can effectively handle a natural disaster or sudden economic contraction is resilient.

Generally people talk about resilience in terms of systems and how their components interact with each other during these shocks. So a particular person’s resilience is described in terms of how their psychology, health, social networks, and finances work together in the face of a problem. Analyzing a country’s resilience involves looking at its political, economic, financial, and social systems all together.

Cities and the environment are of course complex systems with many interlocking parts. Their resilience can be defined as their capacity to experience shocks while retaining their function, structure, and identity. Designing for resiliency involves learning lessons from biology and ecology and seeing how they can be applied in cities and communities.

Why Is the Concept of Resilience Becoming More Relevant?

The coronavirus has exposed a number of weaknesses in societies around the world. In the United States, we’re seeing that the country’s healthcare system is struggling to get a handle on the situation. Shortages of personal protective equipment, scarcity of testing, and the precarious finances of many hospitals has shown the fragility of the system.

Naturally, people are now looking at how to make their healthcare systems, economies, and societies more resilient in the face of this pandemic.

Resilience has also become an increasingly studied topic in psychology as well. For much of the 20th century the field primarily focused on mental deficits and disorders. But in the new millennium the study of beneficial psychological traits, known as positive psychology, has grown much more prominent.

And resilience is one of the key focus areas of study in this field. The popularity of and interest in positive psychology has only made the concept of resilience more widely known and studied in other fields as well.

Likewise, the environmental movement that kicked off in the 1970s as well as the field of ecology have increasingly looked at resilience in the natural world, particularly at how nature responds to adverse human impacts.

All these strands of thinking and study around resilience come together in cities and urban spaces. The key question is how to make these places more resilient in all respects—environmentally, economically, culturally, and politically.

Efficiency vs Resilience

Jenga blocks tumbling down
The most efficient way to build a taller Jenga tower leaves it prone to falling over. Additional blocks on each level make it more resilient to toppling.

Capitalism and the global economy have focused on ever-increasing efficiencies over the past decades. Just-in-time delivery has brought lower inventory costs but little room for error if demand quickly changes. Lean staffing has boosted profits and productivity at the cost of eliminating excess capacity.

The list goes on, but this emphasis on efficiency leaves little margin for error. Faster and cheaper is great when things are going smoothly, but now we’re seeing many systems struggle in the face of a massive disruption.

This highlights a key tension between efficiency and resiliency. The former focuses on making a system very well adapted to a fixed environment, but the latter focuses on making a system very adaptable to changing situations.

Making something resilient generally comes with a cost to efficiency. But making something more resilient naturally means it is more sustainable. And over the long run, since unexpected shocks are bound to happen, resilient systems are easier to maintain, less brittle, and less prone to catastrophic failures—the cost of which often outruns the cumulative benefit of efficiency gains.

Key Elements of Resiliency

What qualities make cities resilient?

Redundancy. While the drive to efficiency can lead to systems with single points of failure, resiliency requires that there’s a backup plan and alternative ready to go.

Multi-use infrastructure. Ensuring that infrastructure can be put to multiple uses increases resiliency. This can include ensuring buildings can be converted from, say, a convention center to a hospital or shelter quickly or making sure parks provide recreation space and help mitigate flooding.

Coordination without over-centralization. Cities need their neighborhoods, people, and assets working together in a coordinated but somewhat distributed way. Too much centralization can become a bottleneck and big point of failure, especially during a disaster.

One way to think of a resilient city is to imagine it as an organism. A city’s resiliency can be thought of as its immune system more broadly, from the skin as its first line of defense down to the sophisticated operation of T-cells and antibodies that rid the organism of infections.

While organisms clearly evolve to be efficient as they can be, their primary objective before that is not to die. If that requires having extra organs or multiple costly lines of defense, so be it.

An alternative is to think of resilient cities as ecological systems. What roles do each person, object, and institution play in a city and how do they respond to shocks to the system? What might emerge or evolve when new niches emerge after a crisis?

In general, planning for resiliency means planning for disasters. Too often the focus on efficiency and cost-cutting has left us with cities that experience enormous problems when setbacks happen and then require massive amounts of money and effort and disruption to set back right.

Resiliency in Urban Planning

Now let’s take a look at some examples of how resiliency factors into urban planning.

NYC Harbor Post-Sandy

Map of the proposed sea gate plan for New York City Harbor
The US Army Corps of Engineers proposed plan for walling off New York City harbor with sea gates during storm surges

After Superstorm Sandy devastated New York City with flooding in 2012, many looked at what needed to be done to prevent this from happening again in the future.

One idea that the Army Corps of Engineers proposed was a series of sea walls around New York City’s harbor to block storm surges. While this could have helped the city with future extreme flooding, the proposal serves as a bad example of resilient design.

Besides the enormous cost, these sea gates would be damaging to the natural ecosystem and most likely displace storm surge waters to other waterfront communities. This heavy-handed approach also wouldn’t address rising sea levels generally and could be rendered ineffective with a single breach.

Sponge Parks

Sponge parks in China
One of many planned sponge parks in Jiaozhou City, China

A better example of resilient planning for rising sea levels and storm surges is sponge parks. Jiaozhou City of Qingdao in China is developing a system of sponge parks like the one shown above both to help harvest rainwater to prevent droughts and to mitigate flooding from the sea.

These parks incorporate retention ponds, permeable surfaces, and flood-resistant plants to serve as giant filters and sponges for water.

This green infrastructure solution, as opposed to the traditional gray infrastructure solution like the sea gates mentioned earlier, is woven into the fabric of the city. It also provides recreation space for residents and is part of a growing system of sponge parks that each contribute to the city’s resiliency, but without any one of them being a single point of failure.

Dutch Car Park

Car park in Katwijk that shows resiliency in design
The car park in Katwijk blends into the environment while providing protection from flooding

The Netherlands has long been known for its engineering to prevent flooding. In the coastal town of Katwijk the community was able to solve two problems with a single project.

They needed improved coastal defenses for rising sea levels as well as better parking and beach access. The result is a buried underground parking facility with dune-shaped entrances that also acts as a bulwark against flooding.

It’s a great example of how resiliency can get embedded into urban infrastructure by ensuring that projects are adaptable to multiple needs.

Gowanus Lowlands

Green infrastructure designs from the Gowanus Lowlands plan that promote resiliency
Green infrastructure designs from the Gowanus Lowlands plan

In New York City, the Gowanus Canal Conservancy has put together a master plan called the Gowanus Lowlands that puts green infrastructure and resiliency front and center. Their plan calls for a vibrant, accessible waterfront along the Gowanus Canal that includes sponge parks, rain gardens, bioswales, street trees, and green space.

All these elements works together to make the neighborhood safer, greener, and cooler while reducing the impacts of flooding and combined sewer overflows in the waterway.

And the plan extends beyond the waterway itself, demonstrating how resiliency can be woven into the fabric of the larger neighborhood and watershed. This is a great example of the type of coordinated but not overly centralized planning that resilience calls for.

Greening the Air

Maps showing urban heat island effect in Washington D.C.
These maps from the D.C. Policy Center show the higher (redder) temperatures on the left correlate with less vegetated (redder) areas on the right.

Cities around the world are taking urban forestry more seriously than ever. Beyond providing shade and beautifying the streetscape, trees are an increasingly important part of urban infrastructure.

Trees can serve to absorb stormwater runoff and reduce the possibility of inundated sewers that trigger combined sewer overflows in addition to naturally filtering and cleaning rainwater. Moreover, trees are can reduce the urban heat island effect and contribute to healthier air.

The EPA notes a number of ways that urban forests improve air quality. The shading and evapotranspiration from the leaves can reduce street level temperatures by several degrees for a more pleasant environment. The lower temperatures also mean less air conditioning is needed in the surrounding area, reducing the use of greenhouse gases. And trees themselves remove pollutants from the air directly.

The many benefits that urban trees provide make them a critical piece of resilient infrastructure in many cities.

Making Resiliency Happen

So how do we make cities more resilient going forward?

Thankfully, now there are more examples of green and resilient designs and infrastructure around the world. The technologies behind them and our understanding of them are now influencing urban planning, governments, and communities more than ever.

But there are still many things that need to be done. More data needs to be collected on the benefits of resilient planning in terms of its effects on city budgets, the environment, and citizens. Better data can convince more leaders to adopt these approaches.

And while awareness is increasing, there is still a lot of outreach and education to be done. Residents need to be shown the value of resiliency and green infrastructure in their communities. Without public understanding and buy-in, resilient and green designs won’t be built or, if built, won’t be maintained accordingly.

If you’re interested to know how Temboo could help your organization measure, share, and grow its efforts towards more sustainable, greener communities, get in touch!

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