Resilience: Building Smarter, Not Stronger

In Al Gore’s latest book, The Future: Six Drivers of Global Change, he points out that it took nearly all of human history–some 200,000 years–to create the first billion people. It took only 12 years to create the last billion. We currently welcome about 1.5 million people to the planet every week, mostly in developing countries.

For the first time in recorded history, more than 50% of humanity now lives in cities. By 2050, some 80% will live in cities. Urbanization is already having a profound impact on our lives, yet we have little understanding of the unintended consequences.

When Hurricane Sandy hit New York, then Mayor Michael Bloomberg called extreme weather the “new norm.” Since then, 500-year floods have hit many parts of the world, taking communities completely by surprise as their existing infrastructure failed.

Michael Bloombergspeaking at the World Urban Forum in Medellin.

Recently, I’ve heard the phrase “we will rebuild stronger” used by some cities as they struggle to recover from catastrophic events, but I would argue we need to rebuild smarter, and that requires some serious planning. And as the former Mayor Bloomberg, now Special Envoy to the United Nations pointed out at the World Urban Forum in Medellin recently, it may be that “the norms that guided the planning of the past, no longer apply.”

Think about that for a minute. The norms of the past–building codes, policies, and regulations–that protected human life and property are no longer up to the task. From a planning perspective, that is quite scary to me. It means that “business as usual” will not work much longer.

If we are to make smart, livable, resilient cities, we need to reexamine our outdated assumptions and reboot our thinking about what it means to plan for a rapidly evolving world.

We need to take a systems approach to planning and calculate the cumulative impact of many small acts across disciplines and departments. We need simple tools to help us minimize risk while reducing resource use. We need apps that help us diversify and strengthen our local economies, and build redundancy into our many systems, from transportation to food and water. We need to go beyond the status quo.

The poor are the most vulnerable to catastrophic events.

Imagine an app that relates carbon sequestration to lowering rates of childhood asthma, increased accessibility to social equity, and planting more trees to lowered dropout rates for school children. We need apps that show us the money and lives saved by restoring our ecological infrastructure and designing cities for the benefit of people rather than cars.

That everything is interconnected has become painfully obvious now. Ironically, vast quantities of data are already being collected on demographics, traffic movement, air and water quality, water and power usage, waste production, traffic accidents, disease, crime, where we go, and what we buy. We have mountains of data. Why don’t we break down the silos, start connecting the dots, count what’s important, and plan accordingly?

That’s how you build resilient cities.

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Shannon McElvaney

About Shannon McElvaney

Shannon McElvaney is the Community Development Manager at Esri and a geodesign evangelist working on developing tools, processes, and techniques that will enable people to design, build, and maintain livable, sustainable, healthy communities. He has more than 20 years applying geospatial technologies across a variety of industries. He writes a quarterly column and is on the Editorial Advisory Board at Informed Infrastructure. Most recently, he is the author of a new book of "Geodesign: Case Studies on Regional and Urban Planning."
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  1. brya1680 says:

    Shannon, I couldn’t agree more. Especially with your statement that we need to collectively “calculate the cumulative impact of many small acts across disciplines and departments.” This challenge reminds me of Bill Odum’s piece “Environmental Degradation and the Tyranny of Small Decisions” in which he states, “A holistic rather than reductionist perspective is needed to avoid the undesirable cumulative effects of small decisions.” It is as true today as it was when he wrote it. Now let’s hope our global society can design a future that makes sense! Geodesign to the rescue!