From tsunamis to terror attacks: do we need resilient cities?

Sunday 18 October, 12.00 until 13.00, Frobisher Auditorium 2, Barbican Battle for our Cities

When we talk about threats to society, from pollution and rising sea-levels to crime, terrorism or simply ill-health and disease, it increasingly seems that ‘crisis is the new normal’. And discussions about cities are no exception. Judith Rodin’s latest book, The Resilience Dividend claims, ‘we are at greater risk than ever from city-wide catastrophe, and as the severity and frequency of these disasters increase, we must become better at preparing for, responding to and recovering from them’. And according to global engineering firm Arup, ‘Those who run the world’s major cities are becoming increasingly aware that they are unable to cope with a number of global or regional scale threats: climate change, pandemics, water shortages, terrorist activity, collapsing fish stocks, to name but a few’.

Not too long ago, however, cities were discussed in far more optimistic terms. The postwar vision of town planning was to create a better quality of life through development. And the global phenomenon of urbanisation reflected people’s aspiration to seek a better life in big cities. Rural populations want the benefits that urbanism brings, and consequently the global population is now more than 50 per cent urban. Significantly, people across the globe are also living longer and healthier lives.

Nevertheless, many urbanists seem to have become infatuated by the perceived or even potential failures of cities, rather than their successes. In place of grand ambitions for bigger and better cities, the talk today is of ‘resilience’ in the face of manifold threats. Architects talk of ‘future-proofing’ while engineers ‘disaster-proof’. Of course, buildings in earthquake zones should have higher engineering requirements, but should we design everyday buildings with disaster in mind? Are cities under such threat that precaution should be our watchword?

In more practical terms, should resilience mean building better drainage infrastructure to remove floodwaters, or living on stilts to live with flood water? Should we design blast-proof windows and walls to protect ourselves against terrorist attack, or are we in danger of abandoning the conviviality of urban existence in favour of a survivalist mentality? Will fear of the future result in cities that more resemble citadels, or is it only right that planners and developers should factor in all possible threats?

Speakers
George Ferguson, CBE
mayor of Bristol

Cristiana Fragola
regional director for Europe & Middle East, 100 Resilient Cities

Martin Powell
global head of urban development, Siemens Plc

Austin Williams
associate professor in architecture, XJTLU University, Suzhou, China; director, Future Cities Project; convenor, Bookshop Barnies; founding member of New Narratives

Chair
Alastair Donald
associate director, Future Cities Project; architecture programme manager, British Council

Produced by
Alastair Donald associate director, Future Cities Project; architecture programme manager, British Council
Austin Williams associate professor in architecture, XJTLU University, Suzhou, China; director, Future Cities Project; convenor, Bookshop Barnies; founding member of New Narratives
Recommended readings
Megacities are bad for the developing world

Debating Matters' acclaimed Topic Guides place debates in a social context

Craig Fairnington & Joel Cohen, Debating Matters, 11 April 2015

What makes a city resilient?

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

Bruce Watson, Guardian, 27 January 2014

Resilient cities series

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