What we talk about when we talk about ‘resilience’

Given the current conversations about the ‘smart city’, or its satirical counterpart in Utopia.

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July 2019

Given the current conversations about the ‘smart city’, or its satirical counterpart in Utopia, you can’t help but wonder what resilience and sustainability actually mean, given their frequent use.

For Melbourne’s Chief Resilience Officer, Toby Kent, it’s simple.

“For me, Melbourne’s desalination plant is a good example of a resilience-building action: we still need to do all of the water-saving measures as ‘sustainable’ activities, but we also need to acknowledge that things will go profoundly wrong, and we need to have the spare capacity to meet our needs.”

Granted, there are plenty of things that Melbourne needs to be resilient. For one thing, as annual summers will continue to smash heat records, the city’s public transport network simply can’t be expected to pack up each time the mercury rises. It’s challenges like these, and a raft of others, that the Resilient Melbourne office wants to get the city thinking about.

“Rather than looking at what needs to be solved in a given political cycle, it’s worth looking at what Melbourne’s immediate stresses are and working from there,” says Kent. “Examples of immediate stresses include: A rapidly transforming population, ongoing and increasing social inequality, and the perversity of social isolation in an ever-more connected society.”

Melbourne’s first resilience strategy, released in 2016, brought together all 32 metropolitan councils, over 1000 people from 230 organisations, and various Victorian Government departments. In brief, it’s a document that sets out Melbourne’s plan via four pillars:

  • Adapt: Reduce our exposure to future shocks (like a future pandemic) and stresses (one being climate change)
  • Survive: Withstand shocks (i.e. freak weather events / infrastructure failure) and bounce back better than before.
  • Thrive: Improve Melbourne’s quality of life.
  • Embed: Mesh resilience thinking and planning into Melbourne’s institutions and broader work habits.
  • “What your engineer or architect can do to tackle Melbourne’s pressures is to begin to focus much more consciously on the interplay between the city’s shocks and stresses,” says Kent. “So say if I’m building a bridge or a train station, I’d consciously make an effort to understand how well they’re integrated with other parts of the city to create resilience.”

Resilience, in Kent’s eyes, goes a lot further than ensuring Melbourne withstands something like climate change. Building true infrastructure is just as important.

“You’ve got to be ensuring you’re designing for the bottom 20 percent alongside the top 80 percent,” he says. “There is a reason why we have that well-used phrase, ‘being born on the wrong side of the tracks’, because they both symbolise and foster a lack of inclusion .”

It’s this inclusivity that has knock-on effects in times of crisis, given that other forms of infrastructure will have to perform when others fail.

“Take a look at Resilient Melbourne’s work to establish a metropolitan cycling network,” Kent explains. “If we work toward a truly accessible and safe cycling network, not only can it reduce congestion and pollution, but it can be there for the city when other infrastructure fails in times of crisis, which was demonstrated in New York during super storm Sandy as people hopped on bikes to evacuate to ride to loved ones”

And, of course, in a more unpredictable world, those living in cities will have to be more creative in order to withstand the shocks and stresses that this century will bring about.

“Melbourne’s metropolitan-wide forest is a great example of non-traditional infrastructure fostering resilience,” says Kent. “While we know that open space and tracts of nature spur active exercise and positive mental health, we also know that nature functioning as infrastructure can improve soil quality, help a city better manage flood risk, and cool the city in periods of extreme heat.”

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