What urban planners think of resilience thinking

2.21.2012 | The summer 2010 issue of Critical Planning asks urban planners to imagine their job in a new light. What if you replaced your current planning framework with a resilience framework? The results–based on a set of three workshops in Glasgow, Stockholm, and Melbourne— provide a fascinating look into the practical realities of rethinking urban planning.

In “Metropolitan Planning and Resilience Thinking: A Practitioner’s Perspective,” Cathy Wilkinson, Libby Porter, and Johan Colding report first on how the urban planners in the workshops reacted to the concept of resilience planning. Their working definition of resilience (much simplified here) is based on the concept of an adaptive cycle (think nature), essentially successful self-organizing after a disturbance or shock. Adaptation to abrupt change is thus central.

Resilience thinking starts with a larger, “systems-thinking” approach, as the ecosystem of a city or region has a lot of interlinked, interdependent moving parts that must be recognized and coordinated in any response. As BRR member Todd Swanstrom wrote in “Regional Resilience: A Critical Examination of the Ecological Framework,” [pdf] much of the early thinking about resilience came from an ecological systems perspective. Ecosystems are designed to self-organize to achieve balance or equilibrium. If a drought wipes out a species or plants, a new desert ecosystem arises with a completely different dynamic. The resurgence springs from a system breaking down and finding a new equilibrium. This kind of resilience is spurred by constant change and adaptation, and the greater the biodiversity–the more moving parts– the greater the chance that a new equilibrium will emerge. Applied to a regional perspective, resilience thinking might inform new ways of responding to change in metro areas and regions.

But, as Swanstrom notes, “applying the framework of ecological resilience to human institutions and governance processes generates paths to greater understanding, as well as dead ends.”  The urban planners would agree.

Immediately, the urban planners in the workshops were intrigued, yet skeptical, of a resilience frame. They liked, for example, the notion of resilience as a powerful metaphor. It gave them another way of thinking about things, that in itself released them from more tried and true (rigid) ways of doing things.  Planning, the authors note, is nothing if not a framing of the problem or organizing attention to possibilities–and a resilience framework opens the door to new ways of doing that.

For those working on sustainability projects, the urban planners especially liked the ability of a resilience framework to break through the problem of adopting ’sustainability’ as a concept. As one participant noted, resilience as a frame is:

“more understandable and effective than sustainability. Substitute risk for resilience and if you articulate the risk, decision makers understand the concept, but they will not understand sustainability no matter how you define it. But if you quantify risk and resilience, it gives you the kind of approach that, plus the framework, provides quite a powerful tool.”

Resilience as a metaphor also helps to break down the urge to think linearly. It challenges the blueprint planning or the “survey-analyze-plan” tradition of thinking. Because thinking about resilience requires thinking about the entire system of moving parts at once, linear thinking doesn’t bear up well.

But resilience as a concept also comes with some problems–namely, it turns on change. And people hate change. And if people hate change, politicians hate change.  People also hate complexities and uncertainties, which are inherent in any attempt to deal with a lot of moving parts, as resilience thinking must. So within this system, the authors ask, “how do planners frame complexities and uncertainties so as to render them governable given the wicked dilemma that we must act anyway?” In effect, planners must assume change and explain stability instead of assuming stability and explaining change. Not an inviting prospect, especially when politics are in the mix–and they always are in urban planning.

Swanstrom in his paper notes a similar problem. “Power and conflict are present in regional governance in ways that are not present in ecosystems,” for example.

It’s also hard to harness the tension between strategic long-term planning and local, fluid control in an urban or regional setting, the planners noted. It’s a trick to shift from saying “this is how you should do it” to saying “here’s the outcome we want,” and then allowing local actors to figure out how to achieve it. It’s a fundamental tension between institutional stability and change, the planners noted.

Resilience, Swanstrom argues, is best served by recognizing these different spheres of influence in the public, private, and civic sectors. Each of these sectors has its own way of responding to change. Each plays a unique role in contributing to the whole. Regional resilience, Swanstrom argues, “is most effective when each sector operates according to its own principles and is not contaminated by the processes of the other sector.”

“The private sector maximizes the resilience of individuals, the civic sector of communities, and the public sector of the society as a whole. Without a balance between the three sectors, controlled ultimately by a central authority, society will either become rigid or innovation at one level will undermine resilience at other levels. In short, resilience does not require merging human systems with nature in one integrated system but requires maintaining spheres of resilience with carefully guarded borders.”

Wilkinson and coauthors conclude on a similar note–at least for the prospects of using resilience in regional planning. The concept is a mind-opening metaphor for urban planners; it offers a fresh frame for seeing solutions. But in actual implementation, the devil is in the details. As the authors write, more work is needed: “we encourage attention to the analytical and governance dimesions of resilience alongside its metaphorical power.”

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