Resilient Cities Are Adaptable Cities

4.24.13 | The intersection of structural/architectural resilience and regional resilience is rather busy these days.

In Measuring Building Adaptability and Street Vitality — one of many papers available at this site, courtesy of Routledge Planning & Urban Design (part of the Taylor & Francis Group) — authors Alan March, Yogita Rijal, Sara W. Wilkinson, and Ebru Firidin Özgür measured street vitality and building adaptability in downtown Melbourne, Australia. They conclude that “adaptability, when translated to actual adaptation, facilitates sustained vitality.”

The authors conclude that “successful urban areas” — and I conclude that this lesson extends to regions, too — “accommodate complex patterns of diversity and mix, evolving and adapting to the built form to meet changing social, economic and ecological circumstances.” They also conclude that buildings erected a century (or more) ago may be more adaptable than the modern buildings in which we take so much pride. This argument is an axiom in New Urbanist circles; indeed, one of the movement’s tenets is that we must rediscover and reuse a placemaking form that’s proved its resilience not over decades, but millennia.

Research is needed to consider whether it is actually adaptability that supports vitality, or if it is in fact scale, grain, location and quality of places. Determining this would allow issues that affect vitality, at ground level in the street, to be better regulated alongside factors that assist in avoiding overall building obsolescence. It would be beneficial to expand this study geographically and to include longer time periods to develop more concise principles and regulations to make the most from our economic and social investment in cities.

Coincidentally, over at, Michael Mehaffy and Nikos Salingaros are three steps in to a five-part series of posts titled “Toward Resilient Architectures.” Part One draws on Biology Lessons to suggest that resilient design can be found in natural systems. For example, they say, resilient natural systems have interconnected network structures, diversity and redundancy, wide distributions of structures across scales, and capacities for self-adaption and self-organization. But we, in our 20th-century wisdom, turned that upside down — declaring cities to be dendritic structures that eliminate redundancy in the name of efficiency, shed ornamentation for mechanization, and relegate all ideas from the past to the trash heap because they “can only be an expression of reactionary politics.”

From the perspective of resilience theory, this can be seen as an effective formula for generating non-resilient cities. It is not an accident that the pioneers of such cities were, in fact, evangelists for a high-resource dependent form of industrialization, at a time when the understanding of such matters was far more primitive than now.

Part Two examines the question Why Green Often Isn’t. They take note of The Chesapeake Foundation’s boneheaded move of building the first LEED-Platinum building … out in the suburbs of Annapolis, MD, which forced everyone to drive there, thus offsetting the building’s energy and emission savings; and of the peculiar traits of both modernism and what they call the “Oil Interval” (one sustains the other). Modernist form language is poorly suited to our current resilience challenges: “We do need a ‘big rethink’ about the most basic methods and systems of design for the future.”

Part Three considers How Modernism Got Square, tracing the roots of this movement’s impact on architecture and design and concluding that, as THE model for architecture and urban/suburban design, it’s a resilience dead-end:

Key to resilience is the way different parts of geometry lock together into larger functional (but not rigid) wholes. In the most ecologically resilient structures, they do this by forming symmetries across inter-linked scales. The resulting structure has the hallmarks of adaptive, evolutionary self-organization: redundant (“web-network”) relationships, diversity of mechanisms and components, innate ability to transfer information among many different scales, and fine-grained adaptivity of design elements.


We are beginning to understand that the industrial form language represented a catastrophic loss of this adaptive structural capacity, bringing with it enormous negative consequences for the environment we inhabit. It deprived us of the thought processes necessary to conceptualize the characteristics of resilient environmental structure—web-network relationships, diversity, linking of scales, and fine-grained adaptivity.

While the March et al. paper and the Mehaffy/Salingaros series discuss structural resilience, their lessons apply to regional resilience, too. Adaptation and reuse are not concepts limited to the building, block, or neighborhood scale. The regions that apply these concepts are the ones that will come out ahead in the near- and long-term futures.

Photo/ Barbara Ray

Comments are closed.