Evolutionary Resilience and the “Micro Urban” Community

5.3.13 | This may seem an odd question for a site dedicated to building resilient regions, but what is resilience?

To be sure, it’s a buzzword that’s made its way around myriad academic and urbanist circles, but resilience comes with myriad definitions and meanings that apply with very different degrees to the actual building of resilient regions. That, in brief, is the discussion in a six-paper “Interface” titled “Applying the Resilience Perspective to Planning: Critical Thoughts from Theory and Practice” and published in the June 2012 edition of Planning Theory & Practice.

Simin Davoudi leads off the discussion by asking, “Resilience: A Bridging Concept or a Dead End?” After tracing various definitions of resilience (engineering, ecological, etc.), she arrives at “evolutionary resilience,” or “the ability of complex socio-ecological systems to change, adapt, and, crucially, transform in response to stresses and strains.”

Evolutionary resilience is embedded in the recognition that the seemingly stable state that we see around us in nature or in society can suddenly change and becomes something radically new, with characteristics that are profoundly different from those of the original.

Keith Shaw follows by warning “the use of a resilience framework should not be for the faint-hearted” in planning circles because it “enshrines a radical challenge to the status quo.” Questions of resilience in rural Afghanistan and Sweden’s Luleå Kommun region (just south of the Arctic Circle) are examined, as is resilience vis-à-vis climate change.

Davoudi — joined by Libby Porter — sound “A Cautionary Note” for the politics of resilience for planning:

The potential for a more linked understanding of the social and the ecological are [sic] extremely useful for continuing to chip away at the engineering and silo mentalities that stubbornly hang on in the corners of planning theory and practice. Yet the tendencies of resilience thinking to assume that “socio-ecological” categories exist naturally, strip away human agency, normalise phenomena as if they are inevitable, hide the mechanisms by which “systems” are socially constructed, and depoliticise the value choices underpinning courses of human intervention should strike a highly cautionary note.

In another follow-up to Wednesday’s discussion, we discover that Rob Steuteville is not a fan of Joel Kotin’s take on the future of housing and regional resilience. “Mostly Kotkin ignores, or doesn’t understand, that the issue is not single-family versus multifamily, or suburb versus city. It’s not even higher density versus lower density. The urban-rural transect includes a range of walkable places, from suburban to urban core,” Steuteville says.

The issue is really walkable places versus auto-oriented places. Walkable urban places, which are where the market is trending according to many industry sources including the Urban Land Institute, Emerging Trends in Real Estate, and the National Association of Realtors, can be located downtown, in urban neighborhoods far from downtown, and in the suburbs.

These walkable urban neighborhoods often include single-family houses — but they are also mixed-use, more compact, and better connected than the far suburbs. There’s a big difference between a small-lot single-family house in a mixed-use neighborhood and a large-lot house that is isolated in the far suburbs. There’s a difference between a strip mall and a main street, an office park and a mixed-use workplace building.

Ironically, I don’t think Kotkin’s comments in Imagining Land Use in 2063 exclude the notion of walkable urbanism, even as he predicted an outflow of people from major metropolises to smaller, rural cities across the U.S. Midwest and Plains states (emphasis added):

He sees them fulfilling their dreams in places such as North Dakota, Iowa, and Utah, where new communities will spring up that will blur the traditional boundaries among rural, city, and suburban areas—“micro urban” communities, as the World Future Society has dubbed them. With broadband internet access and telecommunications links to the rest of the world, inhabitants of 21st-century villages will be able to do business without the need to commute to a major city, and they will be conveniently close to sources of food and energy. Kotkin predicts that these new communities will develop cultural and artistic amenities that Americans have come to expect from big cities.

“We’re already seeing this happening,” Kotkin explains. “Places like Fargo and Oklahoma City and Sioux Falls are developing nice urban cores. Twenty years ago, it was hard to get a good meal or a cup of coffee there. You have immigrants coming in, and bringing shops and restaurants. And if you have a good internet connection, you can read the Wall Street Journal or Realclearpolitics.com the same way you could if you were in midtown Manhattan.”

Photo/ Ian Freimuth 

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