NEWS 2019-09-05

If a city is resilient, is it also sustainable?

Use of concepts like sustainability, resilience and transformation has skyrocketed in recent years, not least in when it comes to urban development, but discussions are plagued by confusion and vagueness on what the concepts mean. The big question is this: is a resilient city a sustainable one?

A study published in Nature Sustainability, led by Thomas Elmqvist, Stockholm Resilience Centre and with Beijer Institute director Carl Folke in the writing team, presents a new framework to resolve this.

Related but not identical concepts

The crux of the issue is that urban resilience and urban sustainability, though related, mean different things, yet the concepts are often positively correlated. The authors point out that cities have proven to be remarkably resilient complex systems, many cities have existed for thousands of years and have grown stronger even after major turmoil. . However, almost no city is truly sustainable – it’s resource use, including energy use, is extremely damaging to the long-term regenerative capacity of the Earth system to remain in a relatively stable state.

“In the next decade, $95 trillion dollars will be spent on new infrastructure to support an expanding urban development. Understanding trade-offs and synergies between resilience and sustainability is key in turning the largest and fastest infrastructure investment in the history of this planet into an opportunity”, says co-author Timon McPhearson, The New School University, New York.

Strengthen a specific pathway

Sustainable cities often focus on designing for maximum efficiency, the researchers argue in the paper. This ignores a key characteristic of resilient systems: redundancy, and this ignorance may lead to increased vulnerability.

For example, high-density housing is very efficient, but if a natural disaster strikes more people can be harmed. Or, take a city’s transport system and road network. Designing for efficiency can lead to gridlock if just one or two junctions or roads are blocked. Designing for resilience is less efficient but the system still functions after a shock.

The paper offers a view on how the three concepts  relate to each other in a way that could support policy and practice and also be suitable for addressing new and pressing challenges. With this view, any given city will have many different ways it could develop in future from “business as usual” to radical transformations and resilience is understood as the capacity to adhere to, or simply strengthen, a specific pathway. For example, resilience must be reduced to allow for breaking free from lock-ins of undesired resilience such as urban poverty, while in other situations, strengthening (social) innovations to take hold of desired resilience.

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Reference: Elmqvist, T., E. Andersson, N. Frantzeskaki, T. McPhearson. P. Olsson, O.Gaffney, K. Takeuchi and C. Folke..2019. Sustainability and resilience for transformation in the urban century. Nature Sustainability  2: 267–273