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Urban Planning Fri Feb 19 2010

Resiliency Theorists in Chicago

Seed Magazine has a fascinating piece about efforts to apply scientific "resiliency theory" usually reserved for ecological systems, to urban centers. Resiliency theory is a way of conceiving dynamic systems to gauge how they react to changes in inputs and how embedded feedback systems behave over time. By looking at cities through a resiliency lens, theorists hope they can better understand how cities change, grow, and safeguard themselves, and perhaps even better plan systems to protect the general welfare and improve quality of life.

From the piece:

The Urban Network has research sites in 12 cities: Bangalore, New Dehli, Cape Town, Johannesburg, Chicago, New York City, Phoenix, Canberra, Helsinki, Istanbul, and Stockholm. These cities span the globe and differ vastly in terms of culture, history, and economic development. The ultimate goal, according to Thomas Elmqvist, lead researcher of the Network, is to do a comparative analysis of these cities. How are they similar or different with respect to handling development? How do they compare it comes to withstanding shocks and surprises?

"As humans, we should try to understand how to manage systems in order to avoid passing thresholds," says Elmqvist. But this is especially difficult in urban contexts, which have already been so transformed by humans that they've breached most of the thresholds ecologists are familiar with. When great expanses of concrete and steel now exist where trees and streams once did, new tipping points must be defined for places that are, as Elmqvist puts it, "already tipped."

Case studies are now underway in each of the Network's 12 participating cities. But in deciding what kind of data to gather, researchers have had to ask themselves: What would a city look like through the lens of resilience?


A city's lifeblood is a continuous flow of stuff--fuel, consumer products, people, and services that enter it either actively, through human effort, or passively through natural processes like solar radiation, atmospheric currents, and precipitation. Ecologists often talk about these resource flows in terms of inputs and outputs. They've developed several budgetary models of accounting for them, including the well-known "ecological footprint."

The resilience approach, according to ecologist Guy Barnett of the Urban Network's Canberra research team, focuses less on the resources that cities consume and more on the interdependencies along the chain of supply and demand. Dependence on a single type of fuel as an energy source, for instance, creates a highly vulnerable system--especially if fuel prices are volatile or if the supply is prone to disruption. Consider what happened just outside of Melbourne in 1998. Several explosions at Esso Australia's natural gas plant there killed two people and halted power supply to the city for nearly two weeks. As a result, the regional dairy industry, which relies on natural gas to power its milk pasteurization, was forced to shut down several of its plants. Some 25 million liters of raw milk went to waste.

So what went wrong? From a resilience perspective, it was partly the drive for efficiency. If the dairies had hedged their risk with backup fuel supplies, building more resilience into the system, milk pasteurization would not have ground to a complete halt. The number of supervisors at the gas plant had been reduced from four to one, and all the engineers had been relocated to the head office in Melbourne, leaving just one person at the controls. Simply having more people could have helped safeguard against catastrophe.

Efficiency per se isn't the problem, says Barnett. But the way efficiency is conceived, and pursued, is often too narrow. Society strives for efficiency by trying to eliminate apparent redundancies, but things that seemed redundant in a stable climate turn out to be valuable when conditions change. "The quest for increasing efficiency tends to result in systems optimized towards single rather than multiple solutions, centralized rather than distributed organizational responses, all of which are counter to the fundamental concepts of resilience thinking--'redundancy,' 'diversity,' and 'modularity,'" says Barnett.

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RAStewart / February 23, 2010 12:33 PM

Now this is a very fruitful line of thought, it seems to me, and shows the advantages of having people outside the usual disciplines--ecologists, in this case--join the discussion of urban matters. For a healthy ecosystem is full of redundancy and what a traditional time-and-motion planner would call inefficiency, but that's exactly what lets the ecosystem absorb traumas and adapt to changing conditions.

Over at the CTA Tattler blog there's a recurrent discussion of duplicated services. One of the bloggers in particular has an ongoing concern with efficiency and frequently points out bus services that parallel train service and could be reduced or eliminated. Well, in the short term, in a system that barely has the resources to survive, things like this may be necessary. But in my opinion this kind of pare-down-to-the-bone "efficiency" should be regarded as a necessary evil, not as a good to be striven for.

I've always thought of the London and Paris transit systems as excellent examples of healthy urban transit, and recently had my second opportunity in many years to use the London system and see if my impressions hold up in practice. The Underground is currently experiencing a lot of local shutdowns for repairs and renovations and because of power failures here and there. It's very annoying and can cause significant delays--basically you go into the station and check the current status of the line you want to take, hoping for the best. But here's the thing that impressed me, coming from Chicago, more than the inconvenience: if you can't get to your destination by your preferred direct route, you can figure out an indirect way there on another line, or a combination of lines. It might take you longer, and you might have to walk a few extra blocks, but you can get there. And that's just on the Underground. Up on street level there is a whole network of bus lines that we in the U.S. can only dream of, and that we didn't have time to begin to learn in our few days there.

Basically, anywhere you want to go in London, there seem to be two or three ways to get there by public transit. That's an example of a healthy, resilient urban system that doesn't have to work perfectly to work well. In Chicago, the kinds of service disruptions that have been ongoing in London this winter would paralyze whole sections of the CTA and leave travelers trudging to distant bus stops and waiting for hours, scrambling for cabs, going home and getting into their cars (perhaps never to return to public transit)--or just never getting where they wanted to go.

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