Are our cities fit for crisis?

July 05, 2021

Resilience is intelligence: to be prepared for future crises the design of the city organism must be farsighted. Decentralization is an important step here.

Short walks and green cities – important characteristics of resilient citiesShutterstock

Resilience is intelligence

In hindsight, it seems prophetic to think about the stability of our cities in stressful situations in January 2020. Already before the coronavirus, Urban Hub—the interactive platform for everyone interested in the future of our cities—asked "How does a city deal with crisis?" and defined urban resilience as "the ability of urban systems to maintain stability during trauma or stress ... including both hazard planning and the flexibility to adapt to new conditions." This definition is strikingly similar to that of intelligence as the ability to solve problems. Accordingly, only an intelligent city can become and/or be a resilient city.

Prior to COVID-19, the primary focus was on power outages, extreme weather events, drinking water supplies and terrorist attacks, and what is needed to make cities resilient to unforeseen negative impacts.

The trick is called decentralization: urban districts that mix living, working, education, shopping and recreation form quasi-autonomous micro-locations. Why is that?


Short distances and green cities

It was not only the pandemic that revealed the vulnerability of many components of public transport. Not only infectious diseases, but also power failures significantly compromise their use or functionality with the corresponding consequences for attendance at work, at school, etc. In mixed districts, the distances are shorter, creating considerable potential to do without motorized transport as short distances can be covered more easily and more often by bicycle or on foot. This way, environmentally friendly mobility can succeed—without considerably affecting convenience.

When car traffic takes up less space, the quality of staying in cities improves. Because quality of life in cities needs non-economic public space: parks, sidewalks, places without compulsion to consume or buy, which provide space for informal communication. Danish urban planner Jan Gehl puts it this way: "A city should be built so that eight-year-olds and 80-plus-year-olds can move around as safely as the rest of the population."

Less motorized traffic also creates more space for green areas. This is of fundamental importance for creating climate-resilient cities: through evaporation, trees contribute to air conditioning in hot summers, which we can expect to see more often in the future. Urban farming may still be a utopia today, but why not produce food locally on a small scale? Resilience also has to do with self-sufficiency—the less transportation needed, the more resilient the city.

Neighborhood is community

The Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy argues that especially the pandemic has shown that "local solidarity", i. e. cohesion in the immediate environment, is central to crisis resilience and sustainability. When people are suddenly confined to their homes and immediate surroundings, they realize how important it is to upgrade them and make them attractive. This is particularly essential in view of the steadily increasing number of single households in cities, which otherwise lead to isolation. Functioning neighborhoods make cities attractive for all age groups and enable local supply.

Let's summarize: resilient cities must allow proximity AND distance, namely not just the safe distance between two cars. They must have a fragmented structure so that problems can be quickly solved locally and do not spread to all parts of the city unchecked.

Stephanie von Keudell

Independent journalist