On Resilient Settlement

Tools and strategies for transition

Resilience and its failures in Japan, New Orleans — and the world


Another catastrophe has reminded us of the complexity of natural events, and the weakness of our own current technologies – the complexity of their unintended effects — in the face of such shocks.  (I mean “technologies” both in the familiar sense of gadgets, and the broader sense of economic and planning systems.)  

In Japan – especially in the Fukushima nuclear meltdowns — we saw a failure of systems that were, by definition, non-resilient: they were unable to absorb the impact of an unforeseen event without unacceptable collateral effects. To be sure, the nuclear plants were masterfully engineered, with highly effective sub-systems all working together for many years.  The plants had multiple backups, and they had delivered a steady supply of low-carbon energy to a large population. 

And yet, clearly the system was not fail-safe: it required a constant supply of coolant to prevent a meltdown at any time.  Any series of events could have deprived that coolant – tsunami, terrorism, catastrophic economic failure.  (It has been noted that if humans were incapacitated by a catastrophe such as massive asteroid impact or nuclear war, such a disaster might well be compounded by simultaneous meltdowns of the roughly 400 nuclear plants all over the globe.)

C.S. Holling, a pioneer of resililence theory, made a key distinction about resilience. One form of resilience (which he called “engineering resilience”) is stability near an equilibrium steady-state.  A nuclear reactor that has a fail-safe operation is one example of that.

Another form of resilience (which he called “ecological resilience”) emphasizes conditions far from equilibrium steady state, where instabilities can flip a system into another “regime” of behavior.  That new regime may be very disagreeable for the creatures involved.

The test of this kind of resilience is how much disturbance can be absorbed before the system changes its structure, and “tips over” into the new regime. (For more on this see http://www.geog.mcgill.ca/faculty/peterson/susfut/resilience/resilienceDef.html)

Holling said

“[The former] definition focuses on efficiency, control, constancy and predictability – all attributes at the core of desires for fail-safe design and optimal performance. The [latter definition] focuses on persistence, adaptiveness, variability and unpredictability – all attributes embraced and celebrated by those with an evolutionary or developmental perspective. The latter attributes are at the heart of understanding sustainability.” 

A key lesson is that in many cases we can engineer systems to be self-correcting and fail-safe only up to a point.  The problem can be when we combine these systems, and we experience unpredictable interactions. (Or, as in Japan, unpredictable combinations of natural events.) At that level we really can’t “engineer” resilience in any reliable way — we have to exploit its natural occurrence, as a kind of ecological attribute of the system we are dealing with.  In a sense, to be more resilient, our own technology must take on more of the characteristics of nature’s “technology.”

A key attribute of resilient systems in nature is simple redundancy and overlap — that is, forms of structural diversity that take the charactertistic of networks.  In such a structure all our eggs are not in one basket, so to speak. Computer connections, street patterns, interconnections between people, are most resilient if they have the structure of networks.  If one connection fails, there is another way to get around the problem.  (Christopher Alexander wrote about this in his famous paper “A city is not a tree.”)  

But we seem not to have learned this lesson very well, and the interconnections of our technologies are not diverse and resilient, but narrow and brittle.  The brittleness of our technology can be seen especially in its economic malfunctions: as just one example, the shut-down of one chip plant in Japan will now apparently idle many US car plants, and probably result in layoffs of tens of thousands of US workers.  The ripples go on, and combine in unforeseen ways. 

This is complexity in action.  We don’t know, often can’t know, where are the tipping points, the thresholds, the surprising sources of resilience – and the equally surprising points of catastrophe.  But we do seem to be entering a world where many more tipping points will be exceeded, with very dangerous consequences.  Hence the importance of understanding the problem, and taking steps to enhance resilience.  We have a lot of work to do, it seems.

One colossal mistake we have made, it seems to me — in our economics, and mirrored in our settlement patterns — has been to over-rely upon powerful centralized forces: standardization, templates, economies of scale, linear structures, hierarchies.  As Jacobs, Alexander and others noted, this is the opposite of networks or “web” structures. The more hierarchical, “long and narrow” approaches seem to offer the most power most quickly — and up to a point, they do work phenomenally well.  After all, we have achieved the phenomenal growth of the last century or so largely under such a model. 

But we are beginning to see the denouement of this regime, and to ask hard questions about what comes next.  We are beginning to recognize, I think, that to be truly ecological — truly sustainable — we will have to develop much greater diversity, redundancy, complexity, and integration with natural processes.  In place of the “long and narrow” approach, we need a “short and wide” approach.  (Or at least, a much greater balance between the two.)

What does this imply for the planning and design professions?  As a first order of business, the top-down plans have to be complemented by bottom-up strategies — capacity-building, resilience-building, carefully targeted catalysts, resources – strategies to change the “operating system.” All this can take time — sometimes a lot of time.

There were many good lessons from the recovery after Hurricane Katrina – and most especially, from its failures.  As often happens, we can learn as much or more from failures as from successes.  And these failures run very deep.

From a systems point of view, there was the disaster of the storm, and the disaster before the storm – the entire “operating system” that fed the old patterns of decline, fragmentation and waste.  This system produced perverse incentives, and allowed inefficient, non-resilient development to sprout up again in all the wrong places.  We can readily see the elements — the incentives and disincentives that make bad projects pencil and good ones die on the vine: the zoning codes, hidden subsidies, bank (and fed) lending rules, retail protocols, building codes, and much more. These are embedded with an old failing mechanical model of engineering.  All this has to be gone through and cleaned out, like a flooded basement full of muck. And it must be replaced with something more adaptable, more resilient, more supportive of growth.  

If you will, we need much more Jane Jacobs, and much less Daniel Burnham.

I think we can learn a lot from the resilience of informal settlements, and their patterns of self-organization.  These are dynamics we can exploit to achieve more resilient settlements in general.  But of course, to do that, we have to understand how to catalyze the desirable forms of self-organization; they don’t just happen.  That takes some very strategic top-down action. 

Many informal settlements are marvels of self-organization, with efficient street networks, distribution of retail and other hard-to-get urban qualities.  But at the same time, many of them have intolerable sanitation, lack of basic amenities, and dangerous levels of crime.  The challenge is to design “just enough” to provide the needed resources – as our colleague Diarmaid Lawlor put it, literally and metaphorically speaking, we need to provide “just the pipe.”

But while this “remodeling job” is urgent in places like the US Gulf Coast and Japan, it’s really just as relevant everywhere else.  We’re all in some version of New Orleans.

What are the planning principles that can guide such an approach?  Here, for our money, are eight that we suggest are critical:

A.     Plan Strategically and Catalytically.  Funds are scarce even in the most developed countries, and the premium is on targeting resources to catalyse desired urban growth and limit undesired growth. But with careful planning, these limited resources can be very powerful. For example, leaders can target key roads, water, sewer and transport services to provide desirable patterns of growth.  Careful spacing will support further bottom-up growth by the agents of most of the development – the developers, builders and owners.

B.     Build Capacity. The most important job of planning is to empower the agents of development – the developers, builders and owners – to build in a coordinated way, and in a way that creates long-term and stable value for the community.  This gives planners a very powerful tool: the inherent capacity of social self-organisation. But it requires that planners provide targeted supportive resources.  It also requires building the capacity of local organisations and partnerships. 

C.     Assemble toolkits.   Planners need to offer a localized set of tools that work together in a coordinated way – what’s sometimes called “plug and play.” These tools must be available to be assembled as needed, and adapted to the unique needs of a specific place. The most important tools are the ones that facilitate desirable growth, particularly at the scale of the block and the plot. (For example, variances and lot line adjustments.) This is the critical “grain of adaptation” that allows healthy future growth over time.

D.     Change the “operating system.”   Every increment of growth is ultimately dependent on the outcome of a complex set of rules, incentives, protocols, laws, codes and interests.  If consumers don’t want it, it won’t get built.  But equally, if bankers won’t fund it, or regulators won’t permit it, or leaseholders won’t write waiver agreements for it, or any of a thousand other incentives and disincentives are not in place – it won’t be viable, and it won’t be built.  The job of a planner is to identify the critical changes that must be made in this complex structure of incentives and disincentives, so as to support efficient and healthy urban growth. This is an important and hopeful new field of urban planning, first described by the pioneer Jane Jacobs, and later dubbed “economic gardening.”

E.      Re-use “Local DNA”.  Novelty and “thinking outside the box” can be exciting, but can also lead to disastrous failures.  Often the best solution to a local problem has already been found, and is already incorporated into local patterns.  This evolved “Local DNA” represents a powerful resource for planners.  But it must be found, documented and made available to local builders and developers.  

F.      Protect Resources.  In addition to the most obvious way of protecting resources – legislative fiat – planners need to use another, more catalytic method: engaging economic processes, and changing the mix of incentives and rewards that drive development.  Again, this is the “operating system,” which may reflect (or more often may not reflect) environmental costs.  “Externalities” – costs and benefits that are not usually part of a project’s economics – need to be brought into the economic calculation.   The complex structure of these incentives and costs must be coordinated to maximize efficiency, and minimize unintended consequences.

G.     Maintain Justice.  Local residents have a right to participate in acts of planning that will affect their own futures.  At the same time, the process must (continually) ensure that justice is maintained for all residents, and not just those who happen to participate in the planning process.  This includes the right to continued benefits from uncontaminated resources, like clean air and water, and healthy forests. 


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This entry was posted on March 25, 2011 by .
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