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Opinion article

Resilient cities are fit for many futures

Arup Australasian Cities Leader Malcolm Smith considers the ways we should be preparing our cities for future disruptions.   

Our cities are changing, but they continue to be sought-after places for people to live, providing convenient access to jobs, education, entertainment, health care and community. However, our burgeoning cities are becoming increasingly vulnerable to many shocks and stresses that can impact lives and the quality of life. 

How do we reduce these impacts? And how do we become more resilient? We need to plan differently and recognise that we don’t have only one future, but many possible futures. To be fit for many futures, there are three fundamental questions to ask.

What disruptions do we need to plan for?

Disruption is about changing the ‘everyday way of life’. We often think about negative disruptions, but a major event like the Olympic Games or a festival will disrupt the everyday city and have tremendously positive outcomes. 

Disruption can be short in time and narrow in impact – a sporting event or a storm – and very particular to a place, or it can be long in duration and wide in impact, like what many have experienced with the COVID-19 pandemic. The latter kind of disruption challenges us to think the similar issues we need to prepare for, such as sea level rise.  

If we are to plan for these events, recognising that we can’t plan for every possibility, we need to prioritise the disruptions that are particular to place. These are likely to be a combination of very local issues and wider, shared issues. Getting the priority of disruptions right at the outset is key, and for that we have tools like the City Resilience Index at our disposal.


City Resilience Index

How can we understand possible impacts and plan for appropriate actions?

Unlike any other time in human existence, we have digital tools to understand and model complex interactions of variables that are common to disruption scenarios in a virtual environment. We are able to ‘twin’ our physical cities with virtual cities, mapping visible components of our city such as buildings and landscape, as well as the invisible – the quality of our air, the impact of heat and the movement of people and goods. 

We increasingly understand the inter-relationships of these components, and how one variable affects one or many other issues. With this model in hand, we can then test the impacts of the disruptions we have determined are appropriate for a particular city. Flood modelling for example, is well advanced, but increasingly we can do this for many other disruptions. Once twinned, we can propose and test possible solutions, to see what options are available and what is the best way to prepare to address such impacts. 

How can we prepare to respond to disruption?

Organisations like our tremendous emergency services, both professional and volunteer, will remain at the foundation of our resilient cities when negative disruptions occur. But we also need to plan for the wider scenarios that could eventuate. 

To augment how we currently plan our cities, we develop ‘urban overlays’ – physical devices and organisational capacity that could be temporarily deployed in a particular scenario. Examples might be flood barriers or emergency water supplies, barriers for a cycle race, or as we see now, temporary health care facilities. Simply put, we use existing infrastructure and devices in unexpected ways to meet an urgent need, for example the interim repurposing of trains in France into hospitals. 

Disruptions, whether large or small, global or local, positive or negative, are affecting cities at an increasingly rapid frequency. To be ready and resilient, we need to understand the priorities of each place and recognise that there are shared challenges and local challenges. We need to embrace digital tools and systems that allow us to model impacts and test solutions, and empowered by this understanding, develop urban overlay strategies for our cities to be ‘fit for many futures’.  

About the authors

Malcolm Smith

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Malcolm Smith is Arup’s Australasian Cities Leader and the founding director of Arup London’s Integrated City Planning (ICP) unit, which brings together design, economics and political strategy in complex master planning projects. He has advised influential non-government organisations including the Gore Foundation, UN Habitat and the World Bank. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and a Fellow of the Academy of Urbanism, and a past member of the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) Review Committee in the UK. 

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