Mike Friesen, a planning student at the University of Manitoba, was inspired to write some comment following a presentation, sponsored by BTA Works and SCARP, regarding resilience of cities at UBC Robson Square.

“I thought it was a really interesting discussion but one that was seriously flawed in a few ways. I was particularly surprised by the seeming lack of understanding regarding how much infrastructure investment has been required to develop our cities to their current state, and how much our physical structures may need to change in order to adapt to
climate change and achieve resilience.”

Here’s Mike:

Community Resilience: Local and Large Scale Solutions Needed

Considering the recent flooding in Alberta and Toronto, the tragedy in Quebec, and the increasing frequency of disasters across the globe this issue has, arguably, never been more pertinent. How to achieve resilience is still very much a matter for debate particularly with regards to defining the role of centralized bureaucracies compared to localized networks. It may be argued that poor infrastructure planning has created a vulnerability to climate change, but large organizations will be critical in the transition towards more resilient communities.

Mary Rowe – Vice President and Managing Director of the Municipal Art Society of New York – provided inspiring examples of communities in New Orleans and New York overcoming man-made and natural disasters to rebuild, and actually improve, their communities through local support networks and ingenuity combined with sheer force of will. These communities have solved supply problems, connected with their neighbours, and stood strong in the face of seemingly overwhelming odds; they should be applauded and their examples shared.

There is a growing movement calling for increased space for locals to share their knowledge and understanding of local circumstances: a noble and worthwhile endeavour. However, there was a very strong sentiment being forwarded that government needs to back off to allow communities to rebuild how, and where, they see fit.

This is, in our current situation, a very dangerous line of thinking. Our cities are built, and reliant, on infrastructure that could not have been created without massive undertakings from central governments, and despite missteps that have occurred, our central agencies have the funds and expertise that will be essential in helping communities achieve resilience in the (hopefully near) future.

Areas such as the Lower 9th Ward in New Orleans would never have taken their physical form without the dredging of swamps, the canalization of rivers, the building of bridges and roads, the laying of fresh water and sewage disposal pipes, and the upkeep of power generating facilities. Disasters such as hurricanes Katrina and Sandy force us to address the flaws in our city building that have been accumulating over (at least) the past 60 years. We need to learn from our mistakes and make our cities more resilient through changes to our physical environment. Occasionally this will necessitate that areas not be rebuilt.

Although we are experiencing shifts in global weather patterns that have never been previously recorded, there are numerous examples of localized disasters – often accumulating over generations before culminating in a sudden mass exodus or severe decline in the quality of life – that show the dangers of refusing to adapt.

While I have no doubts regarding the tenacity of New Yorkers or the resolve of New Orleanians, I do not believe for one moment that they care more about their homes and livelihoods than the former residents of Angkor Wat or Easter Island. It is hubris to imagine that conviction alone will allow us to overcome Mother Nature’s ever worsening mood swings without substantial physical change, particularly in our coastal cities.

If and when a catastrophe hits the Lower Mainland we will need to have a somber and difficult conversation regarding where and how to rebuild our communities; our pre-existing physical forms would have failed, it would be negligent to rebuild them identically. Ideally we will be able to consider probable future disasters in our current planning and infrastructure decisions rather than waiting for the “Big One” to force our hand.

The new social networks in New York and New Orleans provide residents with a community that can help to heal both the emotional and physical trauma these landscapes have sustained. If communities have the choice I believe most would like to return to their homes, rebuild, and return to “normal”. This would be as misguided as allowing the government to singlehandedly guide reconstruction.

What is needed is a meaningful exchange between local and central stakeholders to determine potential solutions. Community groups have proven to be very effective at providing ongoing services and finding ingenious solutions to local problems, but without the large scale changes engendered by central agencies I worry that these groups will be forced to constantly clean up after tragedies rather than providing a sense of belonging and focus for community energy.

Many mistakes have been made, but resilience is about continuing to improve and adapting as new challenges emerge and we will, on occasion, need big government to help develop and maintain critical infrastructure as well as to mobilize aid to areas in dire need. Central agencies are slow to react by their very nature, but deserve the opportunity to develop their own resilience. Our cities may very well depend on it.