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Glass-House Chats: What is a Resilient City?

Posted on 27 June 2023

Written by:

Jake Stephenson-Bartley

In this Chat, we explored the meaning of resilience in the context of placemaking across the built environment and beyond. What does resilience mean, and can we embed it within our places and communities to weather the coming changes?

We were joined by an eclectic mix of individuals from a number of worlds within the placemaking environment and profession. The group brought together a collective lens which felt rich and poignant as we drew on what resilience meant across our varied backgrounds and experiences.

We acknowledged the breadth of places that resilience could be embedded; our food, energy, water, housing, as well as the need to look towards a hopeful future.

What Does it Mean to Be Resilient?

Well-being, imagination, and foresight are rooted in resilience.

When contemplating the role of well-being and resilience, we all felt it important to acknowledge that the capacity and energy for individuals to engage can have an impact on how places or communities retain, catalyse or support resilience. Thus, often impoverished or disadvantaged communities, individuals and families with busy schedules, might be less able to participate in collectively making places resilient.

For those with mental health struggles, one participant pointed towards social prescribing, where doctors prescribe connection with others through joining local groups as a way to support individuals’ wellbeing. This action supports the well-being of the individual but also the resilience of community-making and building. Another participant recalled a tradition from their home in Indonesia whereby communities and families come together to share a meal once a month, strengthening local social networks alongside individual well-being, all of which contribute to creating well-connected, healthy and therefore resilient communities and places.

Imagination was also discussed as a tool to support resilience. Intertwined with ideas of imagining possible futures, there is need for hope and ‘hopes’ contribution to looking forward positively. Imagination can happen and have power at multiple levels, from the individual imagination to hopeful visioning and policies from local and central government.

Local to Global / Individual up to Government

When talking about resilience, it’s hard to ignore the breadth and scale of where it needs to be embedded, or turned on its head to encourage the flourishing of all earthly inhabitants. Resilience should be a considered part of everything we do, and as such should be embedded across the many facets of society.

Through our Chat, we explored the idea of ‘positive’ resilience, which allows places to better weather shocks to the climate, supply chains or economy. We agreed that positive resilience should be seen as a goal both for individuals, communities, organisations, and business at both a local and global scale, but also the wider political governing bodies which can often impact the capability of how resilient we can be.

If we were to take the stance that ‘community’ is at the heart of it all, society, economy, health and climate, what would that mean for creating resilient places? It would firstly require taking a bottom-up approach to establishing resilience, supporting communities to retain local wealth and to challenge the levees of power and ownership across the places we live, work and play. In addition to the de-centralisation of government and a shift from hierarchical ideologies to more flat or circular power structures.

We shouldn’t assume that people know what power they have, so there is a need to support communities in recognising their own power to catalyse change and support resilient places.

However, the responsibility to generate change and the rhetoric of self-reliance should not be one left to the community and them alone. The rhetoric of self-reliance could be portrayed as a tactic used by governing institutions within the context of austerity. It is important for the government to build mechanisms to support resilience and not completely rely on communities to catalyse projects and initiatives of need (by themselves).

The political system itself is resilient, and could be considered impenetrable by those without the tools to access it. So, how do we create ‘positive resilience’ across political institutions?

You can’t do Resilience Short-term

In the current context, we live in a globalised world where systems, such as food, products and even politics, are intertwined with a global society. We cannot take things out of this global context, and when thinking about resilience in placemaking it is important to have a window into the wider global landscape to allow ourselves to think with longevity. For example, when talking about political cycles, we recognised that in the grand scheme of life, these cycles are very short. This prompted us to consider, how can we create resilience across political cycles to ensure larger narratives such as the climate crisis go beyond political parties ‘short term’ initiatives?

For example, during the pandemic, lots of support was given to charities, business and communities, in addition to the community level support that emerged from individuals and smaller groups to help and protect one another within our local communities. While the support was much needed, we have quickly returned to the status quo, where we are favouring economic development at the detriment of our local communities and places.

Resilience is a long and a continual journey which means thinking about the short, medium, and long-term life and resilience of projects, initiatives and policies as a connected, recurrent process.

Wrapping up

It is no easy task to embed resilience across the built environment and beyond, and the term resilience could be applied to any and all areas in which we live, work and play.

But, on our road to resilience, as a people and planet, we should first start with ourselves and what we can do for our home, our family and our community.

For built environment professionals, we need to reflect on the tension between bottom-up resilience and demonstrate the wider need for investment that we, or local authority / governing bodies, can support. For example, projects that generate local wealth and resilience within local places and communities.

We undoubtedly live in a world of organised chaos, but because of this we must get more people into conversations, to share realities, hopes and burdens, and have conversations at a local scale but with a global perspective.