Building Resilience

‘The Everyday Resilience of the City: How Cities Respond to Terrorism and Disaster’ by J. Coaffee, D. Murkami-Wood and P. Rogers; Palgrave/Macmillan, 2008. 304pp

Reviewed by Alastair Donald | 28 September 2009

Whether through ecological breakdown, terrorism, pandemics or crime, cities are now widely perceived as permanently ‘under threat’. Consequently, creating ‘resilience’ has become a key concept in public policy, and increasingly in urban design too. One high profile example is the masterplan for Dongtan Eco-City in China which aims to “manage risk and maximise resilience”. The resilience approach is being formalised with a Counter Terrorism (CT) supplement added to Safer Places, and CT measures are becoming a material consideration in planning.

Part of the series New Security Challenges, this book offers an overview of current policies and the organisations charged with creating multiple strands of resilience.  Its main appeal however lies in fleshing out some of the history and issues behind the emergence of resilience. There are some useful insights, but also some limitations.

The authors rightly argue that the core concepts of resilience emerged before 9/11 and the terror policy agenda.  The historical overview contains some interesting material, but unfortunately emphasises historic continuity over specific factors at work today.  It is unclear, for example, why factors relating to public space and surveillance of suspicious groups a century ago should ‘set the tone for thinking about urban resilience’ in the face of crime and disorder today (p43).  Indeed a unique factor today, which is never quite explained, is why after 15 years of falling levels of crime, fear of crime continues to rise.

One answer is that our perception of threats are often no longer tied to a specific incident or problem, but are widely believed to be an ever present feature of our ‘risk society’.   In this respect, the authors usefully trace the roots of contemporary ideas on resilience to theories of ecology and psychology. Today, after seeping into numerous areas of policy, resilience has become a ‘catch all’ phrase for a society that perceives itself as vulnerable. As the distinctions between terrorism, crime and anti social behaviour are blurred, we have seen an ever expanding agenda of proactive interventions.

These very useful insights remain underdeveloped.   The authors complain that the authorities have used terrorism to ‘appropriate’ the resilience agenda, with authoritarian consequences for public space. But this seems to downplay the problems inherent in the resilience agenda itself.  The limits in urban space today aren’t authoritarian in the traditional sense. Instead they derive from the risk based view of the world upon which ideas of resilience are founded – and the imposed and self-imposed constraints this generates. Engaging communities around ‘risk’ – whether terror, crime or ecological catastrophe – all reinforce an interventionist ethos in public life.  Promoters of the ‘resilience’ approach hope to create a generative urban dynamic. Unfortunately, it is more likely to have a paralysing effect.  This book is a useful starting point for exploring the issues.

Author: austinwilliams

Austin Williams is the director of the Future Cities Project and author of a number of books on the environment and on China. The latest are "China's Urban Revolution" (Bloomsbury) and "New Chinese Architecture: Twenty Women Building the Future" (Thames and Hudson).

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