Resilient is the New Sustainable

The underlying question of one of Thursday early-afternoon’s panels at MIPIM was what is the new role of urban planning?

The underlying question of one of Thursday early-afternoon’s panels at MIPIM was the new role of urban planning, or more precisely, how do we move from the traditional model, that is basically attempting to predict the future and then trying to make a city work in that scenario, to a system of urban design which is about achieving resiliency. This paradigm is not about a clever plan that covers every eventuality, but about making cities flexible, adaptable; leaving space for future innovations and new forms of coordination.

As world population grows, the negative effects of the demographic changes are most perceptible in the urban cores. The consumption demand of the rapidly developing urban middle class is putting a strain on natural resources, leading to climate change and ultimately building up resiliency pressures that have already started to backfire. Fukushima and Superstorm Sandy are just two indicators of what can happen if we ignore the resiliency challenge.  Peter Madden, Chief Executive of London-based urban innovation center Future Cities Catapult pointed out the importance of embracing the latest technology and constantly integrating the latest innovations and data into the process of urban planning. He sees the connectivity revolution as a possible emergency exit route, saying that harnessing this tech wave that fortunately coincides with the emergence of these problems and immediately applying the changes it brings to our cities will make them function better and deliver a better quality of life.

Architect Fadi Jabri, CEO of Nikken Sekkei spends most of his time in Tokyo, Moscow and Dubai. Yet, the first example he gave of a resiliency challenge was the flow of 4 million pilgrims in Mecca and how the city can cope with this overload. Then he turned to Dubai and Moscow.  Dubai, in his opinion, is the most resilient city of today due to its young age. In contrast with Moscow, its whole infrastructure was designed with heavy vehicle traffic, year-round tourism, large international events and summit meetings in mind. Moscow is trying to close up by upgrading its public transport system to the demands of the current century. But then the long list of transit-oriented developments including the modernization of more than 250 is putting enormous pressure on the city management and the budget. Tokyo has to bear up against another kind of resiliency issue as Japan is prone to natural disasters and weather science tells us that the island country is facing increasingly massive storms in the near future with the rapid progress of global warming. Tokyo is transforming most of its transit stations to make them able to provide shelter in the event of an earthquake. In a new initiative the World Bank called upon several companies to design a so-called runaway app for smartphones that can show users the quickest way to a relatively safe area and provide them with useful information when a catastrophe hits.

The Van Alen Institute in New York said that design is the key to resiliency so they regularly organize design competitions to highlight important topics and urge this new way of thinking about the future of cities – Executive Director David van der Leer said. New York City and New Orleans, much like Tokyo, are facing extreme sea level rises and have encountered major problems in the recent past. In New York’s case this is also coupled with rapidly increasing population that makes the challenge even more serious. The Van Alen Institute covers these topics in projects like Rebuild by Design, a competition that invited teams from around the world to make proposals for the improvement of these regions and preparing them for future storms like Sandy or Katrina. Besides the usual debates around technology and design, Rebuild by Design also focuses on involving and educating the people of these areas. What they realized is that having these educational sessions outdoors, at the actual scenes is much more effective, so now they organize bike tours and even invite marching bands to make it more appealing to the crowd.

One of the teams participating in the above-mentioned competition was run by Bjarke Ingels Group partner Kai-Uwe Bergmann. Bergmann mentioned that Sandy was a wake-up call not only for the local population, but also on the federal level and now, partly due to the efforts put into Rebuild by Design, $335 million are allocated to protecting New York City and building a portion of The BIG U. The project is a multi-purpose protective infrastructure that is not only useful in protecting the city, but it is also useful ‘urban furniture’ in the other 99 percent of the time. Designers observed that the floodwall built earlier to protect the Ninth Ward in New Orleans is becoming a kind of bench and a place for socialization and want to improve that idea for New York, also thinking along the lines of the Highline project. The technical layout is also based on a borrowed idea, a technique used in the nautical industry. Instead of a continuous wall, the protective infrastructure is broken up into segments, similar to the separable compartments of a ship, which means that if one part of the wall breaks, the whole city still won’t be flooded. This concept also allows for phasing. The idea of retreat versus defense was also suggested but Bergmann is optimistic, and brought up Holland as an example. “The Dutch have proven that they can live every single day below the waterline. That’s what gives me hope that The BIG U is actually possible.”