Australian cities map the road to resilience

Our cities are like our bodies. Modern life is hard on them – and it’s only going to get harder.

For a start, there are almost 4 billion people living in cities around the world, with the UN predicting another 2.5 billion will join them by 2050. Rapid urbanisation, combined with an increasing overall population, is fuelling this dizzying growth in the sheer numbers calling our cities home.

This rising urban population would be a massive challenge on its own, but it’s just one of the trials faced by cities globally. As climate change kicks in, cities face rising temperatures, and changing sea levels. More extreme weather events are becoming more frequent, meaning floods and fires will more often threaten our ever expanding urban environments. Geopolitics is also heating up, with an increased likelihood of extreme events, such as terrorism.

It’s easy to see how catastrophic single events like natural disasters, disease pandemics or terrorist strikes pose challenges for cities. The recent loss of power in South Australia showed what can happen when infrastructure can’t cope with extreme weather events.

Just like with human health, however, we’ve tended to focus on the acute issues at the expense of the chronic ones. Chronic stresses like inadequate public transport, climate change or high unemployment can weaken a city and compromise its ability to cope with acute incidents when they occur.

This is what inspired the Rockefeller Foundation to create the 100 Resilient Cities project. Aiming to create solutions that increase resilience in cities around the world, the project defined urban resilience as the ‘capacity of individuals, communities, institutions, businesses, and systems within a city to survive, adapt, and grow no matter what kinds of chronic stresses and acute shocks they experience. ‘

Some aspects of urban resilience obviously involve what people do, such as emergency management or food distribution. But the built environment is also crucial to resilience.

The Rockefeller Foundation received more than 1000 applications from cities keen to take advantage of the Foundation’s offer to help them create a ‘roadmap to resilience’. Here in Australia, both Sydney and Melbourne were selected to take part.

Like many areas of Australia, both Melbourne and Sydney are at risk from climate change and the increased likelihood it brings of extreme weather events, from floods and fires to storm surges and cyclones. But unlike most parts of Australia, these two cities between them are home to around 9 million people – close to half the country’s total population.

The population of both cities is set to increase steeply over the coming years. Melbourne, for example, is slated to add another 100,000 people each year over the next decade. It’s obvious that increasing their ability to withstand future disasters by addressing chronic conditions is vital if we are to protect the most possible people from the worst effects of a rapidly warming planet.

In both cities, the resilience roadmap process is well underway. A Chief Resilience Officer has been appointed in each city: Toby Kent in Melbourne and Beck Dawson in Sydney.

Melbourne has recently released its Resilience Strategy. Unsurprisingly, the building sector is front and centre of efforts to increase the city’s resilience, with key aims of the plan including to ‘create and sustain buildings, infrastructure and activities that promote social cohesion, equality of opportunity and health.’

At the same time, Sydney is undertaking work to create its resilience strategy to address threats including increasingly frequent heat waves, and improve its utility infrastructure, especially its ageing energy grid. It has already held a significant Agenda Setting Workshop, bringing together 150 stakeholders from across government, councils, business and community to identify the critical issues in the city’s resilience strategy.

The Australia Sustainable Built Environment Council (ASBEC) has long been convinced that resilience is essential for Australian cities if they are to survive and thrive despite the challenges ahead. As Australia’s peak body committed to a sustainable, resilient built environment in Australia, ASBEC has done a lot of work towards providing the building sector with the tools to build resilience into everything they do.

In 2012, ASBEC’s Resilience Task Group was established to study resilience issues as they relate to the building sector. This task group produced the Built Environment Adaptation Framework, which made ASBEC’s existing Climate Change Adaptation Framework readily applicable by government, industry, academia and the community.

This work has made one thing very clear. Empowering the building sector to understand and implement resilience measures is crucial to achieving them. The people who plan, design, deliver and operate our built environment are vital to achieving resilience in our cities.

That’s why ASBEC has created handy resilience factsheets for Australian built environment professionals.  The factsheets include useful reference points for planning projects addressing topics including cities, housing, and infrastructure.

The factsheets prompt professionals to ask themselves crucial questions. How would residents of this housing development cope if city services were suddenly suspended? How does this project take climate change projections into account? Does our infrastructure have spare capacity that would allow it to continue to deliver services even if disruption occurs?

With the help of these fact sheets, an organisation will be able gain an understanding of what resilience means for their specific operations. In turn, this will allow them to start the process of embedding resilience into all that they do.

The challenges facing our cities are significant, but they can be addressed. Just as our bodies can better fight off disease or recover from accidents if we take long term health measures like exercising and eating well, our cities can strengthen themselves so that when disasters do happen, they’ll be in the best possible shape.

Suzanne Toumbourou is Executive Director for Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council.

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