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Resilience and bushfires: “now we get what you’re talking about”

cyclists on bike path

Our cities are coming under strain from acute shocks such as bushfires and floods, as well a chronic stresses such as climate change and population growth. How are Melbourne and Sydney’s resilience teams dealing with this?

According to Sydney’s chief resilience officer Beck Dawson, it takes an event like a bushfire crisis for the resiliency message to really sink in.

“What’s been interesting is talking to councils in Sydney and the main comment is ‘now we understand what you’re talking about’.”

A city’s resiliency is how successfully it prepares and responds to shock events such as heatwaves, storms and cyber-attacks, as well as the chronic stresses such as lack of affordable housing and transport congestion.

Resiliency teams are now a common feature in major cities thanks to the 100 Resilient Cities program. The initiative started with seed funding from the Rockefeller Foundation to set up teams in cities, with cities eventually absorbing responsibility and costs for their resilience agendas.

Over time, an international network of resiliency experts has formed that can be drawn on in times of crisis. For example, Australia can call on experts in California for information about bushfire response and recovery.

In NSW, a key response to the bushfires has been a partnership with the state government and NSW local governments so that non-bushfire jurisdictions can share vehicles and other resources, including human resources, with bushfire affected localities.

City of Sydney has also offered temporary parking permits to those affected by the bushfires who may be staying with friends and family, and run fundraising events.

Responding to natural disasters is only part of the job

Dawson says governments have traditionally understood resiliency as a response to a crisis event, but now authorities are starting to understand how slow burn threats such as climate change or domestic violence put pressure on communities over time.

Melbourne’s chief resiliency officer Toby Kent says Melbourne, like Sydney, is dealing with several simultaneous chronic stresses, including rapid population, social inequity, family and domestic violence, homelessness and ageing populations.

Melbourne hopes to reduce many of these stressors at once with its Living Melbourne program, which involves the expansion of its urban forests and a metropolitan wide cycling network. The increased canopy cover will help cool the city and provide biodiversity outcomes, as well as provide wellness benefits. 

Kent says the urban greening program will also reduce the impact of shock events like flooding by absorbing stormwater runoff.

Another less obvious benefit of a comprehensive cycling network is that it provides an alternative mode of travel in the event a shock event stops train networks and other transport infrastructure.

Kent says that all resiliency measures, including new infrastructure, should consider the interplay between stresses and shocks – not just one or the other – because it’s a better use of space.

Other examples of this theory in practice are sporting fields that absorb floodwater, or malleable water piping in earthquake-prone cities so that people don’t lose access to water.

We need to avoid too much dependence on technology because it can fail

Although technology will play a crucial role in the city of the future, Kent warns that the avenue we are currently pursuing is “too often making people dependent on technology rather than resilient to its potential failure.”

He says we rarely have contingency plans in place for when technology fails, such as telecommunication networks.

Community-driven resilience is the way forward

One major trend in resilience is bringing communities along for the ride.

For example, some communities now want to claw back control over critical infrastructure such as telecommunications and energy infrastructure.

This has been driven by the increasingly interrelated nature of this critical infrastructure, because when energy infrastructure goes down it means that people can no longer communicate when they need to most.

Beck Dawson says this sort of reasoning will likely drive communities towards decentralised infrastructure options such as microgrids so that they aren’t so reliant on centralised providers.

Resiliency can act as a trojan horse for systems-oriented urban design

By its very nature, urban resilience is a moving target with new challenges emerging all the time, and often coalescing in ways no one would expect.

For Toby Kent, the beauty of resilience is that it gets practitioners thinking about issues in a more systems-oriented way.

He says it “intuitively means something” to most humans, even if this meaning varies wildly. 

Unfortunately, he believes some of our political leaders have co-opted the word at the moment, which has only served to erode some of its meaning.

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Comments

One Response to “Resilience and bushfires: “now we get what you’re talking about””

  • randolph kent says:

    Excellent perspective on resilience. I would hope that at the same time Melbourne/Sydney and Australia as a whole are also thinking about potential shocks and stresses that are the result of events far away from Australia [e.g., space-based cyber systems collapse] that from a futures perspective could become crisis mega drivers. Once again excellent article.

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