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Eco-Resilience Thinking Guiding Sustainability Objectives

Sustainable Urban Resilience - A Basis of Better Design

Resilience is often referred to as an ability to simply ‘bounce back’. While this is true in an engineering sense, modern ecologically based resilience theory reveals that in reality, it is a much more complex and comprehensive concept. Resilience thinking reveals that all living and constructed things, systems and structures in our ecological, sociological and financial world are not only unavoidably linked but more accurately intertwined. 

Resilience Thinking differs from most sustainability ideas in that it anticipates and expects change over time within a dynamic system environment. Sustainability objectives on the other hand typically demand ways of ‘doing more with less’, a simplistic argument and realistically impossible over time. 

Real sustainable outcomes can be more effectively targeted with an appreciation and understanding of the dynamic, multi-speed, multi-layered, inter-connected and cross-pollinating characteristics of the parts or ‘actors’ in all the natural and constructed systems we live within. This concept opens up a multitude of directions for new ideas and far greater freedom of thought.

‘Resilience Thinking’ focussed on the urban environment reveals the city as a living, breathing ecological system that consumes energy, metabolises materials and substances, and produces wastes in much the same way as any living organism. This is an urban eco-system situated both within and functioning alongside the natural ecosphere. Within the urban system, complex interconnected and inter-dependant social, physical, economic and natural sub-systems coexist while moving forward through time. Adaptability of all these ‘actors’ is critical because they are constantly moving and testing capabilities, relationships, boundaries and critical thresholds. In Resilience theory, the ability to maintain stability within this environment is known as ‘adaptive capacity’ within a ‘complex adaptive system’. 

A complex system that maintains stability within critical boundaries, with the ability to maintain the capacity to adapt to changing conditions over time, is said to be resilient; therefore these qualities within an urban environment define Urban Resilience.

When adaptive capacity is insufficient and critical threshold boundaries are crossed, the stability regime is altered, all the systems affected transform and ultimately settle into a new stability landscape. This is typical of urban environments following sudden disaster, breakdown by natural or human influence, or even the slow pressures on built things applied by nature and time.

Urban Resilience recognises that constructed things do not last forever, are subject to dynamic forces and change over their life span, and ultimately return to nature at end-of-life. Resource use, materials metabolism and ecology are therefore important factors in the design and construction of the future urban environment, as is the way humans and communities interact and participate with the built environment from involvement in the act of construction, to its use, and finally its removal. 

Careful and thoughtful understanding of all these factors provides a focal point for sustainable behaviours, and a better understanding of how to create frameworks for implementing realistic and achievable sustainability practices.    

Urban Resilience is achieved by actively designing-in and building-in specific strategies to ensure systems remain within critical thresholds, and therefore sustainable. Sustainable Development objectives rely on resilient systems in order for them to be actually achievable over time; System Resilience is therefore an indispensable pre-condition to achieving sustainability in all its forms. 

Sustainability and Resilience are not contradictions in terms as is sometimes argued, they are in reality each working toward the same thing, twin overlapping concepts. Each deals with time, but in different ways, each deals with resources and their use, but also in different but interconnecting ways. Combined, they become a powerful concept.

Therefore rather than being a contradiction in terms, the statement ‘Sustainable Urban Resilience’ can be considered a workable description of a real-world strategy for achieving urban development that is not only a better method of practice, but provides an ongoing way of developing ideas, knowledge, and methods for achieving the best possible urban built environment. One that has every chance of being a useful and worthy legacy for future generations. 

While this is an all-encompassing and massive concept, it applies to all built things from major infrastructure right down to each single housing unit. Approaching design of event the smallest of buildings from this perspective forces evaluation of every action and decision. 

All it takes is just thinking the right way.