Is Resilience the New Sustainability? 1

Monday, March 7th, 2016
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There is no doubt that climate change, population growth, increasing urbanisation and globalisation are creating significant challenges for our built environment and the people who live in them.

Extreme weather events, rising sea levels, traffic congestion, pollution and urban sprawl are leading to disruptions, stress and at times, catastrophic events that cripple the functioning of our cities.

Green building is doing much to improve the liveability of the urban environment, but as is increasingly evident, transforming our cities will need more than just being ‘green.’

Resilient cities will be those that can quickly regain their function and structure after major impacts; that have the capacity and preparedness to protect people and assets from risks, maintain operations at times of crisis, and bounce back to being vibrant, liveable communities in the aftermath. This means reducing the vulnerabilities of the built environment, not just in terms of built structures but also in terms of structural responses to a constantly changing, complex urban system.

Where blue is the colour signifying resilience and security, transforming our cities for the future will increasingly require investment in both ‘green’ and ‘blue’ planning and design: the ‘turquoise agenda’ as it is being referred to in the UK.

However, it is not as easy in practice at the urban planning level as it may be for a painter to create a turquoise palette. It requires collaboration across a wide range of disciplines, stakeholders, authorities, regulatory and institutional frameworks within an urban community. In the absence of such collaboration, existing sustainability policies and strategies may be focused on achieving particular objectives that are at odds with those of a resilience plan more focused on capacities and functionality.

It is increasingly recognised that a tension exists between ‘green’ and ‘blue’ agendas and that to accept both may require trade-offs. Perhaps an example of this is the Australian Standard for construction in bushfire prone areas AS3959, which has clear objectives for improving the resilience of buildings to a particular risk. Yet for many in the community, it requires frustrating trade-offs with sustainability aims, such as in building material choices.

Likewise, a green building agenda may have goals of optimising urban land use through more efficient population densities, but this might impede resilience as congestion and infrastructure burdens worsen. As with any system, a modification in one part of a system can seemingly meet an immediate objective, yet without thorough review and risk assessment of the whole system, that small change can lead to catastrophic failure elsewhere in the system at a time of shock or stress.

So what might the ‘turquoise’ agenda look like?

The Rockefeller Foundation is one organisation that has started to think seriously about how resilience applies to our 21st century challenges and the linkage between sustainability and resilience. Melbourne and Sydney are currently participating in the 100 Resilient Cities program supported by the Foundation.

In examining the trade-offs between sustainability and resilience, the foundation’s president, Judith Rodin, talks about finding the “resilience dividends.” These are the environmental, social and economic benefits from a resilience-building strategy that complement the sustainability agenda.

Rodin explains that it requires entities to be not only integrated across systems, but to have awareness, diversity, self-regulation and adaptability. The dividends may arise from plans for decentralised energy and water, food access, waste and resource consumption.

The challenge nevertheless is to incorporate systems thinking into the process, beyond a single building design to the whole system of the urban environment. It will become important to not just look for ‘green’ materials and products, but to source product solutions to achieve ‘turquoise’ outcomes.

The American Institute of Architects has recently adopted a broad position statement on resilience, and says resilience must in future be part of the design focus. It believes architects have a responsibility to design a resilient environment that can more successfully adapt to natural conditions and that can more readily absorb and recover from adverse events.

This means architects will increasingly be expected to recommend and specify materials and products that leverage attributes valued and desirable in terms of resilience – attributes such as durability, strength, flexibility, efficiency and cost-effectiveness.

Resilience is not the new sustainability. It is a fundamental, integral part of the sustainable system. Thinking about the ‘turquoise agenda’ reminds us that our built environment is a complex system that needs to manage and respond to key challenges around globalisation, climate change and urbanisation to sustain liveability. From the design perspective, it reinforces the point it is not just a simplistic question of what products and materials we use, but how they are integrated into the system and managed over their entire life cycle to achieve the best and most sustainable outcomes for our buildings and infrastructure.

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  1. Barry B

    Resilience is still a grossly overlooked area in efforts to make Australia's built assets more sustainable – particularly given the predominately coastal character of our urban communities. What good is energy efficiency if your buildings can't withstand extreme weather events?