Resilience – the capacity of people, communities and systems to survive, adapt and recover from anything on a spectrum from slow change to major disasters – is not something innate. 

We aren’t simply born resilient.  We learn resilience.

Resilience reflects a community’s ability to persevere in the face of change, and to learn from the past to strengthen the future.  Resilience is a critical characteristic of any 21st century city – whether it’s Detroit facing bankruptcy, Venice coping with rising tides, Rockhampton mopping up after floods or Lagos addressing an exploding population.

The Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities program has recently awarded its second round of grants to cities that have “demonstrated a dedicated commitment to building their own capacities to prepare for, withstand, and bounce back rapidly from shocks and stresses.” The Foundation’s support includes funds for a “chief resilience officer” in each city, as well as assistance in the development of a resilience plan.

The cities currently being supported range from financially-stricken Athens to flood-prone Bangkok, and from the sprawling megapolis of Mexico City to the socially-inequitable Accra in Ghana. Sydney and Melbourne are also in the mix, and the City of Melbourne has recently appointed its own Chief Resilience Officer, Toby Kent.

The idea is to help cities become more resilient – and to share their lessons with other cities around the world.

However, there is no faster way to learn about resilience than to face the full impact of climate change – as cities and communities around Australia know well.

Rob Whelan, executive director and CEO of the Insurance Council of Australia, captivated the audience at Green Cities 2015 in March when he presented charts illustrating the accelerating costs of natural catastrophes in Australia. Two things are driving what Whelan called the “inexorable climb” in insurance costs – extreme weather events from climate change and population growth.

“The risks from climate change are exacerbated by socio-demographic factors such as population growth and the rise of mega cities,” Whelan said. “Within 25 years’ time, more than half the world’s population is expected to live within 100km of the coast – and sea levels are rising fast.  That’s potential five billion people in harm’s way.”

Whelan said the vast majority of those in the insurance industry are convinced that climate change is “a real and present danger.”

“These events are significant, they are impacting the economy, they are impacting communities, and we need to address that here and now,” he said.

In Australia, the cost of extreme weather events will be $25 billion a year by 2050, according to Deloitte Access Economics. Queensland has been bearing the brunt of these extreme weather events, and has the insurance bills to match. Whelan pointed out that the federal government’s proposal to further develop Northern Australia – right in the pathway of the nation’s most intense cyclones – must consider adaptation and resilience from the outset.

“If we are going to live in these places, we need to build for them,” he said emphatically.

According to Catherine Carter, the Property Council’s ACT executive director, planning for the future requires buildings that are not only resilient to climate change, but also adaptable to changing community needs.

“We need to build with flexibility in mind, so that we can transform offices into apartments, or hotels into art galleries when we need to. The evolution of workplaces has radically altered the way we build offices, and our communities are changing as more people embrace apartment living. Who would have thought to integrate a childcare centre in an office in 1970? We can’t predict where we’ll be in 40 years – so we need buildings that can adapt,” Carter said.

Lend Lease recently launched its Climate Change Adaptation and Community Resilience report for Barangaroo South, which outlines the climate change effects that are likely to affect the $1.2 billion precinct. Lend Lease has adapted the design of Barangaroo South to mitigate these impacts.

An expected increase in the number of extreme heat days, for instance, is being addressed by the selection of materials along boardwalks with a high solar reflectance index. Public realm areas have been modelled for sunlight exposure and wind movement to find the balance between winter and summer comfort, with tree-lined promenades, street awnings and drinking water fountains being integrated into the design.

Stormwater infrastructure has been upgraded and building facades have been designed to withstand intense storms and winds, while the ground plane was raised to address sea level rises of 0.9 metres, the level predicted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Lend Lease is building a community – one that will be the workplace of a third of Sydney’s CBD and home to 2,000 residents – to stand the test of time.

“We need to create frameworks that help our communities adapt and be resilient,” said Anita Mitchell, Lend Lease’s general manager of sustainability for Barangaroo. “We need to embrace innovation and think through how we design and build in a changing world.”

So if change is the only constant, it is best we learn to be resilient to the changes that will be happening around us, our families, our businesses and our communities.