City resilience is gaining a foothold as a key agenda in Sydney. The announcement of Sydney’s first chief resilience officer follows Sydney being selected as one of the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities Challenge, and the announcement of the Greater Sydney Commission includes a commitment to build a more resilient Sydney.

The question is why is resilience gaining traction now, both locally and globally? Why should we care? And what benefits can we expect for business and the community as a result of the resilience agenda?

These questions follow a decades-long journey through the mainstreaming of sustainability and compact city principles that as yet have struggled to maintain engagement with large groups of the Sydney community.

While the Greater Sydney Commission is currently working through an articulation of what city resilience means in the Greater Sydney context, the 100 Resilient Cities are very clear that city resilience is not a swap out for sustainability principles and not just about climate change, east coast lows, and heatwaves – but more about enabling cities to manage disruptions to how cities function, and to create opportunity. The 100 Resilient Cities uses a city resilience framework to enable city governments to assess the current status and measure progress against four essential dimensions of urban resilience:

  • Health and wellbeing everyone living and working in the city has access to what they need to survive and thrive
  • Economy and society the social and financial systems that enable urban populations to live peacefully and act collectively
  • Leadership and strategy the processes that promote effective leadership, inclusive decision-making, empowered stakeholders and integrated planning
  • Infrastructure and environment – the man-made and natural systems that provide critical services, protect, and connect urban assets enabling the flow of goods, services and knowledge

At the initial agenda setting workshop for Sydney there was discussion about shocks from natural hazard events, but conversation on stresses quickly turned to two connected themes: what is holding back Sydney’s ability to remain competitive in a global marketplace; and the disparity that exists across Sydney as a metropolitan region in the areas of affordable housing, infrastructure, access to services (health, education) and employment opportunities.

So who is charged with addressing issues that span local and metropolitan scales, and what framework do they use to guide their policymaking and implementation activity? Suddenly the importance of the Greater Sydney Commission as a body that can potentially convene, decide and act on some of these citywide issues comes into focus. Not as a panacea for Sydney’s challenges – as was clearly noted by the participants at the workshop – but as an opportunity to think about Sydney as a whole and as more than the sum of its parts within a strategic framework that promotes improvements in city resilience.

But why is city resilience the strategic framework for now?

Resilience itself is not new. Resilience of individuals, ecosystems, supply chains and built infrastructure are deep fields of research and practice. At the city scale, however, while New Orleans launched the first city resilience strategy under 100RC in August 2015, and New York produced resilience strategies in 2012 (at state level) and 2013 (at city level) following Hurricane Sandy, Durban in South Africa may have been the first city to embrace local resilience principles in 2006.

The argument that the sustainability agenda has become stale and is looking for a new word to regain momentum can be discarded immediately. Resilience is not the new sustainability, even if there may be some overlapping themes to drive public benefit, which is hardly surprising.

City resilience is about understanding those shocks and stresses that might disrupt the functioning of the city, identifying the factors that enable government, the community and business to cope, manage and even take advantage of those disruptions (Uber and AirBnB may be as much disruptions for a city as are heatwaves).

The reality is that the rate of change in cities – in terms of population size, demography and technology, for starters – is increasing the complexity of managing and operating cities well. This rate of change is coupled with the impact that globalisation is having on our economy and society. This change is not particular to Sydney or Australia, but part of a rapid trend globally as urbanisation, globalisation and digitalisation (among others) combine to reduce the control or influence that any decision maker – whether at metropolitan, local government or community level – has on the functioning of the city.

It must be said that the potential of harnessing these trends through strategic and integrated interventions is recognised and pursued across the globe. The new school of city planning and design embraces complexity and uncertainty and this is precisely where resilience has found its place. It helps us to think about how, within an established framework, we can prepare ourselves to cope with (and take advantage of) a range of possible future scenarios, most of which we can’t predict nor have we seen before. The question is where do we want to, or need to, intervene? And who – business, government or community – has the ability to do so?

The experience of one of the authors of this piece, Sam Kernaghan, working on the New York 2100 Commission and supporting the development of over 20 resilience strategies across Asia-Pacific since 2008, generated some home truths about how to tackle city resilience:

  1. Build on “now” issues long-term challenges to the city are important, but gaining traction through action on issues affecting communities and business today, and linking those to the overall resilience of the city, helps to build engagement and shared understanding of the resilience agenda.
  2. Resilience for whom – rather than starting with natural hazards, or critical infrastructure, consider starting with the city’s most important assets – its people, communities and businesses. How do they contribute to the success of the city, and what is needed to enable them to manage disruption and take advantage of opportunities?
  3. Collaboration is key to understanding context – it is no great insight to say that Melbourne is different to Sydney, but how different are the challenges faced by south-western Sydney to north-western Sydney? What is the experience of young versus older people, small business and big? Cities are not ubiquitous, and strategies for building resilience need to understand the stratifications and interdependencies that exist, and what the opportunities are to build on the strengths that already apply.

So there is precedent to build on in Sydney, but no answers yet as to what Sydney should focus on. Both the chief resilience officer and Greater Sydney Commission are charged with considering how to enable Sydney to “bounce forward” (rather than back) in the event of shocks and stresses. Coming to grips with urbanisation, globalisation and digitalisation will be part of this, but building on the unique strengths that exist in Sydney and taking a metropolitan-scale approach must be the starting point.

Dr Tim Williams is chief executive of the Committee for Sydney. Sam Kernaghan is city resilience leader at Arup Australasia.

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