14. October | 2016

A Matter of Perspective: Crises and Resilient Cities and Regions

An essay by Heiderose Kilper and Gabriela Christmann.

Crises rarely occur in isolation from one another. Only by using this dictum one can grasp what can be witnessed today: a growing number of increasingly interconnected crises. Recurring financial and economic crises, municipalities and counties burdened by austerity measures, the effects of demographic and climate change, global migration flows, and increasingly polarised societies mean that cities and regions in particular face great challenges. This requires novel solutions to weather such crises or, in other words, to become resilient to them. It is for this reason that the IRS studies how cities and regions transform in order to cope with crises and to address questions of resilience. The institute seeks to develop an understanding of crisis dynamics and interdependencies, as well as of coping mechanisms, and aims to identify factors for a successful resilience-building.

An important conceptual insight becomes clear when examining crises and the way cities and regions deal with them: namely, that crises are man-made. Their increasing occurrence and apparent interconnectedness, as well as their substantial, spatial and temporal overlap, manifests this. Crises, therefore, must not be regarded from the perspective of essentialism and seen as akin to natural disasters. Instead, crises should be understood as man-made in a dual sense. On the one hand, they are products of societal dynamics and cannot be comprehended without also examining human behaviour. On the other hand, they are constituted as real, societal “crises” only once actors focus and reflect on them, perceive them as problematic and then explicitly label them as “crises”. IRS researchers introduced this constructivist approach to the collaborative Leibniz Research Alliance “Crises in a Globalised World” and thereby helped refine spatial social science research on crises. The Leibniz Research Alliance was co-initiated by the IRS.

IRS research systemically analyses the genesis, dynamics and interconnectedness of crises, while simultaneously studying the way in which humans, social groups, actors and organisations deal with these. Dealing with crises can mean carefully preparing for anticipated crisis situations (and thus preventing them or reducing their harm), or reacting quickly and effectively to ensure societally relevant systems remain operational. The long-term effects of societal systems, and their restructuring, are also important in this context. All this can be subsumed under the notion of “resilience-building”. Here, too, the constructivist approach is helpful for studying these issues. For instance, a single crisis may be perceived entirely differently depending on the respective society or actor (and whether these actors belong to the realm of politics, administration, business or civil society). This, in turn, can undermine collective coping strategies for dealing with crises, not just on the global level but also between or within regions. Often, reactions to an initial crisis catalyse a second crisis. And what seems like a solution to one crisis may be perceived as an entirely new and even more threatening crisis by other actors. As such, it is not only crises that are socially constructed, but also notions of resilience, namely as a result of selective perception.

These conceptual insights pose difficult questions for practitioners. If potentially everyone perceives threats differently and if opinions over coping strategies vary significantly, then how is it possible to prevent crises or to slow their momentum? And with these insights in mind, how can societies as a whole be expected to cope sensibly with the effects of crises? Publications like „The Resilient City – How Modern Cities Recover from Disaster“ (Vale & Campanella, 2005) and „Resilient Cities – Responding to Peak Oil and Climate Change“ (Newman et al., 2009) were instrumental in establishing an international academic discourse on crises and resilience measures in cities and urban regions approximately ten years ago. In Germany, a discourse on resilience measures and efforts to enhance resilience emerged from 2010 onwards. From the very beginning, IRS research played a significant role in this discourse. In 2015, commissioned by the research forum on public safety at Freie Universität Berlin we published a report on the latest research findings on resilient cities. This systemic analysis identified factors that can enhance urban resilience, namely redundancy, diversity, flexibility/adaptability, and the ability to undergo innovation.  

Redundancy refers to the existence of several similar elements which are able to fulfil the same purpose. So if one of these elements ceases functioning, others will be able to partially offset this. Public transport links are a good example for this. Diversity is an important factor as well and refers to a diverse range of different elements existing side by side. For instance, a city with a variety of industries will be better able to cope with the decline of one sector than a city focused on just one industry. Moreover, a consensus has emerged that societies must be flexible, and must continuously and dynamically adapt to change in order to be resilient. For a long time it was assumed that resilient elements were characterised by their ability to quickly “bounce back” and return to the status-quo. Today, innovation is emphasised as a means of moving beyond the status-quo and for developing new solutions. It is argued that this is necessary for coping with crises and enhancing resilience.

So crises rarely occur in isolation from one another. And likewise, solutions to them should not be regarded in isolation from each other. The complexity of crises, their societal dynamics, and the different ways in which they are perceived by stakeholders complicate efforts to find simple recipes for enhancing the resilience of cities and regions. Such efforts can bear fruit only if public discourse on crises and their effects remains open, and provided urban planners and stakeholders ensure that resilience measures are sufficiently redundant, flexible or innovative.       

Foto: © 1000 Words