Rethinking Responsiveness: Change for the Future

Cities have always absolved many of the instances and effects of change. And resilience in its traditional sense is a lesson that may be learned from them. However, what typically happens following a disaster for which resilience is tested is that in response we risk developing a misaligned focus and a dissipated awareness of the situation. For example, after the terrorist attack on New York City and the London Underground, these two cities went into a lockdown as the devastation crippled key infrastructure connected to mass travel.

The focus was that the biggest disaster from disruption, chaos and death most likely to impact cities will come from an outside enemy, aided and abetted from within. Or from those hiding in plain sights and waiting inside the crevices and ports of travel to unleash mayhem. And this was not just in the major cities and ports, but nationwide, and to a large extent, worldwide. These events changed travel forever and unleashed the course of intense surveillance often misused by those who may deem it fit to oppress immigrants and residents too, under the guise of protecting the cities and its citizens.

While this is necessary and quite realistic given the inclination of these human perpetrators, we have to also look at the numbers in relation to non-human actors. The biggest disruption and disaster over the last two decades have been through climate change induced natural disasters and similar events. And now the pandemic. Our world and cities have been torn apart by fear and mistrust directed against human induced factors while the spooking reality of nature induced disasters is largely ignored. The bottomline is that climate change is a real and existential threat to humanity. The question is, how safe are our cities from such a calamitous nature-induced event?

Furthermore, most of the issues we have faced in terms of disruption and devastation have come from unexpected places. By this, I mean where we hardly put enough planning for resilience. Following the two notable attacks above, some key decisions were made that were symbolic and of far-reaching consequences. While this must have undoubtedly worked to stem off opportunistic and targeted threats and attacks, we must pay attention to other unthought of areas that may create opportunities. Most of the attacks in recent years have been cyber-related. We need more policy initiatives for hardening our cities against cyberattacks. Thus, begs the next question, how safe are our cities from a calamitous cyber-related event?

Since the advent and impact of Covid-19, many nations and cities are now grappling with a different spectre of fear and change. And I couldn’t help but notice how the soul of America as a nation has been tested over and over again with the incessant records of deaths and woe. While there have been pandemics, such as the Ebola, Zika and H1N1, the catastrophic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic has brought home to roost much of the effects of misdirected focus of decade old policies that had made the development of public health infrastructure a partisan issue in the United States. And this approach can be traced back to earlier administrations.

For example, in [1][2] the Obama Administration’s National Security Council prepared a 69-page pandemic playbook to help America combat the catastrophic playout of any future pandemic. This was titled “Playbook for Early Response to High-Consequence Emerging Infectious Disease Threats and Biological Incidents”. According to the former President, the rationale was that:

“There may and likely will come a time in which we have both an airborne disease that is deadly. And in order for us to deal with that effectively, we have to put in place an infrastructure—not just here at home, but globally—that allows us to see it quickly, isolate it quickly, respond to it quickly, so that if and when a new strain of flu like the Spanish flu crops up five years from now or a decade from now, we’ve made the investment and we’re further along to be able to catch it.”
-President Obama, 2014

It thus beats hollow that in the advent of a pandemic fitting such a description, a new administration in power begins scrambling about as though there was no plan in place and it had to be built from scratch. In addition, with each iteration of the tomfoolery, actual scientists were prepped like props in a puppet show, and muted sometimes during discourses on response strategies. Why? Such highly important decisions should never be a partisan issue or subject to political machinations. This made many people die. And what we have seen in the last one year has shown that chaos and disruption can materialise in unthought of ways that could be more deadly and devastating than any of the known or thought of ways.

The moral of this is that we must be more circumspect in our decision-making processes. This will be helpful in shaping proactive policies rather than reactionary ones that reflect poorly over the years as they truncate, rather than advance the course of posterity.

The Quintessential Soul of The Urban
The following are examples of major challenges that have prevented modern cities from attaining that goal of quintessential urbanity.

Poor Building Controls and Regulations
The focus of urban planning policies have been to develop and implement policies for the people living in cities, but often, these policies zoom in onto the project-focus, zoning out the munch-needed people-focus. One key example could be found in the city of Melbourne, where in a bid to solve the housing crisis and proffer a solution to rising urban population, the city developers put up “vertical slums” and skyrise apartment constructions.

This development was so bad that they violated building conventions at four times the legal standard required for cities of similar density like New York and Hong Kong. [3] Of course, this created more problems than it solved because the focus became misaligned with the reality of the living conditions needed for humans to thrive, i.e., good ventilation, access to natural light and green spaces. This form of density is particularly dangerous in the event of a pandemic or a tsunami type of disaster.

Extirpation of Green Spaces
The poor building control issue leads to another major challenge faced by cities, which is the extirpation of their green spaces. Green spaces in urban areas or cities was defined as “the presence of abundant, accessible, open spaces, either for public or private use that are “primarily covered by vegetation” designated as parks for people, play areas for children and families with children, and are crucial to sustainable development, especially as most of the population of people in the world today, live in urban areas” (p. 601). [4]

To this end, the lack of green spaces in cities is harming their biodiversity and creating what is known as urban heat islands that make them a leading contributor to climate issues. Many cities are now looking into the development of what is called the ‘green infrastructure’ as a way to curtail the deepening crisis that the lack of green spaces creates.

Rapid Urbanisation
For example, in places like China, the effect of rapid urbanization has exacerbated the problems of biodiversity, water pollution and carbon emissions [5][6]. These rapid expansion of cities put them under the strain of degenerative conditions in their bid to cater to the rising needs of industrialization. The result is a negative cycle of continual developments and expansion with poor urban living conditions as the outcomes. This is how urban sprawls evolve; out of such meandering of city spaces by sub-cities. For perspective, urban sprawls are private developments spurning out of adjoining areas “resulting in new low-density suburbs with detached or semi-detached housing and strip malls” [7][8].

Urban Sprawls
An urban sprawl, usually “a type of low-density development with residential, shopping and office areas that are rigidly segregated, with inadequate transportation and places of recreation activities or businesses as you would have in the urban areas”. [9] It is also characterised by “the encroachment of urban land uses on non-urban land”, p. 358. [10] In addition, it has also been defined in terms of the region where it occurs. An example of this is a city named Hangzhou in China, whose success as a city in China with the 8th largest GDP as of 2013 caused it to have several urban sprawls around it. An urban sprawl in China is known as a ‘street-town’ and “very high economic indicators such as the GDP are tied to the location” of such settlements. [11][12]

The problems associated with urban sprawls is another challenge for city planners as they create settlements lacking in many standard inclusive elements required in cities. Take the case of Oklahoma City in the United States, whose obesity crisis in 2007 was linked to the poor design of the city’s sprawls, suburbs and streets that compelled an over-reliance on cars. This poor development of pedestrian paths and so on, became an impediment to residents’ access to sufficient opportunities to walk or exercise because the streets were not designed for pedestrians. The same can be said of many other cities where amenities like bike lanes and pedestrian crossings are not available. Studies have shown the need for urban planning to include the enabling conditions that can ensure the quality of life for such residents. [13][14]

Restoring the Soul of the Urban
It is worth mentioning here that just as cities can rise, they can die. As the example of Detroit shows after the demise of its manufacturing industry. Thus, cities may lose their relevance and degrade to disrepair if there is a stoppage to the demand of their productive and creative enterprises or by other forces of sudden destructive innovation that turn their fortunes around. This urban phenomenon called ‘de-urbanization’ is the precursor to what is described as the “death of cities” or “urban death”. [15][16][17] Planning for resilience may not only be towards sustaining thriving cities but to help in reinventing ailing ones to revive them. [18][19]

And to connect to the theme on which I started, we must acknowledge the possibility that nations or their cities can fall into fear, mistrust or be weighed down by their varying forms of issues, miseries or defects. And the effect of these is that when change is imposed on this status quo, it reproduces a reverberation of waves all across the city systems, in their policy focus and planning. The conflict that ensues continually wrestles with the quintessential soul of the urban. What is this quintessential soul of the urban? Is this what we can achieve when we envision urbanity and humanity together? I want to argue so.

We must think more ‘green’, not structure. The biggest focus in the coming years should not be about having more buildings or infrastructure in cities, rather, it should be about making cities less of their structural selves and a more intuitive rendering of their spaces and things in both their inner and outer workings and across all nodes and networks. Furthermore, as I pondered on this concept of city resilience, I found that if we consider it from the perspective of intuitiveness, it will be more pragmatic than perfunctory. Essentially, making the possibilities endless.

Thus, cities and governments of nations have arrived at a pivotal point when they must act on how to capture and add value to their infrastructure projects, not only due to the threats to their solution investment choices but based on the importance of these cities as drivers of the wealth of their nations. A stakeholder driven approach could help in keeping the focus aligned. Thus, planners can avoid unleashing the dragon by not over-extending the capabilities of cities. And by such they can be more adept at aiming at the key issues and taming the dragons of alienating fixes.

Humans make up cities, and cities must reflect that humanity. This is not to suggest that we perambulate on people level provocations but fail to connect on issue level permutations. There is more we can do at issue levels of thinking. At issue level thinking we can attain focus on the areas of improvement, enhancement and inventiveness according to how these solutions impart the lives of residents and users in general. And this is how the rethinking of responsiveness in city making should be envisioned – a transmutation of previously incoherent takes at solving city problems.

This thinking takes a degree of proactive pragmatism, which is a product of intuitive decision making that is devoid of idle tinkering at the wheel of change. Thus, intuitiveness is that factor I believe that our cities must have in the workings of their socio-technical systems, fashioned through an effectuating of frameworks that connect the dots. And while technology is a key tool at achieving this, we must be willing to engage all relevant stakeholders in getting there.

Hope for the Future
Here are some examples of inclusiveness and responsiveness by cities across the world:

  • The City of Paris’ pedestrian gardens
  • Smart Pedestrian Crosswalk Initiative in Estonia
  • Five US Cities Reeling in Remote ‘WorkHub’
  • China’s Self-Driving ‘RoboTaxis’

In my next piece I will focus on these examples and others and how cities and businesses are preparing for a post-covid world.

Thank you for your kind attention.

Yours truly,

Shade Adepeju-Joseph DipM MA MS PMP FCIM
General Columnist and Editor

References

[1]    Vakil, K. (2020, May 16) Retrieved on February 15, 2021 from https://couriernewsroom.com/2020/04/14/obama-prepared-for-a-potential-pandemic-trump-gutted-his-work/
[2]    Knight, V. (2020, May 15) Retrieved on February 15, 2021 from https://www.pbs.org/newshour/nation/obama-team-left-pandemic-playbook-for-trump-administration-officials-confirm
[3]    Searle, P. (2017). City planning suffers growth pains of Australia’s population boom. Retrieved on April 10, 2020 from https://theconversation.com/city-planning-suffers-growth-pains-of-australias-population-boom-75930
[4]    Haq, S. (May 2011). “Urban Green Spaces and an Integrative Approach to Sustainable Environment”. Journal of Environmental Protection. Vol. 2. pp.601-608
[5]    Tian, G.J., Liu, J.Y., Xie, Y.C., Yang, Z.F., Zhuang, D.F. & Niu, Z. (2005). Analysis of spatio-temporal dynamic patterns and driving forces of urban land in China in the 1990s using TM images and GIS. Cities 22 (6), 400–410
[6]    Shen, W.J., Wu, J.G., Grimm, N.B., Hope, D. (2008). Effects of urbanization-induced environmental changes on ecosystem functioning in the Phoenix metropolitan region, USA. Ecosystems 11, 138–155
[7]    Schneider, A., & Woodcock, C. (2008). Compact, dispersed, fragmented, extensive? A comparison of urban growth in twenty-five global cities using remotely sensed data, pattern metrics and census information. Urban Studies, 659-692.
[8]    Schwarz, N. (2010). Urban form revisited – Selecting indicators for characterizing European cities. Landscape and Urban Planning 96, 29-47
[9]    Ewing, R., Pendall, R., Chen, D. (2002). Measuring Sprawl and its Impact. Smart Growth America, Washington.
[10]    Yue, W., Liu, Y., & Fan, P. (2013). Measuring urban sprawl and its
drivers in large Chinese cities: The case of Hangzhou. Land use policy,
31, 358-370.
[11]    Angel, S., Sheppard, S.C., & Civco, D.L. (2005). The Dynamics of Global Urban Expansion. Transport and Urban Development Department, The World Bank, Washington D.C, p. 205.
[12]    Huang, J., Lu, X. X., & Sellers, J.M. (2007). A global comparative analysis of urban form: applying spatial metrics and remote sensing. Landscape and Urban Planning 82(4), 1847197.
[13]    Wu, J., & Plantinga, A. J. (2003). The influence of public open space
on urban spatial structure. Journal of Environmental Economics and Management, 46(2), 288-309.
[14]    Shelton, T. (2008). Visualizing sustainability in urban conditions. WIT Transactions on Ecology and the Environment, 113, 253-262.
[15]    Downey, D. C., & Reese, L. A. (2017). Sudden Versus Slow Death of Cities: New Orleans and Detroit.
[16]    Eisinger, P. (2014). Is Detroit dead? Journal of Urban Affairs, 36(1), 1-12.
[17]    Eisinger, P. (2015). Theorizing the Death of Cities. Emerging Trends in the Social and Behavioural Sciences: An Interdisciplinary, Searchable, and Linkable Resource, 1-9.
[18]    Reese, L. A. (2006). Economic Versus Natural Disasters: If Detroit Had a Hurricane. Economic Development Quarterly, 20(3), 219-231.
[19]    Tabb, W. K. (2015). If Detroit is dead, some things need to be said at the funeral. Journal of Urban Affairs, 37(1), 1-12.

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