Event paper Deposited for Communication & Planning, in Abstract submission

(February 2012) Top-down resilience: where should cities target their efforts?

Top-down resilience: where should cities target their efforts? image


The term ‘social-ecological system' is increasingly applied to cities and urban regions (Alessa et al. 2009; Coelho & Ruth 2006; Resilience Alliance 2007). In this context, resilience is defined as the ability of the social-ecological system to continue to provide for human needs without transforming into another state. However, Holling (2003) argues that while crises and vulnerability can lead to learning and expensive actions to reverse past mistakes in richer regions of the world, in poorer regions these only lead to further impoverishment and dislocation. Building resilience requires radical new approaches to development that depends on people's inventiveness and the transformation of strategic goals rather than on money (ibid).

Simultaneously, there are calls for adaptive governance and adaptive management of social-ecological systems for resilience and sustainability (Walker et al. 2004; Holling 1996; Folke et al. 2010).
Institutional change and communicative planning are proposed as tools for bringing the "adaptive" to existing governance and management practices (Goldstein 2009; Walker et al. 2004). However, applying these lessons to cities presents considerable challenges in achieving consensus on ‘desirable states' and redefining governance regimes (Walker et al. 2004; Wilkinson 2011).

The Paradox

On the one hand, resilience authors imply that resilience involves building adaptability (capacity to manage change) at multiple levels and especially at the lower levels. On the other, most decision-making in cities remains top-down, expert-led and focussed on fixed
scenarios. In view of this large gap between resilience and urban development practice, one might ask: where should cities target their efforts in building urban resilience? Are current planning approaches capable of providing to cities the resilience they seek, and to what extent do they meet the requirements of the "adaptability" agenda in resilience theory? What is the role of deliberative planning approaches in the quest for urban resilience?


Using current debates in planning practice and resilience theory, the paper will explore the synergies and conflicts between strategic planning, deliberative planning, and resilience. It will use case-studies to identify the conditions under which strategic or deliberative planning approaches can succeed in bringing about transformative change for resilience. It will assess whether these conditions were conducive to enhancing "adaptability", whether this was achieved, and if so, the levels at which it was achieved.


This research will provide an exploration of the extent to which urban resilience can be top-down, and the circumstances under which deliberative planning and/or capacity building can provide a basis for resilient cities. It will also contribute to the efforts of (ecological) resilience researchers and planners to find common ground to bring resilience thinking to urban development discourse and practice. Importantly, this exercise helps move away from dominant discourses of resilience as disaster-mitigation and control, towards
resilience as a means to long-term sustainability.