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Resilient Cities: Designing and Transforming Urban Areas for the Future

By Tobias Roberts Rise Writer
Jun 28, 2021

The coming years and decades are certainly going to bring several challenges to our society. Climate change, biodiversity loss, growing population, and increased demands for natural resources are just a few of the potential threats to our collective wellbeing. According to the Ecological Threat Register (ETR), "the world has witnessed a tenfold increase in the number of natural disasters since the 1960s". They say that data collected between 1900 and 2019 revealed an increase from 39 incidents in 1960 to almost 400 in 2019.

Transitioning to renewable energy sources and a zero-carbon and zero-waste economy will undoubtedly play a key role in helping humanity advert some of the worst potential consequences of the impending ecological crises. However, many of the adverse effects of these environmental crises are already being felt around the world. Developing resilience to these threats should thus be a key priority for all elements of society. Resilience is defined as the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties or moments of crisis.

Here at Rise, we have written extensively about how homeowners can design their homes to maximize resilience in the face of rising temperatures, more frequent and intense weather events, unstable global supply lines, and the like. Check out this article for some tips on how to increase the resilience of your home. Similarly, this article explains how your home can become a regenerative part of the local landscape.

Though all of us are responsible for reducing the carbon and ecological footprints of the homes we live in, confronting the impending environmental crises will also require concerted action that moves beyond the individual and household levels. The recently held Change Now conference had an exciting panel on planning and constructing Resilient Cities and Urban Spaces. Below, we outline some of the significant conclusions of this panel and specifically focus on how the idea of "Doughnut Economics" can help push the agenda of resilient urban design.  

Proposed Urban Forest Paris
Proposed Urban Forest in Paris. Photo Credit: Apur / Céline Orsingher

The Importance of Local Food Production for Resilience

Célia Blauel is the Deputy Mayor of Paris who is in charge of the Prospective Paris 2030. This urban design is focused on helping the city of Paris increase its social and ecological resilience within the next decade. According to Blauel, the goal of a resilient city is to build and transform urban places to face 21st-century challenges better. Like many urban areas worldwide, Blauel believes that climate change will lead to longer heatwaves, floods, and other ecological problems. She also finds that these ecological stresses could lead to a scarcity of natural resources, a drop in biodiversity, and a threat to urban food and energy supplies.

To face these threats, the city of Paris is the first in Europe to have its own agricultural program. Understanding that ecological crises pose a severe threat to global supply lines, Paris's agriculture plan focuses on renewing local food production and commercialization.

Thammasat University Rooftop Farm Landprocess
Thammasat University Rooftop Farm. Photo Credit: Landprocess

Similarly, Kotchakorn Voraakhom, a landscape architect and Founder of the Porous City Network in Thailand, is working on helping cities in Thailand create productive green public space. They want these spaces to create local food sources while simultaneously tackling climate change in dense urban areas and climate-vulnerable communities. In 2019, Voraakhom helped to develop the Thammasat University Urban Rooftop Farm. The project repurposed wasted rooftop space to address food and water scarcity in preparation for future climate challenges.

Community Planting

"Resilience is not about (finding) the perfect solution," Voraakhom says. "It's about living with change and being willing to survive in any circumstance." Reimagining how public, urban areas can be turned into green spaces that provide food and other ecological services should be a policy priority for every municipality. "When I designed my rooftop urban farm…I was actually thinking about the problem of wetlands in the city," she says. All these concrete rooftops (in Bangkok) were creating an urban heat island leading to higher energy consumption." By turning concrete rooftops into productive urban farms, Voraakhom helped increase the city's resiliency via greater food security and helped reduce energy consumption by improving the building's energy efficiency and thermal performance.

Doughnut Economics
Doughnut Economics. Photo Credit: Amazon

What is Doughnut Economics?

Kate Raworth, the author of the award-winning book Doughnut Economics participated in the Resilient cities panel. Doughnut Economics presents a detailed economic framework that aims to ensure nobody falls short on life's essentials. These essentials include items from food and housing to healthcare and political voice. At the same time, the goal is to ensure that collectively we do not overburden the planet's life-supporting systems, on which we fundamentally depend, including climate stability, arable land, and the ozone layer.

The Role of Doughnut Economics in Resilient Urban Design

According to Raworth, "we've inherited economies that assume that the shape of progress is endless growth…We were told that things grow and grow and grow and they go through the ceiling, but nobody ever asked what happens when we go through that ceiling."

Instead of focusing on endless economic growth without considering the ecological implications of growing indefinitely within a limited biosphere, the Doughnut Economics approach focuses on recognizing limits and needed constraints. "The doughnut sets out boundaries," Raworth explains. "It says there is a social foundation, a boundary below which no human being should fall. And there is an ecological boundary beyond which we cannot grow."

Rather than seeing these boundaries as hindrances or obstructions to our way of life, Raworth believes that recognizing these boundaries can be profoundly liberating. "People sometimes think that boundaries get in the way, but boundaries unleash our creativity," she says. When we begin to take these boundaries seriously, that is when governments and civic society can start to unleash creative proposals, policies, and incentives that allow for a more resilient urban design.

For example, the Doughnut Economic framework begins by ensuring that all people have access to healthy, affordable housing. However, Raworth asks: "How do we create housing that is affordable for all but does not exacerbate the climate change we're already facing?"

The doughnut economic model combines social and ecological boundaries to help communities invent a sustainable economic model. On one side of the "doughnut," there is a social foundation above which all people should reside. In terms of housing, this foundation should ensure that every resident of a resilient city has access to safe, healthy, affordable, and dignified housing.

On the other side of the doughnut, however, there is an ecological ceiling. Our endless growth economic model has "overshot" that ceiling, thus leading to the myriad of ecological crises we face. Creating resilient urban areas requires individuals, communities, and policymakers to consider this ecological ceiling in the design of affordable and dignified housing alternatives.


To end the discussion, Raworth also mentioned that the doughnut economic framework can be highly empowering to urban communities. "I think we are actually reclaiming our cities from multinational corporations and from large-scale landowners and investors who only invest because they want a financial return. (The doughnut economic framework) are about re-localizing and re-democratizing the ownership of the sources of wealth… It is about putting local ownership and affordability back at the heart of the city, and that's equally a part of the doughnut as is respecting planetary boundaries."

Disclaimer: This article does not constitute a product endorsement however Rise does reserve the right to recommend relevant products based on the articles content to provide a more comprehensive experience for the reader.Last Modified: 2021-06-28T19:55:12+0000
Tobias Roberts

Article by:

Tobias Roberts

Tobias runs an agroecology farm and a natural building collective in the mountains of El Salvador. He specializes in earthen construction methods and uses permaculture design methods to integrate structures into the sustainability of the landscape.