Urban resilience: the idea of a city for its people

“The pandemic has rendered useless many of the urban resilience plans that have been made over the past decade,” says Simon Fraser University (SFU) professor Meg Holden (PhD), director of the Urban Studies Program. “It presented us with the kind of emergency that our cities were unprepared for,” she adds.

She will be co-panelist on Feb. 24 at the latest edition of the Program’s free online series of conferences called “Pandemonium: Urban studies and recovering from COVID-19. The series discusses urban resilience in the context of the pandemic and its impact on our society’s ability to adapt.

Wider challenges to urban resilience

Sarah Moser says the pandemic has shone a light on deep inequalities and has further entrenched socio-economic differences. | Photo courtesy of SFU

The upcoming event examines the urban crisis and emergency preparedness during the pandemic in a lecture entitled “Urban Resilience: New Realities.” It considers the new challenges around urban resilience not only in the context of the pandemic but also in the other slow emergencies still unfolding around us in climate, energy, and other domains.

“There still are urgent needs for adaptability, some related to the pandemic (health and isolation, for example) and others pre-existing but exacerbated by the pandemic,” she says. These include, “housing unaffordability, loss of local businesses and opportunities for local culture, racism, planning that does not help the poor as much as it helps the wealthy, among others.” And this enlightens the importance of an event like this in our city,” continues Holden.

She agrees that governments at all levels have come to the people’s aid in real and timely ways in British Columbia as well as in many other parts of the world, which makes collective problem solving seem more likely.

Addressing the political aspect of urban planning, Holden claims that its practice as an “Anglo” discipline has meant that it has been complicit in racist erasure of pre-existing and nonconforming groups, destruction of ecosystems, the commodification of our cities, and overvaluing of economic inequality. She argues that during the pandemic, new voices are necessary to make new realities possible.

“We have heard Asian, Black, South Asian and Indigenous voices speak up to point some of these things out, and in some cases to offer more resilient solutions than what was “normal” urban planning pre-pandemic, and that is positive,” she notes.

Building a city: adaptation is the answer to thrive

The research of fellow panelist Sarah Moser (PhD) of the Department of Geography at Montreal’s McGill University of Montreal examines the phenomenon of new cities being built from scratch since the 1990s.

Moser links her participation on the Urban Resilience panel to her view that the term refers to a community’s ability to survive and adapt to challenges (droughts, floods, climate change, pandemics, changing economic realities, etc), while ensuring future generations will be able to thrive.

“There are roughly 150 new cities being built in over 40 countries around the world in the hopes that they will help address many urban challenges facing rapidly growing cities in the Global South,” she points out. These include, “housing shortages, congestion, overcrowding, pollution, lack of green space, and so on.”

Moser was the first researcher to have identified this trend and have built a database of these projects, examining individual new city projects from Malaysia, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Morocco, Tanzania, the U.S., and Palestine.

“One lesson we have learned so far is that the wealthy can insulate themselves from danger,” she says. “They have the resources to protect themselves from the virus and the economic fallout it is causing. The poor are extremely vulnerable in a variety of ways: living in crowded conditions and being more exposed to the virus, working in frontline occupations, being less likely to get meaningful assistance from the government than large corporations”.

Moser also agrees that the pandemic has shone a light on deep inequalities and has further entrenched socio-economic differences. She says that in all societies there is the tendency to treat particular humans as if they are expendable while other humans are precious.

The pandemic, she adds, has already demonstrated that our society has a long way to go to respond more collectively to emergencies.

For more information, please visit www.sfu.ca/vancouver/welcome/news-events/events.html