Sustainability, Urban Resilience, and False Resilience

by Dr. Carl A. Smith, Int. ASLA

The Botanical Garden of the Ozarks in Fayetteville, AR, is a cherished community resource that provides aesthetic delight and an introduction to native plants. However, much of the site is vulnerable to floods of increasing severity and frequency, and the garden relies on the energy and dedication of its volunteer staff to rebuild after storm events. In a sense, the garden is resilient, so long as this support culture is in place so that it can rebuild and continue. However, interest in a more authentically resilient approach has led the garden to discuss the creation of floodable gardens. This opens up a conversation related to aesthetics and ecological performance of the site, and also to its place within an urban watershed affected by development and climate change. / image: courtesy of the Botanical Garden of the Ozarks

Despite a rich, broad, and mature literature that has emerged over the past few decades, the concepts of sustainability and resilience are still sometimes used interchangeably. Even among experts the terms are considered somewhat difficult and lack generally agreed-upon definitions. Here, I provide some thoughts on workable definitions, and a sense of how the concepts of sustainability and resilience—specifically in an urban context—resonate but might also differ.

I have just attended (and presented at) the Cities in a Changing World: Questions of Culture, Climate and Design conference, hosted by the New York City College of Technology (City Tech), CUNY. The event featured many international presentations relating to urban sustainability and/or resilience within the context of an emerging era of post-COVID green recovery. Although there were very few landscape architects in attendance, I believe our community could have much to offer, as our cities move towards less carbon-dependent and more socially equitable futures. Therefore, a further consideration of nomenclature around key terms of sustainability and resilience—building on Sustainability vs. Resiliency: Designing for a Trajectory of Change, a Field post by Keith Bowers, FASLA, from 2018—is timely.

In 1987 the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) published Our Common Future (aka the Bruntland Report) and introduced sustainable development onto the international agenda as that which “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Beyond this now somewhat hackneyed definition, scholars and practitioners across disciplines looked to ascribe operational meanings to sustainability, with the architectural fields echoing and contributing to the broader conversation, ostensibly around equilibrium between culture and environment.

However, recent discourse on sustainable development and sustainability has developed in three important ways:

  • an increasing urban focus to match the global-shift to a predominantly urban population;
  • an increasing realization that it may be difficult to define a steady-state of equilibrium as a long-term goal;
  • and, thirdly, increased awareness of the need for resilience against both acute and chronic conditions that threaten society and environmental health.

These changes in sustainability discourse—towards urban resilience—has seen a shift in tone and authorship of landscape architectural projects. The urgency and drama of resilience, especially within the context of disaster recovery and cities, certainly seems to have caught the attention of architects, and a particular branch of landscape architecture where ecological practice comes with a heavy dose of cultural leavening, that has finally begun to close the dangerous gap between artistic expression and environmental responsibility.

At the same time, urban resilience remains a somewhat opaque concept, while one senses that the term “sustainability” has been somewhat cast as a rather naïve notion of harmony. In an age of tangible climate-crisis, it is easy to understand how the project of sustainable development—some 30 plus years in—might have taken on the air of Sisyphean rock-shoving: always striving for something just out of reach. However, I believe that would be a misreading of the intentions of the sustainability concept which, to my mind, has always been a long-game of moves and countermoves to maintain, or at least approach, cultural and natural balance, rather than a steady state that could take care of itself in perpetuity. In this sense, resilience discourse has sharpened our awareness of the critical need for adaptation as well as mitigation.

Since the rise of sustainability as an important concept, our understanding of environments as systems has improved, and the aforementioned long-game scenario has proven to be inadequate in untangling the highly complex and fluid nature of environmental and societal systems and their interrelationships, and specifically the threats that arise through their interaction. Despite decades of sustainable development rhetoric and practice, we therefore continue to face existential threats of climate change, sea-level rise, extinction events and, of course, the proliferation of pandemics passed to humans, partly because of habitat encroachment. Although cities have been remarkably resilient throughout human history—with only a small number having suffered total destruction or abandonment—these threats have upped the ante, and accelerated the timescale of appropriate action. Although the underlying issues are chronic, and are unwinding before us, the time for action is yesterday. At the same time, shock events that result from these longer-term conditions must be dealt with quickly.

While both resilience and sustainability fundamentally deal with the perpetuation of societal health and well-being within a broader framework of environmental change, there are important points of differentiation related to emphasis and time-scale, especially within the urban context. Sustainability deals with the aspiration for long-term mutual benefit of culture and environment and, here, it is perhaps helpful to reach back to the early 20th century and Aldo Leopold’s definition of conservation: a partnership between land and people, where both benefit in the long-term. A partnership where one partner undermines the other is no kind of partnership at all, and sustainability can be seen as a focus upon mitigating socio-economic actions that—based on current knowledge—are likely to give rise to harm upon the environment.

Sustainability has always been a flexible enough concept to recognize the limits of current knowledge, and the risk involved in basing all actions on only the most robust of empirical data: the so-called precautionary principle. However, it is now clear that the organization and operation of a sustainable system needs embedded strategies and nested tactics that act nimbly and effectively within accelerated timescales, facilitating recovery from dramatic system-shocks with basic systematic integrity intact or, preferably, with capacities for adaptation to changing conditions both engaged and undiminished.

The speed of recovery and/or adaption has become a critical consideration with regard to urban resilience, as prolonged periods of recovery and/or transformation will tend to work against the return of socio-economic health. While design and planning can fundamentally re-build and recreate something resembling a prior condition—say, building back a community following a disaster—we might need to do better, and this lies at the heart of the build-back-better rhetoric that has emerged in the shadow of COVID-19.

At the aforementioned Cities in a Changing World conference, the manifestations of urban resilience included urban fabric planning that learned from vernacular designs and practices embedded within communities, and urban riverside design and planning that not only addressed changing riverine systems, but leveraged the same for public occupation and ecological demonstration. The images below are from Cities in a Changing World conference presentations:

Sketch ideas for new river-side settlements in Mumbai, India, that leverage vernacular design and embedded community knowledge for the resilient inhabitation of floodable territory. / image: courtesy of Ketham Santosh Kumar, PhD researcher at the University of Innsbruck, Institute of Experimental Architecture, Hochbau
A resilient strategy for the banks of the River Saône in Lyon, France, that combines a reconfiguration of the river section to accept seasonal flooding and reintroduce urban riverine habitat. Public inhabitation of, and interaction with, the corridor is encouraged through dynamic ecological demonstration and the use of public art. / image: courtesy of Natacha Seigneuret, urbanist and architect, and researcher at the Pacte Social Sciences Research Centre, an affiliated unit with the France National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), Grenoble Alpes University (UGA), and the Grenoble Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po Grenoble)

Such projects take a clear-eyed position of parallel action: long-term commitments to reconcile culture and environment on one hand and, on the other, building capacity for a cultural robustness in the face of change. Crucially, the latter can leverage indigenous knowledge systems and artful ways of re-framing environmental change as an educational opportunity and, dare-one-say, theatrical experience. Although the flavor of these resiliency strategies varied from context to context, there is a shared sense of preparedness and of landscapes being formulated to quickly recover from shock, endure and improve through adaptation, and move forwards towards the mutually beneficial endgame of sustainability.

Thus resilience has emerged as a foundational prerequisite for sustainability, or, to paraphrase landscape architect Jack Ahern, FASLA, within our longer-term aim for fail-safe systems, we need the ability to fail safely. So, if resilience is a prerequisite for sustainability, can a system be resilient without being sustainable?

The history of human land use and planning alone suggests there is a long legacy of urban conditions that have recovered from shocks and survived essentially intact, but fundamentally occupy land in a way that can never approach the mutually beneficial state of sustainability. In these instances, urban rebuilding or reorganization can seem to affect recovery, while through a longer timeframe little is contributed to the global picture of resource depletion and insidious ecological damage. This might be termed “false resilience,” because it occurs without addressing (or being able to address) the need to adapt to a chronic problem that, inevitably, will rear up again, requiring further recovery events. Each recovery simply re-sets the system—at best—to where it was before.

So, in conclusion, as we as landscape architects engage with urban projects within an era of post-pandemic recovery, it is worth stopping to think about the labels that we and others apply to projects and ideas. Sustainability remains a relevant aspirational concept of mutual benefit for society and the environment, and places on us responsibilities to mitigate actions that we can foresee, or suspect, might undermine that partnership. It is not about achieving an unattended equilibrium, but about a careful nurturing and attention to our actions. In that sense, although the McHargian approach of matching location with land-use capacity is still a valid fundamental step, it is questionable whether the often-times dictatorial spatial practices of planning and design alone can deliver sustainable development, unless longitudinal commitments of landscape management (as opposed to maintenance) and program-flex through community participation are introduced to provide a more adaptable approach.

Resilience has more recently emerged as a critical requirement of sustainability, and deals specifically with recovery from specific environmental, societal, or economic shocks, as well as adaptation in the face of a series of events or chronic issues such as climate change. Although persistence of society is the most basic requirement of resilience, the ability to adapt and transform aspires to a higher level of response, and this higher resilience is the best route towards the longer-term mutual benefits of sustainability.

On the other hand, persistence that manifests through recovery to a state that is fated to fail again and again makes no contribution in the longer term. In fact, ongoing commitments of materials and energy to re-build landscapes and communities that are inevitably set to founder might be termed false resilience, and no amount of “green design” can alter that fundamental fragility.

Dr. Carl A. Smith, FRSA, FRGS, CMLI, CGEOG, APLD, Int. ASLA, Assoc. AIA, is Professor of Landscape Architecture at the Fay Jones School of Architecture & Design at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. His work focuses on the intersection between anthropogenic landscape and urban change, and the values and beliefs of those affected.

Leave a Reply