current debate

Are cities and human systems (really) becoming increasingly fragile in the face of disasters?


The moderator’s opening remarks

Scholars and practitioners interested in Disaster Risk Reduction often claim that in an urbanized and warming world, human systems—such as those used for transportation, communication, and delivering public services—are increasingly at risk. For them, human progress in its present form endangers ecosystems, wildlife, the atmosphere, and ultimately humans themselves. They often note that technology makes humans dependent on energy, especially carbon fuels. Communication technologies and artificial intelligence pose a new risk to humans, who increasingly depend on computerized systems prone to failure and disruptions. Nuclear and biological war continues to be a threat. They consider that capitalist economic systems are unsustainable—especially for the most vulnerable. Overconsumption, fuelled by frenetic capitalism, is on the rise. Cities are often accused of exacerbating these risks. They note that cities represent 3% of the surface of the earth, but are responsible for 75% of CO2 emissions. From this viewpoint cities exacerbate exclusion and deepen the divide between rich and poor, as well as between those with access to technology and those without. Urban sprawl in metropolitan areas increases commuting times, reducing the quality of life for millions of urbanities. Freedom of movement, even in a so-called “globalized world,” is a privilege for a small minority. As the world urbanizes, glaciers melt, and oceans warm, more disasters occur. In sum, according to this perspective, human systems are increasingly fragile—and perhaps on the brink of collapse.
But other scholars claim that the world has never been more resilient or more sustainable than it is now. They note that human progress is real and measurable: in most countries, life expectancy has significantly increased, illiteracy and crime rates have dropped, and there are fewer mortal diseases, wars, armed conflicts, and human rights violations than ever before. The decline of totalitarian regimes and the proliferation of capitalist economies is, for them, an unquestionable generator of wealth, leading to ongoing decreases in poverty, undernourishment, and famines. Technology has made work, construction, travel, and communication easier and safer. From this perspective, cities are one of the greatest steps on the path towards progress. Cities are inclusive, dynamic, and complex structures that connect people, enhance entrepreneurship, culture and creativity, and create opportunities for prosperity, learning, and entertainment. More importantly, they bring people together in concentrated areas, reducing the human footprint on the planet. Even though cities are increasingly affected by natural hazards, the impact of these events on (per capita) deaths and injuries is decreasing. Finally, with more technology, disasters can be avoided or mitigated. In sum, this perspective holds that human systems are far from collapse—and in fact are increasingly resilient.
In this debate, we have invited two internationally recognized experts in matters of human progress and sustainable development to defend each viewpoint. Our panellists will present their most persuasive arguments over the next ten days, but the outcome of the debate rests in your hands. Don’t hesitate to vote immediately—you can always change your mind. Better yet, once you have cast your vote, add your voice to the debate and explain your decision.

Tom Fisher portrait
Thomas Fisher argues that cities are becoming increasingly fragile
Thomas Fisher is a graduate of Cornell University in architecture and Case Western Reserve University in intellectual history. He specializes in design thinking and systems design, including transportation systems and transportation-related land use and zoning. Recognized in 2005 as the fifth most published writer about architecture in the United States, he has written 9 books, over 50 book chapters or introductions, and over 400 articles in professional journals and major publications. His 2011 book on fracture-critical design looked at how infrastructure vulnerable to sudden and catastrophic collapse characterized many post-WWII systems. Named a top-25 design educator four times by Design Intelligence, he has lectured at 36 universities and over 150 professional and public meetings. He has written extensively about architectural design, practice, and ethics. His latest book, Designing our Way to a Better World, was published in 2016 and he is currently working on a new book on On-Demand Cities.
Mehaffy Photo 2018 cr
Michael Mehaffy argues that cities are not becoming increasingly fragile
Michael Mehaffy is a researcher, educator, urban and building designer, architectural theorist and urban philosopher. His work focuses on the dynamics of urban growth, urban networks, compact walkable cities, and effective new tools to exploit their social, ecological and economic advantages. He holds a Ph.D. in architecture from Delft University of Technology, and has current or past appointments in teaching and/or research at seven graduate institutions in six countries. He is on the editorial boards of two international urban design journals and is the author or contributing author of over twenty books. He is a frequent author in professional and trade publications as well as interviewee of popular publications including The Guardian, Scientific American, Voice of America and The Atlantic. He is currently Senior Researcher at KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, and Managing Director of Sustasis Foundation, a small urban think tank in Portland, Oregon.
The proposer’s opening remarks
Cities have, historically, been resilient in the face of disasters, both natural and human-caused, evident in the number of cities, globally, that have been largely destroyed and eventually rebuilt, often because they occupy a strategic location. The same can be said of social systems. While human populations have faced catastrophes of various kinds, societies have often managed to survive such events despite the loss of life and social disruption they cause.
That historical record, however, should not make us complacent. Two trends may make our ability to recover from disasters more difficult in the future, both of which we have some control over and thus some ability to change. While violence has decreased, as Steven Pinker has argued, and the number of wars and casualties have decreased – with obvious exceptions in some places around the world – the number and severity of weather-related disasters have increased dramatically in recent decades. Although some still deny this, human activity has set in motion a lot of this climate change and its seems destined to continue to change for quite some time, even if the burning of fossil fuels ended tomorrow, which it won’t.
The second trend, related to the first, will make it much harder for us to adapt to and recover from the increasingly extreme weather events we face. The burning of fossil fuels has not only altered climate patterns, but also enabled us to become increasingly dependent on the global trade of goods to meet our basic needs, increasingly isolated because of our ability to live apart from each other, and increasingly helpless in our ability to live without access to the infrastructural, governmental, and institutional systems that support us.
This seems ironic, since humans have never had more power to bend nature to our will and more of an impact on the planet and its ecosystems than we do now. But as is the case with any dominant species in an ecosystem, the very moment it reigns supreme also marks the point where it becomes the most liable to collapse because of its dependence on the rest of the ecosystem whose health it has undermined through its own dominance. Humanity now occupies that position in the global ecosystem: we have never been more dominant and powerful and never more vulnerable than we are now.
What will bring us down is not what most people think. We can recover from coastal flooding or inland drought. We are most vulnerable to that which we cannot see, such as zoonotic disease for which we have no immunity or vaccine and that spreads through transcontinental travel to distant corners of the world and wipes out all but the most isolated communities. Our greatest vulnerability, in other words, comes from one of our greatest technological achievements, jet aircraft, made possible by the burning of fossil fuel.
How might we avoid such a fate? We should begin by subsisting more like our more resilient ancestors: living frugally, working locally, and traveling as little as we can.
The opposition’s opening remarks
I see an instructive paradox at the heart of this question.  Many technological systems are indeed becoming more fragile, because they are increasingly reliant on long supply chains, inter-dependent components, and unstable, unsustainable resource inputs.  Yet other human systems, and especially urban systems, are becoming more resilient – in large part because we are gradually learning how to tap the inherent resilience of complex adaptive systems, including cities and related human systems.
To be clear, I am not a techno-optimist: I do not believe that we can merely add technological innovations to control our most intractable problems (including resource depletion, ecological destruction, contamination, climate change, vulnerability to catastrophes, and the more subtle but no less worrisome declines in cultural systems). But I do believe that we have the means available of addressing these and other challenges, and that we are beginning to do so. One of the most powerful resources available is the inherent capacity of human systems (including cities) to form self-organizing problem-solving networks, and more particularly, networks that are capable of responding effectively to shocks.  This is, of course, the essence of resilience.
The resilience theorist C.S. Holling famously distinguished between “engineered resilience” and “ecological resilience.” The former works well to cope with events that remain within the limited specifications for which it is engineered, he said.  But many events fall outside this range, especially those that occur as the result of unintended consequences. These events are by definition beyond the range of expectations, and they can even be “far from equilibrium” – meaning that it may not even be possible to predict their behavior, let alone engineer for it. It is here that “ecological resilience” – conferred by evolutionary and self-organizing processes – is useful. These processes rely on a number of crucial characteristics, including web-network patterns with redundant connections, fine-grained adaptivity, and the ability to learn and build on previous solutions.  That structure gives them greater ability to cope with “far from equilibrium” phenomena.
For a human system like a city, that means we need more spatial connectivity of people and resources (e.g within streets and public spaces), a fine grain of buildings and other adaptable structures, and the capacity to share and build on problem-solving knowledge. As an example: Sociologist Eric Klinenberg found that in the Chicago heat wave of 1995, neighborhoods with high rates of social connectivity and “social capital” (loosely defined as the benefits conferred from well-connected social networks) experienced much higher survival rates than those in which residents were more isolated. It seems urban network connectivity can be a matter of life and death.
There is evidence that this self-organizing, problem-solving dynamic is working very much in our favor.  Disasters like the 9/11 attacks, the Fukushima tsunami and meltdown, and recent earthquakes and storm events show this remarkable dynamic of resilience in action, as people recover and rebuild. Partly as a result, on average today we are indeed safer, healthier, more peaceful and certainly more prosperous than at any other time in our species history.
To be sure, we have much work to do. Too many of our systems are still fragmented and poorly networked, and they lack the kind of coherent feedback that is required for ecological resilience and sustainability – in particular, feedback for externality impacts. Urban sprawl is the physical manifestation of this dangerous form of disorder. But there are other forms too, including regulatory, technological and economic systems. In particular, we are still too dependent upon an economy of depletion, and we have not yet come to terms with the necessary transition ahead to an economy of repletion.  But the means to do so are all around us – on display in the natural resilience, and the “natural urbanism”, that is such a powerful force for a better future. 
The proposer’s rebuttal remarks
Human societies, and especially cities, have a history of resilience, as my colleague Michael Mehaffy argues. Indeed, cities have rebounded after having experienced almost complete desertion, whether as a result of warfare, in the case of the Roman destruction of Carthage (now a part of the city of Tunis) or environmental collapse, in the case of the Native American abandonment of Cahokia (now part of the St. Louis metro area). The resettlement of such places happens for a couple of reasons. Cities usually occupy strategic locations that prompt their rebuilding even after a catastrophic event. And, as Mehaffy argues, cities also represent complex adaptive systems in which networks of people respond to and bounce back from shocks.
The time scale at which this happens, though, matters a lot. Bouncing back quickly, as Berlin did after World War II, is one thing; taking hundreds or even thousands of years, in the case of Carthage or Cahokia, is quite another. While human communities may return to key locations, if the societies that once-occupied the sites have disappeared, we cannot call it resilience. It represents a collapse, as happens in ecosystems all the time, according to the ecologist C.S. Holling. His theory suggests that humanity is subject to the same panarchic cycle as every other species that so dominates an environment that it destroys the ecosystem it depends on and faces extinction or at least major disruption in the process.
Mehaffy rightly points out that cities and their inhabitants need spatial connectivity, and he is correct in arguing that knowing our neighbors can help us survive short-term threats such as heat waves. But one of the greatest threats we face is our own complacency about the larger danger we face. Human societies have survived collapses before, typically in remote places like Easter Island or Greenland, as the environmental historian Jared Diamond has shown. Never in human history, though, have we faced the possible collapse of the global human ecosystem, in part because of the very spatial connectivity that Mehaffy lauds. Every other species on the planet occupies relatively small, ecosystem patches that collapse and reorganize without disrupting the rest, but our species has engaged in an experiment over the last few centuries of creating a single, global economy so interconnected and co-dependent that a failure of any one part can bring down the whole.
This may sound pessimistic and hopeless, but it is not. Humanity thrived for most of our history as a species in ecosystem patches like every other animal and we need to do so again if we want to survive what almost certainly lies in our future. The size of the patch doesn’t matter; what does is the self-sufficiency and self-reliance of the people living there. Every place needs to begin imagining how it would survive a global collapse, and how it would thrive off the grid: feeding, housing, and employing its people with the renewable resources it has at hand – something that we humans once did very well.
The opposition’s rebuttal remarks
I agree with Thomas Fisher on a number of points:  first, that cities have historically been resilient, as have social systems; second, that we have more recently set in motion a number of destructive trends, including climate change; and third, that we have increased our vulnerability as the result of increasingly reliance on long supply chains, inter-dependent components, and unstable, unsustainable resource inputs (as I put it in my introduction).  I also agree with his more optimistic assertion that that we can recover reasonably well from disasters like coastal flooding and inland drought. 
So where do we disagree?  I would say that it is in the different conclusions we draw from the same evidence. He sees an inevitable vulnerability that comes from the very fact of our dominance.  He sees, especially, that “what will bring us down” is zoonotic disease (that is, disease from animals, like HIV and Ebola) and the threat that it will be spread by aircraft.  That strikes me as overly speculative.  I don’t doubt that such disease is a major threat, but I question whether this danger is any different than, say, the past eras of European Plague (from which societies recovered fairly quickly, and even prospered).  In other words, life is a dangerous business, and on the whole we have gotten pretty good at managing its down sides.
I confess I’m also skeptical when it comes to such specific prognostications of fragility in the face of disaster.  History has a way of playing out in surprising ways – in part because we are not victims of fate, but are capable of seeing real dangers and adapting to them. A case in point was the so-called “Y2K disaster” of the late 1990s, when it was widely predicted that we would see massive systems failures as the result of all our data systems being calibrated to two-digit years (predicted to fail in the year 2000).  The “disaster” didn’t happen – in large part because we did recognize the real danger, and we reacted to it by adapting our systems.
Thomas Fisher also makes the case that we are now the dominant species in our ecosystem, and it is this very dominance that makes a species “the most liable to collapse”.  I don’t find this idea persuasive, because I can think of many counter-examples – for example, dinosaurs that were dominant species for millions of years. In the end, it wasn’t their dominance that destroyed them.   
I do agree with Thomas Fisher that we must not be complacent, and I don’t mean to minimize the grave dangers we face. But I argue that we have the inherent and growing capacity to generate resilience, in our cities and other systems.  For they are not inert forces that operate independently of human choice: we created them, and we continue to shape them every day. It is we who can self-organize, and generate resilience through our wiser actions.  We can bestow on these systems as much resilience as natural systems, if we so choose.
The proposer’s closing remarks
I agree with Michael Mehaffy that we have the capacity to create more resilient systems and cities through wiser actions on our part, if we choose. This raises the question, though: What wiser actions should we take and what choices should we make? To answer that, we might first consider what has made our species so vulnerable to catastrophic events, often of our own making: a dominant mindset in which we see ourselves as an exception in the natural world and smarter than other animals. Apart from the stupidity of that view, it has also gotten in the way of our understanding other species, most of whom have demonstrated a level of resilience far greater than our own, often in the face of climate and ecosystem disruptions that we have caused out of our own carelessness and selfishness. So, yes, we have the capacity to create more resilient cities and systems, but not until we choose to learn from other species much older and wiser than ourselves.
What are some of those lessons? First, it has little to do with technology. Our reliance upon engineered solutions to the threats we face, from expensive public-works projects to exhaustive public-health interventions, only shows how little we have gathered from other animals, whose resilience depends not upon civil engineering or medicine, but upon adaptive behaviors that largely involve retreating from a threat, uniting in the face of it, or dispersing in order to minimize its impact. In human terms, this means settling inland away from coasts prone to flooding, building natural barriers that can withstand extreme events, creating shelter that can support an entire community, and distributing ourselves into groups small enough to sustain us for a lengthy period of time.
This leads to a second lesson: resilience primarily involves collective creativity and social innovation, with the individualism that arose out of the myth of our brilliance and autonomy representing one of our greatest threats. Animals that split from their pack and that do not connect to a new group rarely survive very long, and humanity has begun to experience that at a species level, as we have separated ourselves from the ecosystems we depend on. Instead of our current obsession with creative genius, we need to instill collaborative creativity skills and relearn the experimental abilities that once helped us thrive, embracing diversity not as a box to check, but as a source of new ideas and cultural adaptations that we can learn from and implement.
We have the capacity for more humility in the face of disruptions and for more openness to learning from others, human and non-human alike. And the design community has the responsibility to help people see what this new way of inhabiting the planet could be like. The irony in this is that humans have lived sustainably for most of our existence as a species and we must relearn what we once knew as we go into the future, if we hope to have any future at all.
The opposition’s closing remarks
This discussion has revealed for me a number of interesting places where Thomas Fisher and I agree and disagree.  I would say that we agree that this is not a time for complacency, and that we all have big challenges ahead to manage resource depletion, ecological destruction, contamination and, as a consequence of the other three, the grave threat of climate change. 
On the other hand, I have argued that we are not passive observers of systems that are resilient or not, but rather, our own actions, or inactions, are integral components of systems behavior.  The question for cities is, then, what kinds of actions we will take, and how the structures of cities facilitate, or obstruct, those actions. 
Previously I noted the importance of the connectivity of urban networks, in disasters like the 1995 Chicago heat wave – literally a matter of life and death for many. Precisely because this urban network connectivity is increasing, I see a very hopeful trend for urban resilience, and for the choices we can – and I stress the word “can” – take.  But that is for me the positive “headline”: we are not powerless in the face of inexorable forces.
This may also be where Thomas Fisher and I disagree most significantly.  He sees large-scale network connectivity as a threat, and especially, the networked global economy.  He therefore  recommends a retreat into what he refers to as “ecosystem patches” – smaller and more autonomous regional units.
But I think he misidentifies the threat.  After all, networks of global trade have been with us for  many centuries.  The fact of global networking is not itself a threat to resilience, and can in fact provide desperately needed resources – for example, during the 2005 Asian Tsunami, or the 2010 Haitian earthquake, when countries around the world marshaled their resources to assist with recovery.  Greater isolation in such an event would only compound disaster.
Thomas Fisher helpfully mentioned Jared Diamond’s 2005 book Collapse– a case study of twelve societies, eight of which collapsed and four of which avoided collapse.  I note that the key difference was not in the degree to which the societies were inter-networked with other societies (in fact Easter Island, which did collapse, was quite isolated).  Instead the difference was in how the societies chose to create and regulate their networks, especially networks of feedback.  Societies that did not have effective network connectivity between actions and their downstream consequences – so-called “externalities” – tended to experience a “Tragedy of the Commons,” destruction of long-term common interests by those reaping short-term rewards.  That to me is the most profound threat we still face today, now on a global scale.
I think the real question, then, is not whether we have global networks, but whether global networks – or networks at any scale – are structured to increase feedback and increase resilience.  As I have argued, we now have much better knowledge about how to do this – and that is a most hopeful advancement.
The moderator’s closing remarks
Are cities increasingly fragile? The ethics of a narrative of progress
According to most data, cities and human systems used for communication and transportation are safer today than they were decades ago. But about 75% of participants in our latest online debate consistently argued the opposite.
As the world warms, and people become increasingly connected, environmentally conscious, and technology-dependant, the perception of an imminent disaster looms.
Why do we find it easier to believe that cities are becoming increasingly fragile, even when evidence points otherwise? Some scholars blame media. Steven Pinker, a strong believer in human progress, reminds us that the media often report on what happened – sudden and morose events – rather than on positive slow changes. Others point to the politics of fear. The risk of tragedy is a powerful tool for crafting policies guided by ideology. For instance, in Western countries fears of mass migration and influxes of refugees arenow common. But such “influxes” represent just 15% of the forcibly displaced population worldwide. The vast majority of migrants go to poor countries in the Middle East, Latin America, and Africa. Leading voters to believe that industrialized nations are the main recipients of refugees may legitimize “humanitarian” businesses and generate votes in Europe and the US, but it is fundamentally inaccurate.
In many cases, what constitutes a “fact” or “concept” is itself based on diverging interpretations of data. Consider homelessness: some figures show that there are fewer homeless people in most Western cities today that therewere two decades ago. But when studies include precarious and temporary forms of shelter, the results are often different. This ambiguity also applies to concepts of resilience and fragility. What is the opposite of a fragile system? Some of ourparticipants were not convinced that fewer disaster-related deaths and injuries is a reliable indicator of more resilient systems. They argued that the data fail to capture other forms of human suffering that are on the rise. Another question: at what level must progress be measured? When statistics are based on samples drawn at national and global levels, they often mask the suffering and vulnerability of individual communities and social groups. Here, the scale of the system seems to play an important role.
Three significant differences
Given this context, there are three significant differences among participants. The first difference concerns the role of technology. Is technological advancement increasing our ability to mitigate risks – such as those brought on by climate change – or is it making us more vulnerable?
Participants and panellists tended to agree that technological advancement has made work, construction, travel, and communication safer and easier, leading to a better quality of life for most people. But some of them found two problems. First, progress is making us increasingly dependant on computer-based systems. Second, progress often happens at the expense of the stability of ecosystems and nature.
Another significant difference is the question of connectivity. Does the complexity, interdependence, and interconnectedness of contemporary systems produce greater resilience or fragility? Some argue that increased connectivity produces greater vulnerability, because failure in any area can bring down the whole system. If the Internet failed, for instance, there would be drastic consequences for transportation and communication systems. But according to others, as a system’s complexity and interconnectivity rise, so do the chances for its recovery. Following this idea, a disaster-affected community has better chances of recovery if it already has strong social connections and communication channels. One of the commenterson the blog concluded that the question “is not whether connectivity is a source of resilience, but HOW it can be a source of resilience.”
The third difference concerns the tension between progress and social justice. Most participants agree that as much as progress is real, it neither reaches all equally nor  systematically leads to socially just outcomes. The poor still lack access to transportation, communication, health services, and full employment, making them particularly vulnerable in the face of disaster. There are now two main social classes: those withaccess to technology and those without. Freedom of movement and travel between countries is the privilege of the wealthy. Cities are no longer walled, but spatial exclusion still targets poor and undesirable populations. Slum dwellers, would probably feel conflicted about following Thomas Fisher’s advice of “living frugally, working locally, and traveling as little as we can,” since they are already doing so.  
Some participants fear that a narrative of progress can be used to ignore urgent localized problems. Scholars and practitioners must ensure this does not happen. Urban progress is an important area of study, but it must be framed by principles of social justice and environmental responsibility.
Final thoughts
This debate was great success. The site was visited more than 1500 times by close to 500 people from 52 countries. We also received over100 votes, 41 comments on the blog, and more than 34,000 engagements in social media.
I wishto thank Thomas Fisher and Michael Mehaffy for their valuable contribution to this debate. Thank you also to Manas Murthy, Vanicka Arora, Mauro Cossu, Yky, Faten Kikano, Miguel Escobar, and everyone who participated. 
We hope to see you all again at our next international online debate!