Are cities and human systems really becoming increasingly fragile in the face of disasters?
The moderator’s opening remarks:
The Canadian Disaster Resilience and Sustainable Reconstruction Research Alliance (Œuvre Durable for its acronym in French) and i-Rec (Information and Research for Reconstruction) are organizing an on-line debate (and competition) that explores the following question:
Are cities and human systems becoming really increasingly fragile in the face of disasters?
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-up, 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 on-going 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 might be affected in an urbanized world 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. Do not 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.
We look forward to reading your comments!
Gonzalo Lizarralde is a professor at the School of Architecture of Université de Montréal. He has long experience in consulting for architecture and construction projects and has published important research in the fields of low-cost housing and project management. Dr. Lizarralde is the director of the IF Research Group (grif) of Université de Montréal, which studies the processes related to the planning and development of construction projects. He is also the co-director of Œuvre Durable, a multi-university research team focused on vulnerability, resilience and sustainable reconstruction. Dr. Lizarralde is the author of the book The Invisible Houses: Rethinking and designing low-cost housing in developing countries and the co-author of the book Rebuilding After Disaster: From Emergency to Sustainability.
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(Minnesota), was published in 2016 and he is currently working on a new book on On-Demand Cities.
Michael Mehaffy is a researcher, educator, strategic consultant, planner, urban and building designer, architectural theorist, author and public speaker on leading advances in urban development. He holds a Ph.D. in architecture from Delft University of Technology. His work focuses on the dynamics of urban growth, economics, urban networks, compact walkable cities, and effective new tools to exploit their social, ecological and economic advantages. He is a regular contributor to leading professional publications including Urban Land magazine, Planetizen, The Atlantic’s CityLab, Better Cities and Towns, Metropolis, Building magazine (UK), and other trade publications. Mehaffy has current or past appointments in teaching and research at seven graduate institutions in six countries. He is on editorial boards of two international urban journals and on four advisory research and NGO boards. He is also the Managing Director of Sustasis Foundation and an academic chair at the Council for European Urbanism.