current debate

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

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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!

41 thoughts on “current debate

    1. Cities – Fragile or Resilient?

      Cities are becoming increasingly fragile. As systems that manage and administrate infrastructure, financing, public security, housing, land use, revenues, etc., become more sophisticated, additional management ressources will be required and therefore, more revenues will be required. Cities will in turn become exponentially more expensive to live in. Eventually, there will be a breaking point where the haves and the have nots will come to logger heads. Populist ideals will confront capitalist norms. And no matter how high-tech and futuristic a city becomes, all democratic societies are subject to rapid and catastrophic policy shifts. Whether by internal forces such as the disastrous downturn of a modern nation like Venezuela or be it by external forces such as the total destruction of modern cities in Syria. Even policy shifts in bastions of democracy such as the United States can also be catastrophic. Take for example the Trump adminstration’s response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. Under any other administration, whether Democrat or Republican, the response and rhetoric would have been much more sympathetic. And if the Trump administration continues with it’s current policies, American cities will not only be fragile, they will be in danger of being pushed to the tipping point. If there is anything that we can learn from the present attack on American democracy and the rule of law, is that until now the United States constitution and government is based on many layers of checks and balances that make it resilient to the plethora of blatant attacks on democracy and law and order. If there is any lesson to be learned, it is that cities too must bolster their constitutions and regulations so as to ensure that a one term administration does not undo the work of an entire civilization.

  1. Urban resilience questioning can be seen and answered from diverse perspectives . Experts propose different definitions depending on their sensitivity and contribute differently to engineering or socio-ecological resilience dimensions. But whatever the definition, the objective should remain the same: the well-being and well-living of people together. Thereof, the posted question underlines the collective contribution of the urban community as well as the role of political decision makers. Seen from the point of view of the citizen, our individual responsibility leads to the question of our collective commitment level to improve our chance of reaching the appropriate balance in case of any hazards without compromising our urban life. Therefore, appraising the resilience level of our cities in the face of disasters, amounts to question city’s ability to anticipate the different hazards that may impact urban networks processing and propose structural answers independently of any individual resilience capacity. We can argue that the enormous diversity of potential hazards makes such ability very challenging to reach. Ranging from flooding(environment) to refugees integration (sociology) through urban farming (urbanism), political decision makers willingness to reconsider current organizations is weak. Rebalancing the situation needs a bottom-up counter reaction which can be efficient only when citizens organize themselves. Yes, cities are becoming increasingly fragile but we should have hope in our collective consciousness to propose and implement alternatives solutions. Let’s remember the last concluding sentence of The Resilient City, Vale and Campanella, “Cities are not only the places in which we live and work and play, but also a demonstration of our ultimate faith in the human project, and in each other”

    Yky,

  2. Really? Is that obvious? We are not sure. Studies show that cities recover rather quickly and less people per capital die in disasters today.

  3. I would ask, which cities? Cities in developed countries may indeed have increased capacity to recover from disasters, but cities in developing countries may not have such capacities. Cities in general have become increasingly vulnerable to natural hazards, but have also become more resilient through coping, learning, adaptation, and mitigation measures. But again, it depends on the structure of the city as a system

  4. ‘Fragile’ seems incorrect. ‘Hostile’ is more apt. Gridlock, road rage, random stabbings and shootings, crowding, anger, are some of the most obvious illustrations. Research with lab rats demonstrated the impacts of crowding decades ago, so we need not be surprised. ‘Fragile’ does seem to describe people today. They are less able to deal with these issues and lash out more readily than we have seen previously. It is a serious situation that only worsens as uncontrolled immigration soars and causes even more stresses on a severely strained social network.

  5. John. I understand your point. But new evidence shows that cities in developing countries (Port-au-Prince or Mexico city, for instance) also recovered rather rapidly after major events. Cities in Chile have been recently hit by major events yet there have been few deaths and injuries. Is there a common trend or just a pattern in developed nations?

  6. Are death and injury absolute indicators of resilience? I believe that there is more to being able to “bounce back” than staying alive. I also believe that the concept can be misleading since people with very few resources to begin with may indeed bounce back to a level a quasi nothing. Also, there is clear evidence that disaster risk management and climate change adaptation can no longer be viewed as two different entities. Being resilient can no longer mean to simply come back to your initial state before a perturbation. It should imply the capacity to increase your capacity to withstand increasing pressures. It involves resources, political will, learning, and collective awareness. Although many developing nations have indeed been able to implement adequate DRM and adaptation policies (Bangladesh, for example), I’m not sure that the majority of these countries have the means to adapt to therefore increase the resilience.

  7. It is more like the people will never have a clue of how to take care of themselves when the cities fail. Electricity and water are the two most important things to make sure you have. People now believe that government will solve all the problems. People live so far away from reality in more ways than one. After seeing what a mess the hurricane did to New Orleans and how even the law because criminals as well, we have to make sure we have the brains to survive for at least 72 hours or more..

  8. The question related to the difference between so called developed and under-developed countries is interesting as this leads to question the link between democracy and resilience. Obviously, when citizens are empowered, they can counterbalance technocratic decisions which may endanger the community well-living and/or well-being.
    But John’s question, leads to another point. What do we mean by recovering ? Take New Orleans and Katrina for example. And in particular, the poor area of lower ninth ward. We know that a lot of people leaving there did not come back after the flooding. On another hand, there is no doubt that the local administration improved its understanding of resilience. The place is more safe and adaptation to water threatening is taken into account. But what about the traditions and culture that prevailed before the disaster. New Orleans was known as the vibrant city. Is this gone for ever with those who will never come back ? When we say that New Orleans recovered, which city is it ? A new one with the same name or the former one with its local tradition and culture. Resilience is not only about infrastructures and physical networks. Is is also about intangible features that need to be saved

    1. Completely agree! I worked in New Orleans, and tried to promote this “soft resilience” that comes from culture and tradition, and even the traditional designs of houses (e.g. most on piers, some with lower level garages etc). I mentioned the example of Chicago in the heat wave of 1995 — well-connected neighborhoods with high social capital (and a more connected “culture”) did much better.

  9. Are cities in developing countries also becoming safer? Consider this quote from Steven Pinker’s latest book:

    “as poor countries get richer [most do], they get safer (at least as long as economic development outpaces climate change). The annual death rate from natural disasters in low-income countries has come down from 0,7 per 100,000 in the 1970s to 0,2 today, which is lower than the rate for upper-middle-income countries in the 1970s”

  10. Interesting. More detailed figures enabling to differentiate natural disasters (flooding, earthquakes, etc …) could contribute to the debate.
    But as mentioned by J.H., are deaths and injuries the absolute indicators of resilience ? It goes without saying that improving safety is a good trend. But are we talking now about risk management or resilience ? The lower the vulnerability the higher the resilience? Assuming that cities are less fragile based on such statistics, does this fully answer the question of people wellbeing within the urban space ?
    Yky

  11. After the first round, most participants in this debate seem to believe that cities and human systems—including those used for transportation, communication, health provision, and others—are increasingly fragile in the face of disasters. They seem to agree with Thomas Fisher, who argues that humans (an increasingly dominant and powerful species) have never been more vulnerable than today.

    But do we have evidence of this increasing fragility? Hard data and figures on this matter are rather elusive. So far responses in this debate seem to be guided by perceptions rather than evidence. Do more people per capita die, get injured, lose property, get sick, or suffer from natural events today?

    Michael Mehaffy is not sure. He asserts that, on average, humans today are safer, healthier, more peaceful and more prosperous than at any other time. The statistics I recovered from Pinker’s book seem to support his claim. What do you think?

  12. I find myself not fully convinced by either argument, though both Thomas and Michael make compelling cases. I am outlining some of the reasons for my indecision-
    Evidence of resource depletion in cities such as the water crisis of Cape Town (South Africa) and the rapidly unfolding water shortage in several cities (and villages) in India in 2018 suggests that in the short-term at least, many networks are NOT being able to respond to shocks effectively. And though, some may argue that cities like Cape Town are able to respond through innovative governance and technological solutions, the outlook for many individual cities remains uncertain.
    Simultaneously, there are many examples which illustrate the adaptive capacity of individual cities; such as the management of the recurring heat-waves in India, which are arguably increasing in length of duration and intensity each year. A combination of low-tech, common-sense measures and sustained public outreach campaigns seems to have measurable positive impact, to both mortality and public health. Again, it remains to be seen, whether such impacts can be sustained over a longer time-frame, given projections of rising global temperatures.
    Burns, Chu and Wiu (2010) describe the ‘overweighting of small probabilities’ where greater psychological weight is given to rare events, which seems to me the counterpoint to David’s supposition that we ‘are most vulnerable to what we cannot see’. At the same time, I am wary of Michael’s claim that as a species, we are ‘on average safer, healthier.. more prosperous’, since it does not account for growing inequality globally (the studies on which are extremely contentious).
    I think that in both sides of this argument, the issue is trying to address cities and human systems as a whole (or as a global network), when in fact each city is a complex layered series of human networks and even within cities, individual communities and systems show varying degrees of resilience (and vulnerability) to disasters.
    Of course, I look forward to the continuation of this debate to maybe have a clearer position on this!

  13. I agree with Vanika that addressing the issue of progress on a local level and a smaller scale is more pertinent. And yes, she’s absolutely right when she claims that each system (city, neighbourhood, community, etc.) demonstrates different levels of resilience.

    What happened in 2005 in New Orleans, one of the poorest states in the richest country in the world illustrates this idea quite well. If we go back in time before the Hurricane, we would understand the reason behind the magnitude of the damage caused by the disaster. When New Orleans was hit by a hurricane, people could not be evacuated not because there was no warning (a sign of technological progress), but because the public transportation system was not developed enough to evacuate them due to poverty and lack of funding. The other thing was that the hurricane hit the area so hard because the foundations of the dams weren’t strong enough to resist the impact. The money to build stronger dams was simply not available in this poor and disadvantaged state inhabited by a majority of African Americans…

    So, can we conclude that progress in its actual form, as much as it is real and undeniable, doesn’t reach equally the entire humanity and therefore doesn’t produce social justice? Can we even argue that progress increases inequalities and creates deeper divisions with less privileged parts of the world?

  14. Are we overwhelmed by perceptions which would not be supported by facts ? Which indicators are needed to quantify the fragility of our cities ? Indicators are always useful. They enable us to benchmark and to improve what can possibly be improved. But fragility refers also to the consciousness of what we are and of what we aim to be in a defined environment. And this environment, the urban environment, is more and more challenging and demanding. The number of homeless people and refugees is steadily increasing for the past decade in most cities. Science and technology have led to remarkable advances but also to intensive agriculture models using pesticides impacting biodiversity. Not speaking of climate change and coastal flooding. In the same time, bottom up initiatives develop to rebalance top down models showing that citizens perceive possible threats that could be critical to their wellbeing. Are they wrongly influenced ? By who ? And what is the time scale that would enable us to check if social indicators showing improvements are meaningful in terms of resilience ?
    The question is very difficult to answer. It seems to me that me that we are facing here an apparent paradox: social indicators show that globally our live conditions improve, while in the same time the risk level for their deterioration has never been so high
    Yky

  15. Yky argues that the homeless population and refugees are increasing. But figures demonstrate that the opposite is true in most countries and cities. Why are our perceptions not matched by data? One reason is that media transmits more easily bad news than good news. In February 2018, a 7.2-magnitude earthquake hit Mexico city. Only a few people died and the city was functional the day after. There are many factors that influence building destruction in an earthquake (movements of earth vary significantly), but similar situations in which natural events do not destroy cities have also happened recently in Colombia, Chili, Thailand, and many other cities. Are current risks really the highest we have faced?

  16. A fairly cynical reply to this may be that there is possibly more financial and political advantage in fostering a ‘culture of fear’, and the current most popular fears are climate change, mass migrations and refugee movements. I am not proposing a mass conspiracy here, nor denying climate change, rather referring back to Douglas and Wildavsky’s propositions on risks being ‘selected’ and assessment being biased. For governments as well as institutional networks, projecting a growing sense of urgency can justify to some extent directions taken in
    both policy and research.

    1. Well said Vanicka!

      This ‘culture of fear’ is exploited in many ways. Politically, to win votes when so called ‘leaders’ present themselves as the protectors of crowds from crime, unemployment, and other social issues caused by illegal migration, refugee influx, etc… And from an institutional perspective, humanitarian organizations, despite the vital role they play during the emergency phase that follows disasters and wars, are often criticized for their role when situations become protracted: they usually persist in promoting images of helpless people and intentionally avoid to highlight displaced people’s resiliency to get more funding from donors and to somehow be able to extend their mission…

      The gap here between perceptions and reality isn’t spontaneous but rather nurtured and emphasized for political and economic interests.

  17. Some interesting datas about homeless people have been published in a survey of FEANTSA, an EU association. The figures confirm an increase in main EU countries during the past 10 years with one remarkable exception, Finland. No comparison was provided with other continents, unfortunately.

    1. Thank you Yky for this and your other interesting comments. Also here, it’s quite important to define homelessness. When Pinker claims that there are less homeless people in the world, does he considerer for instance refugees living in camps or in informal urban or rural solutions as people who have a home? Does he take in account ‘hidden homeless’ and those who live in shelters or structures not intended for housing?

      A survey produced by the UN and UNHabitat in 2005 shows that there are 100 million people who are homeless but that there are 1.6 billion people without adequate housing. The difficulty in getting accurate figures is highlighted…

  18. Vanicka raises an argument that reminds me of the work conducted by Naomi Klein. See for instance the Rise of Disaster Capitalism. Yky thank you for pointing to this study. Do you have a link or reference that we could use?

    1. Yes, and I think both Naomi Klein and Antony Lowenstein (through his film) highlight the economic complexities of disasters. However, also the idea of fear based governance, is an older one, which persists through generations, and it seems now, since governance itself often intersects with globalisation and transnationally, the fears too have become global.

  19. In Designing to Avoid Disaster, published in 2013, Thomas Fisher argued that humans have consistently embraced what he calls “fracture-critical design.” This is design “in which structures and systems have so little redundancy and so much interconnectedness […] that they fail completely if any one part does not perform as intended.” Are cities the result of fracture-critical design?

  20. Urban spaces have a point in common with many other systems. They are characterized by an unstable state of equilibrium. Their entropy enables them to find the energy stabilizing their potential ability to generate chaos. But any hazard can disrupt the balance … unless the system is resilient and has an ability either to recover or to find a new state of balance which would present an improvement compared to the one that prevailed before the hazard.
    My understanding of the fracture-critical design is that it implies a severe disruption leading to a collapse. So the question is to know if our cities are the result of a collapse or of a continuous order-disorder balance generating the basics of a resilient awareness. In such a case, it could be argued that the fracture – critical design could apply to urban epiphenomenon but hardly to the urban system as a whole. On another hand, our history is full of examples of cities which collapsed, be it for socio-political reasons or for environmental reasons. So why should this stop? Are we more intelligent ? More educated ? Where are the evidences showing that what prevailed will not happen again. The only difference which seems to me relevant leading to a more optimistic view than the Fischer theory is that citizens are more and more empowered thanks to the development of communication technologies. Who could have said ten years ago that whistleblowers would act as a counter power of misleading political and economical lobbies…

  21. I think Yky, you make an intriguing point with respect to ‘cities collapsing for socio-political reasons or environmental reasons’. I think we now in an era where there is little or no distinction between the socio-politics and the environment, and many of the socio-political threats to society are being linked environmental threats, like the depletion of resources and the rising of temperatures and migrations.

  22. Indeed Vanicka, both are linked. Actually, I was referring to history. Natural disasters, long drought periods could lead to wars between cities, one willing to survive at the expense of another.
    This being said, the interconnection between environmental and socio-economical hazards leads to another question. If we want to make sure that we will not be impacted by a collapse or a major disorder, should we reconsider the whole global system in which we leave or should we be more focused on the hazard specificity. What would be the most efficient way to make sure that we can leave in an improved urban well-being and well-living ?

  23. Firstly,
    I would like to ask both debaters a question, since to me it appears that both agree on a substantial number of issues. What counts as ‘global collapse’ or ‘global resilience’, since it seems to me that this is crux of the debate? Is there a cut-off percentage or even some range of lives lost or livelihoods lost or health indicators or happiness indicators (the list is long)? It seems that whether one has a dystopian or utopian view of the future depends a lot on what we mean by fragile at a global scale.

    Second,
    I am wary of being nostalgic about a past where we lived in ‘harmony’ with our environment since humans have been criss crossing the globe centuries before the term globalisation was thought of and we have been far more interconnected historically as well (which has led to diseases, plagues, colonisation and all the horrors that we are talking about today). Yky and I agree on natural hazards being linked to war/ conflict, etc.

    Third,
    It seems to me that being globally connected has its advantages as well- including the possibility of sharing knowledge, resources etc. I am not convinced that a single global system exists, rather, multiple global systems overlap, conflict and engage with each other, while innumerable smaller local systems function semi-independently as well as engaging with global networks. So while, certain ‘global systems’ may collapse, I think that space would be taken up by different systems. In that, I think we all agree.

  24. Thank you Vanicka for emphasizing on the importance of living in harmony with our environment… Thomas Fisher considers that we humans ‘as 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 […]’. Paul Ralf Ehrlich spent his life trying to demonstrate that this collapse was imminent. He claims that due to technological progress and fast urbanization, resources and natural capital are being drained, natural habitats are being destroyed or fractioned causing the extinction of species that often deliver essential ecosystem services. He says: ‘Extinctions and changes in community composition alter ecosystem functioning and services that support human life and wellbeing’ and that human enterprise and systems are ‘whipping the life of the planet we depend on and have the responsibility to preserve’… To which extent these theories are factual? How and when do we, as humans, cross the line between progressing and draining the natural resources of our planet?

  25. Is connectivity a source of fragility or a source of resilience?

    Panellists and participants in our debate explore the role of connectivity in risk creation. Two arguments seem to be opposed here in the way we see complex systems. On the one hand, Fisher and others argue that as connectivity increases (due to economic globalisation and international inter-connectedness, among others) damages in one part of the system can have a greater impact on other parts of it. According to this argument, threats such as financial risks or an Internet failure, are increasingly damaging to all—globally.

    On the other hand, Mehaffy and others argue that connectivity reduces risk, rather than increasing it. As parts of a system become more inter-connected, failure in one part of the system can be fixed, replaced, or assisted by other elements. Following this idea, a disaster-affected community has better chances of recovering if it can rely on a strong internal and external network. What do you think?

  26. Whether you address this issue having in mind « human systems » or « cities » may lead to different perspectives. « Cities » are definitely based on « human systems » but « human systems » are not limited to urban environments (fortunately !)
    Let’s have a look to the current development of so called « smart cities ». The politically correct statements, sometimes anecdotal, announced by important cities is too often simplistic. Most of the time, local decision makers forget that it is not only about information sharing but also to make sure that technical services, logistic operators, urban planners can work together. You need to imagine the consequences of a technical breakdown when all those services are interconnected. So at this stage, we should give credit to Fisher argument. But stopping innovation, IT and IA is not the solution, as long as it may contribute to improve resilience. Therefore the question is not IF connectivity can be a source of resilience but HOW it can be a source of resilience. (One of) the answer(s) is REDUNDANCY. To come back to the above example, it would be vital to have safety protocols including the possibility to disconnect the systems and operate them individually one of each other. Connectivity is just a tool, amongst others. It is not an end in itself. Controlling the tool is needed. And this gives credit to Mehaffy’s argument.
    Let’s come back now to human systems. I wonder if this idea of redundancy is there relevant to make sure that connectivity may improve resilience and decrease vulnerability. When redundancy would help us to make sure that what we do not sacrifice the consciousness of what makes our human values and legacy. Comments welcome…

  27. I think the intentionally broad and open-ended nature of this debate demands as much speculation from its participants. It similarly conceals a vast number of assumptions about our shared reality, conflates diversity of perspectives and interpretations into a necessary dualism and incites action (collective and human at that) as a kind of homogenising force; a united “us” (humans, urban systems, cities, etc.) against the ineffable “them” (the various forces separately causing destruction).

    Given the overarching nature of this debate, I am going to attempt a commentary categorised under three philosophical heads; ontology (the way in which certain fundamental assumptions have been made about reality in each condition), epistemology (how the debaters have deployed “knowledge” to support their case), and ethics (what is the intended impact of the arguments in inciting action). It is not my intention to further confuse the issues by using jargon. I simply find no better way in which to categorise my thoughts on the matter. Some of these have also been enriched by the ongoing comments and responses till now.

    1. ONTOLOGICAL ARGUMENTS: The human flourishing as embodied in the concept of progress and fragility as exemplified through the concept of system collapse, both visualise a definitive position on the outcome of this battle of utopian / dystopic futures. They each seem to propose clear and distinct “realities” in the urban future of the world. This dualism maybe oversimplifying, to a certain degree, the nature of survival and human existence itself. I don’t see catastrophe as death and material destruction necessarily. Survival could be a fate worse than death, an existence of perpetual strife and struggle. For example, the everyday battle for procuring a single bucket of water from the local water mafia, who in turn continue to feed off bonded customers while ensuring their survival. What about the scenarios (both current and future) where life is propped up like a façade only to contribute statistically to big data and metrics of human progress. Or the so-called system collapse where the survivors go on to lead successful lives, much more fulfilling than their existence prior to the catastrophe.

    2. EPISTEMOLOGICAL ARGUMENTS: A few times above there have been references to facts, indicators and evidence and I do believe these are crucial resources for backing up arguments. However, these are also extremely fraught and here I refer to the work done by Paul Dourish on data driven urbanism and the social science of informatics, to offer my critique. Authenticity and granularity in data collection are two areas where much greater examination is necessary, especially in rapidly developing and digitizing countries such as India. Often the race to produce globally accepted urban metrics forces deeply political decisions in urban development processes, tainting data further. Data corporates and privatisation of data is further making access to open data problematic. Finally, I feel that the ecocentric analogies to networks or systems confers a degree of coherence and single-mindedness on cities and human settlements that might be misplaced. Such a perspective is also very deterministic in nature and hinges on causality, more than might be justifiable.

    3. ETHICAL ARGUMENTS: The “data driven epiphany” that Pinker talks about is a very infectious attitude. His personal transition from Blank Slate to Enlightenment Now invokes in us the optimist, even the heroic. We shall rally behind the call to arms, leaving behind our hopeless, numbing pessimism. The rhetoric of progress newly imbued with power from the rhetoric of data and rationality shall bring us out of our cynical funk and put us to work collectively in the betterment of humanity. However, he also warns us against fatalism and radicalism that might be expected outcomes of the alarmist narrative. In this case panic and fear might not be the right motivators for positive action. I believe, as much as Fisher and Mehaffy have presented lucid and cogent arguments to support their speculations and projections for the future, it is far more crucial to understand that both have a coercive power that is meant to incite action and that neither hold the view of a fatalist. This is, I think the best outcome of such a debate because it emphasizes a consequentialist belief in the co-creation of our future and the goodness of all action in that direction.

  28. Dear all, it is a very interesting and relevant debate. I have read the contributions so far, and I must admit that I am surprised that the “YES” is so clearly prevailing.

    First of all, a general consideration: I find that the question is not “balanced”, influencing somehow the discussion. While it is quite intuitive to understand the concept of fragility, it is not as easy to understand its opposite; I see, in fact, that we are constantly referring to resilience, which is not—as I will explain later—the (true) opposite of fragility. Moreover, not having established criteria and indicators to measure, quantify and “visualize” fragility, it seems that most of the positions taken are based on perceptions.
    I will try to support the contrary thesis by reasoning on a conceptual level, first, and on a more operational one, afterwards.
    Firstly, I think it is necessary to define what fragility is when we talk about cities and human systems; later, I will make some reflections on what it is not—and how it should be interpreted and then addressed.

    There are several studies and research on city’s fragility (see, for example, the recent work of Robert Muggah and John de Boer). In general terms, urban fragility occurs when local institutions are unable to cope with and adapt to stress and instability. It can occur rapidly—in the wake of violent conflicts or natural disasters—or it can also emerge more incrementally, expressed in the deterioration of governance, lack of basic services, insecurity or intensive resource exploitation. At any scale we consider fragility, it is a consequence of an accumulation of risks—or better the cumulative effects of multiple risks—that result in a greater likelihood and intensity of urban vulnerability to disasters.

    Furthermore, some considerations can be made on the concept of urban fragility:
    • it is not predictable: supposedly stable cities can exhibit destabilizing characteristics at the neighborhood level. Brussels is the home of the European Commission’s headquarters but reveals fragility in districts such as Molenbeek. At the same time, the cities with the highest crime rates and violence can have relatively safe and people-oriented neighborhoods. In Europe itself, which is habitually associated with wealth and high levels of quality of life, slums exist throughout the continent—from Spain to France, Poland and Serbia. One of Europe’s biggest illegal settlement, Cañada Real Galiana (close to Madrid), was established more than 40 years ago and currently hosts around 40,000 people.

    • It is not a permanent condition: cities in crisis can regenerate themselves—to borrow from R. Florida: thirty years ago, New York City’s future looked far less bright.

    • It is not evenly distributed: by “reading” the city through the theory of complexity (I refer to authors like Juval Portugali and Michael Batty) we can say that fragility is not equally distributed in a complex system like the city.

    Now we come to the true opposite of fragility. In general, when one thinks of the opposite of fragility one thinks of resilience. This is what almost all participants have done it in this debate.
    Let’s start by saying that, beyond the consensus, and the increasing sophistication of the term, the concept of resilience has its limits:

    • it is simultaneously a theory (about how systems can behave across scales) and a proactive approach (both preventive and reactive) to risks, but despite several years of theoretical and practical contributions in this field, the concept remains difficult to make operational.

    • It is an analytical tool that enables researchers to examine how and why some systems are able to respond to disruption, but it is difficult to understand the transition from a fragile state to a resilient state.

    • It is also a practice that turns out to be of little use in decision-making when stakeholders’ interests and expectations differ (should we prioritize, for example, the conservation of green areas or the construction of affordable housing in the empty spaces of the informal neighborhoods?).

    • There are important inconsistencies in how the scholarly literature defines and characterizes resilience and how practitioners view the topic. Particularly, they refer to the recovering and “bouncing back” versus transformation and “bouncing forward”.

    • The more diverse actors embrace the concept of resilience in different ways, the more it loses its meaning, to the point of becoming, in some cases, a marketing tool instrumentalized by economic and political elites.

    • Finally, and paradoxically, the concept has served to make popular the idea that cities are largely vulnerable systems (requiring more resilience), an idea that can force the perception that fragility is increasing.

    Resilience does not indicate the ability not to “suffer” from the accumulation of risks, at most a capacity for recovery. So what? Therefore, a change of paradigm is needed.
    We need to define a new concept that refers to the ability to reduce the effects of negative externalities, being able to seize opportunities.

    In the vision of complexity proposed by N. Taleb in “Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder” (2012) there are four types of structures or systems: a) fragile ones that are not able to resist random events (or certain shocks) and collapse when they occur; b) robust ones that are rigid and resist shocks without being damaged, but always remain the same and are not able to evolve; 3) resilient ones that maintain key functions and processes in the face of stresses or pressures (but stay the same); 4) and antifragile ones that can react to changes by evolving and improving themselves, taking advantage from events.
    Antifragility is everywhere in nature, especially in ecological and biological systems. Muscles endure the fatigue and the stress of training and get stronger; a body is infected with a small dose of a toxic substance and become immune (vaccination or mithridatism); antifragility is the basis of the evolutionary principle according to which every new generation represents an improvement over the previous one, since only the most suitable individuals have succeeded in transmitting their genes.

    Let’s get back to the city. In the widely cited essay “A City is Not a Tree” (1965), Christopher Alexander analyzes the abstract ordering principles that govern complex urban systems. Alexander’s idea of urban systems refers to networks (informatics and non-informatics) and with the concepts of fractals and organized complexity. This interconnected city finds associations also with the biophilia hypothesis—that suggests that humans possess an innate tendency to seek connections with nature and other forms of life—introduced by E.O. Wilson and developed by other authors such as N. Salingaros.

    We can therefore consider the city as a complex adaptive system that is composed, in turn, of subsystems and elements that interact with each other. In a more empirical way, the city is composed of neighborhoods, communities, individuals, all part of a larger system but which do not have the same degree of fragility. In fact, as systems become complex, they become less fragile and therefore less likely to interrupt their operations in case of major disturbing events. The consequence is that fragility (unlike resilience) increases in more “simple” subsystems such as neighborhoods and local communities. As a result, the fragility of an individual is higher than that of a social group, which is more fragile than the city as a whole.

    What, then, is the underlying question? Quoting again Taleb, we can argue that the city is an antifragile system, which has the ability (to a point) to become stronger if subjected to stress and to be able to benefit from changes, be they unpredictable and extreme.
    In response to the opening question of the debate, I therefore argue that cities are not becoming more fragile because they are intrinsically antifragile.
    Although the comment of J.H. suggests that we should specify which city we are talking about, pointing out that the answer to the question could vary from case to case, I believe my argument is valid for all cities. Indeed, several studies show that most contemporary cities—including those of the global south—are actually highly complex systems capable of withstanding large disturbances. Even if exposed to devastating events, their general functioning and their durability are rarely compromised. New Orleans, Port-au-Prince and Fukushima have suffered serious disasters; however, they were able to recover their operations in relatively short periods.Certainly, there have been cases of completely destroyed cities: Pompeii with the eruption of Vesuvius in 79, Carthage (Third Punic War 146 AC), Chernobyl (nuclear catastrophe of 1986), as well as cases of destroyed territories, such as the disappearance of the Aral Sea (in the last 50 years). But as mentioned, cities have an extraordinary ability to recover. Lisbon was rebuilt rapidly after the earthquake of 1755, Hiroshima recovered in a few decades from the atomic bombing of 1945.

    The cities rise again and are still there but the accounts must be made with what often remains: derelict and abandoned neighborhoods, displaced communities, injured and dead; and these cannot be recovered! The city is antifragile but that does not apply to all its parts.

    Throughout history few cities have survived, only a handful of them have passed through the millennia, not too many have endured for many centuries. They have always had to deal with climate change, political, social and natural catastrophes, epidemics, invasions, religious and civil wars, environmental disasters. These phenomena have destroyed most of the cities, but not the city as a whole. The city, this ecological niche of the human species has prospered. And considering that it has existed for almost 6,000 years we have reason to suppose that it will still exist for a long time (lindy effect). So, rather than dealing with general fragility (and wondering if it is increasing) we should better understand the nature of the fragility, robustness and resilience of the subsystems and the elements of which cities are composed. Countering the fragility of a complex system also means understanding at what level we need to intervene. We should also question whether it is possible to recognize and reinforce its antifragility factors. In this regard, we should investigate the ways to make individuals and communities less fragile by transferring the antifragility factors specific of the highest levels—from the city to its sub-systems. But this would shift the focus from the main issue. Perhaps can we start another debate?

  29. Mauro makes some interesting arguments. First off, I think we do need to accept that both resilience and antifragility, just like vulnerability and fragility are often used interchangeably, as well as juxtaposed against each other and there are not yet universally accepted definitions for any of these terms. To me, the debate is not so much about fragile vs antifragile (or resilient), but rather about whether a global argument can be made for cities and human systems.

    As I have said earlier, I do not think that is possible right now, despite the many many examples (some of them based on hard evidence, other on perceptions). In that, I still find it difficult to cast a vote, though I confess, I tend towards the ‘no- cities are not becoming increasingly fragile’ side.

    I find myself in agreement with Mauro, that indeed cities are complex, which adds to their ability to adapt and resist disaster. Nevertheless, complex systems also give rise to complex risks ( I realise that I am sort of making a mystical yin yang kind of argument, which was not my original intention!). I do not agree on the premise that ‘all cities are antifragile’, this question immediately leads to ‘What makes a city’, which is also at the heart of this debate, for me. If for example, 90% of the population is wiped out or decides to move out because of untenable circumstances, does the city still exist? Who and what constitute a city? Especially as networks become increasingly separate from spatialities and the physical?

  30. Finally, on reflecting on Thomas Fisher’s and Michael Mehaffy’s closing arguments, I would have to say that I find myself agreeing to a greater degree with Mehaffy. While I do think that scale matters when speaking of networks, I agree that networks offer the great possibility of ‘increasing feedback and resilience’. I also do not think that technology is not the answer as Fisher argues, I think it is one of the answers, certainly not the only answer. I do agree with Fisher that other species have a lot to teach us, but at the same time, I do not think we can simply turn to our collective planetary pasts for all the solutions necessarily, though the past has many clues that may help. Finally, I think one of the most challenging, yet promising solutions to fragility of cities is Mehaffy’s proposition on “how societies choose to create and regulate networks’ as a critical aspect for fostering or inhibiting resilience.

  31. Mauro’s analysis and eventual emphasis on Antifragility (I use the word with a capitalized A carefully, as it is very much a proper noun in my head) as a critical term brings up an important issue about meaning; in communication and practice. I should have included the same in my previous comment (in the epistemological challenges section) but am glad has come up now.

    In a recent discussion about preserving indigenous intangible heritage in the wake of European colonization in Australia, the speaker mentioned the valuable work done by certain colonial anthropologists in recording and documenting aboriginal customs and rituals for posterity, in the face of cultural extinction. As it turned out of course, the very act of documentation in written word (specifically the English language) and mention of elder names was the destruction of these artefacts (not just their authenticity, but their very identity). Besides, certain cultures believe death and rebirth to be sacred and hold the cyclical process in the highest regard.

    This example is not meant to incite a fatalistic attitude of no-intervention or to abandon all forms of cooperative action and sharing of knowledge. But to warn against an essentialist and deterministic attitude in the creation of technical languages and worse yet agendas for “common action”. These issues might seem trivialities of semantics at first but become entrenched soon and play havoc with meaning. So, then what to do? If we cannot agree on what things and actions and processes are named, then what hope do we have for saving this world?

    Well, the problems don’t end here for me. I also believe, despite (and sometimes because of) unprecedented access to big data we have fallen into the old fallacy of interpreting correlation as causality. Analogous theorising (biophilic or rhizomatic or otherwise) has lead us to believe in the universal existence of causality loops that are then used as ways to post-rationalize field data and then present them as fact, pure and simple. Contextualization and conditionalities have to be taken more seriously.

    Eventually, these issues also plague the development of strategies for action at a fundamental level. For example, Fisher’s statement; “In human terms, this means settling inland away from coasts prone to flooding,”; makes an indirect and universal claim both about causality and therefore action, that I believe is much more complex. Is the displacement of a coastal community its death, even though each and every one of its members, survive?

    All this means, that we have a tremendous collective epistemic responsibility. But despite which, we should feel free to take action, knowing that we don’t necessarily “know” everything.

    Finally, I think I have made my decision to vote with Mehaffy, mostly because I would rather err on the side of optimism and due to reasons, that I had mentioned in my previous comment under ethical arguments. It is a useful and productive attitude to hold, which can get more done and bring more people together for our common future!

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