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 urbanised and warming world, humans are increasingly at risk. For them, human progress in its present form endangers wildlife and ecosystems, damages the atmosphere, and increasingly puts humans and the built environment in danger. They often consider that capitalist economic systems are unsustainable—especially for the most vulnerable. They note that technology makes humans dependent on energy, notably carbon fuels. Humans also increasingly depend on computerised systems that are prone to failure and disruptions. New communication technologies intrude in people’s private lives. Artificial intelligence can soon put humans at risk. The risk of nuclear or biological war still persists. For them, freedom of movement in a so-called “globalized world” is a privilege for a small minority. Overconsumption, fuelled by frenetic capitalism, is on the rise. And cities are often accused of exacerbating these risks. They highlight that cities represent 3% of the surface of the earth, but are responsible for 75% of CO2emissions. From this viewpoint cities exacerbate exclusion, separating the poor and the rich, as well as those who have access to technology and those who do not have it. Urban sprawl in metropolitan areas increases commuting times, reducing the quality of life for millions of urbanities. As the world urbanizes, glaciers melt, and oceans warm-up, more disasters occur. In sum, human systems (such as those used for transportation, communication, and delivering public services) are increasingly fragile or on the brink of collapse.
But some scholars are not convinced and claim that the world has never been more resilient and sustainable. Human progress, they note, is real and measurable. They point to the fact that, in most countries, life expectancy has significantly increased, illiteracy and crime rates are decreasing, and there are fewer diseases, wars, armed conflicts, and human rights violations. The reduction 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 in developing nations. Technology makes work, construction, travel and communication easier and safer. Cities are, for them, the greatest invention in the path towards progress. Cities are inclusive, democratic, dynamic, and complex structures that connect people, enhance entrepreneurship, culture and creativity, and create opportunities for prosperity, learning, and entertainment. More importantly, they concentrate people, reducing the human footprint on the planet. In an urbanized world, cities might be increasingly affected by natural hazards, but their impacts on (per capita) deaths and economic losses are decreasing. Finally, with more technology, disasters can be avoided or largely mitigated.
In this debate, we invite two internationally-known experts in the sustainable development field to defend two opposite viewpoints. Over the next ten days, our panelists will present their most persuasive arguments, but the result of our debate rests in your hands. Do not be afraid to vote immediately—you can always change your mind. Even better, once you have cast your vote, add your voice to the debate and explain your decision. We look forward to reading the comments of all of those who participate.
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.
Steven Pinker is an experimental psychologist who conducts research in visual cognition, psycholinguistics, and social relations. He grew up in Montreal and earned his BA from McGill and his PhD from Harvard. Currently a Johnstone Professor of Psychology at Harvard, he has also taught at Stanford and MIT. He has won numerous prizes for his research, his teaching, and his nine books, including The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works, The Blank Slate, The Better Angels of Our Nature, and The Sense of Style. He is an elected member of the National Academy of Sciences, a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist, a Humanist of the Year, a recipient of nine honorary doctorates, and one of Foreign Policy’s “World’s Top 100 Public Intellectuals” and Time’s “100 Most Influential People in the World Today.” He is Chair of the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary, and writes frequently for The New York Times, The Guardian, and other publications. His newly published book is called Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress.
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.