Understanding urban resilience, part IV: Exploring social dimensions

Arup’s International Development group has spent the past 20 months working to help cities understand and measure resilience. Braulio Eduardo Morera, the London-based project manager and researcher for the effort, spoke with us about the lessons he took away from a case study in Cali, Colombia.


Cali is a very interesting city of 2.5 million that had a big crisis rooted in drug trafficking and corruption. Trafficking basically took over the city. Initially it created massive economic wealth, but then it led to corruption, and then violence and lack of governance.

Cali, Colombia

Cali, Colombia

In addition, Cali was a fantastic experience for helping us understand how social processes can exacerbate vulnerabilities associated with natural hazards. For example, to be able to understand why the poorest populations are located in the floodplain in Cali, you have to understand the social, economic, and political background.

Your report about your work to date focuses heavily on issues like politics and social networks, which have been absent from many discussions about architecture, planning, and engineering in the past. How does this fit into larger conversations that are happening in the design community now?

I think that one of the challenges for Arup is that we’re most comfortable and confident with physical systems. We understand how buildings and infrastructure work. But when we were doing our literature review for this project, we realized that when we applied the concept of resilience to entire cities, the social aspect is an issue that the large scale of cities emphasizes. Politics, for example, becomes really, really important. The way we use buildings, the way we use our city, the way we as citizens and our leaders decide where our city goes — that’s everyday politics. That is society, which is determined by our culture, and heavily influences our behavior.

The way we use buildings, the way we use our city, the way we as citizens and our leaders decide where our city goes — that’s everyday politics

So the social aspects of resilience are elements that became more and more relevant through this journey. We started by approaching the city as a collection of social, economic, and physical systems, but the literature clarified that one of the keys to understand resilience at a city scale is its performance — which is heavily influenced by the “social”, including forms of communication, decisions and behaviors.

That’s new for many practitioners. That’s what we believe many people and institutions and agencies trying to understand resilience in an urban context are sometimes underestimating. The behavior of a building, the behavior of infrastructure, can be modeled; and we can understand when things will fail safely, and the point in which things will fail catastrophically. But we don’t know what’s going to happen afterwards, how people will react and hopefully recover. And that is the process that we need to start understanding in more detail if we want to enable communities, cities, and governments to react effectively to the shocks and stresses they experience. Because the main problem with climate change and resilience is that we don’t know how or when some things will fail.

Credit: Arup

So in order to live with uncertainty, and to know how to save lives and recover when things happen, we have to learn more about culture, politics, and communications. We also need to learn more about decision-making processes for how we manage our infrastructure, manage the physical aspects of our cities.

How does the resilience tool you’re working on start to deal with those kinds of issues in a way that can bring designers, policymakers, and others together?

The literature review and the analysis of case studies showed us that the social aspects and the level of empowerment of stakeholders and leadership were important. We didn’t know exactly how important they were, though.

When we went to the field, there was something surprising for us: social practices were many times the main vehicle that communities or cities would use to deal with problems.

Community leader and children at self-managed community center in La Ladera, Cali

For example, we discover that the way some low-income communities in Cali deal with lack of livelihoods is by organizing themselves. Rather than using physical infrastructure or trying to get money from the government, their tool is to talk to each other, to brainstorm, to develop their own initiatives in order to safeguard their livelihoods.

We had the fantastic opportunity to run a workshop in a poor and sometimes violent community where a local NGO is running a microcredit project. This was organized by the community itself, with the support of some donors and a community NGO that started 27 years ago, a grassroots group called Fundacion Paz y Bien.

That is perhaps the beauty of the social when we talk about cities. Our systems sometimes fail, but in order to react we need to a) understand how the systems work, then b) have the ability to take decisions about what to do when things don’t work. Are we going to repair a piece of infrastructure? If so, who’s in charge of that?

So being able to understand our cities and take decisions is something really relevant. And it’s something that was emphasized by the fieldwork. Those are discussions that we had across the six cities we visited. When we started analyzing the primary data that we obtained in the cities, it became more and more evident that non-physical aspects such as economy and society, or leadership and strategy, were as important as the presence and quality of physical urban systems such as infrastructure.

You released a resilience framework several weeks ago. What’s the next step in the project?

Right now we’re working on the definition of an assessment methodology — what we call the index. What we have at the moment is a framework that explains the key indicators of resilience in the city: the 12 areas that are critical for the city to achieve resilience, or to get into a path toward resilience. This is basically the structure, the scaffold around which an index to assess the resilience of a city will be created.


Resilience framework

But in order to be able to measure these indicators we need to dig deeper so we can define metrics and variables that we can actually measure, so that we can say with a certain level of rigor whether, for example, a city is minimizing its vulnerability, whether physical exposure is being reduced in a city. Those are things that are difficult to measure directly. Therefore we need to create variables and metrics that can give us a detailed picture of whether those outcomes can be achieved or not achieved, if they are improving or not.

What’s the ultimate goal? What will a city be able to do when it has these tools?

The ultimate goal is to be able to articulate resilience in a measurable way that is based on evidence. We firstly wanted to be able to say what city resilience was about; only then we can measure whether cities are in a positive or negative path, if they are resilient or not. We want to understand and also to measure.

We knew that there was no point in jumping onto measurements right away and in the end conclude the same thing that everyone else was concluding

I think the value that Arup brought into the picture is that we were able to develop a methodology that enables everyone to think about what resilience means at the city level. We knew that there was no point in jumping onto measurements right away and in the end conclude the same thing that everyone else was concluding. The challenge for our team is to try to develop a measurement methodology, but to measure something new: city resilience.

It was difficult — and meaningless — to start measuring something without understanding it. And that is the value that I think Arup can bring. We’re not afraid of exploring new issues, but in order to be able to explore those we really try to understand them. It is exciting to think we do that in diverse scales and issues, from building engineering to new urban agendas such as resilience.

Interview edited and condensed.

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