10. 04. 2019

Does awareness raising and action on urban resilience start in City Hall, or in the communities?

BY Graham Colclough, Urban DNA

The answer is obvious – it’s both. However, beyond that, the road rapidly gets muddy and roles unclear.

Engaging from both angles presents its challenges, however focusing on community only is likely to leave a city short-changed.

Engaging the community requires a focused understanding of the topic, and a clear purpose for the discussion. Given that resilience is so broad and deep a topic, that level of focus and purpose is highly unlikely to occur if one gets a mix of the community in a room. The discussion can thus become very narrow or meander rather randomly. However, to neglect society in addressing on resilience is a lot more dangerous.

What is needed is to create a frame of reference to shape and stimulate the right quality of debate.

This is perhaps where the democratically elected can step in.

We elect politicians for a purpose – to collect, synthesise, and communicate individual and collective opinion – and to guide / steer and at times provide direction. Considering a topic as diverse (and in many ways new) as resilience, that is a tall order to ask politicians to step up to. They are not ‘all knowing’. However, they most certainly can play a vitally important role.

In ‘city hall’, both politically and professionally, one tends to find as many diverse views on urban resilience as people in the room. And getting a common view at the top of the city organisation is a rather important starting point; and in most cities that is not a singular organisation or indeed a singular person. Fixing this is no small task, and although a city chief resilience officer (CRO) can be a grand step in the right direction it is far from enough. Alas presently the number of cities that have the right person and skills (CRO) in place is still small.

To provide help for cities, there are multiple organisations that are offering support and opinion – advisors, not for profits, industry, and the like. One type of organisation however that is too hidden in the closet on the topic is Standards Development Organisations (do I hear the sharp intake of air drawn through teeth?). Standards Organisations are typically not considered the first port of call for guidance on how to tackle resilience – indeed for many city politicians and senior officers, they are very unlikely to think of such organisations (or think of them in the realm of compliance and regulation).  However, the one thing going for most of them is the trusted brand they have and more neutral position that they take.

The big international (and some significant national) standards bodies have recognised that they are not top of mind for city leaders – a bit of an understatement perhaps. As a result, there is a growing support to write new materials specifically to engage the city leadership audience.

A recent initiative by British Standards Institute (BSI) is in motion to help demystify City Resilience and provide cities with some much-needed support. Two documents have been drafted: a ‘Leadership Guide’ and a ‘Management Framework’. The former is a short sharp key-issue document that is specifically targeted to the political and chief officer community. It explains in simple terms what resilience is, why it is important, provides some key insights, offers a frame of reference for the topic, and points towards some key questions that they should perhaps pose of people in executive or operational positions with in the city. The latter document is more thorough and provides an organising framework for city resilience that seeks to make sense of the topic for city managers, notably as the topic is very cross-cutting. It seeks to help cities navigate around the various other external material that in total can create more confusion for busy city managers.

Both are written for cities by cities. The two combined should help the engagement of political and professional leadership and investment decision makers through providing practical frameworks and tools for service providers and infrastructure managers.

Bristol has been engaged in this development process, amongst a large number of UK cities; and will hopefully provide a testbed to demonstrate the benefits of this material – indeed why not the other RESCCUE cities too?

So at least there are some solid steps in place to help ‘city halls’ in their endeavours to raise awareness and move to appropriate action on urban resilience. Then perhaps those same people can engage the communities in more purposeful and informed dialogue – as it for sure takes both ‘city hall’ and community views to build city resilience.