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Why we need to redefine planning for resilience in the twenty-first century

25 June 2014

Gayle Wootton, Research Officer (Centenary), RTPI

As reported yesterday (24th June), May was hottest on Earth since records began. Data published by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows that the average land and ocean surface temperature last month was 0.74C above the twentieth century average of 14.8C. Previously, the warmest May was in 2010, followed by 2012, 1998 and 2013. This year could also turn out to be the warmest on record.

The effects of a warming (or more accurately, changing climate are well-known. Across the globe cities, towns and villages are facing flooding at an increasing rate, while others are experiencing droughts. Climate change is also causing biodiversity loss, famine, desertification, and increasing conflict – all issues noted in our second Planning Horizons paper published yesterday at the RTPI Planning Convention, which also considers the challenge of demographic change alongside climate change.

The paper, Future-Proofing Society, adopts the term ‘resilience’ to describe the need to strengthen our collective ability not only to respond and recover from the impacts of climate change and demographic change, but also to prepare and plan for them. Obviously, we’re not the first organisation to use the concept. Many urban initiatives are focusing on resilience: the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI) has developed an approach to urban resilience planning to tackle climate change; the Resilient City movement was developed to produce a ‘Future-proofing cities toolkit’ to help urban governments deal with future impacts of climate change and energy scarcity; and the Rockefeller Foundation is working on its 100 Resilient Cities initiative, including supporting the appointment of Chief Resilience Officers in each city.

Faced with pressing challenges such as climate change and demographic change in particular, planning for resilience needs to be redefined for the twenty-first century.

These initiatives sometimes work within a definition of ‘resilience’ as the ability of individuals, communities and businesses to deal with the stresses and shocks that they experience, for example as post-disaster reactions to events such as Hurricane Sandy.

Phrases such as ‘bouncing back’ and ‘recovery’ are commonly used to signify this kind of resiliency. At other times, ‘resiliency’ is used in a much more proactive sense – effectively to design cities in particular in ways that hope to reduce the occurrence of such events, as well as the vulnerability of communities to these events as and when they do occur.

Critically however, at a national government level, it is the first understanding of ‘resilience’ which is much more prevalent than the second – and even then, what is also often described as ‘emergency planning’ tends to be rather narrow (for example, focusing on flooding rather than a broader range of impacts from climate change). Certainly it doesn't tend to include the very significant challenges of demographic change - for example the fact that the UK’s population is the fastest growing in the European Union and is expected to increase to more than 74 million in a quarter of a century.

Faced with pressing challenges such as climate change and demographic change in particular, planning for resilience needs to be redefined for the twenty-first century.

Future-Proofing Society considers six elements of these present-day challenges: unpredictable and extreme weather, water provision, energy supply and consumption, a growing population, changing age structures and community cohesion. Drawing on a wide research literature, the paper calls for a broadening and strengthening of the term ‘resilience’ to include planning for climate and demographic change both current and future, and the bringing together of challenges which have previously been discussed under headings such as sustainable development, vulnerability and disaster risk reduction. A broader definition of resilience would include the ability of natural ecosystems to absorb and recover from shocks and stresses (‘ecological resilience’) as well as how communities are able to cope with economic challenges, such as job losses or recessions (‘economic resilience’).

In order to build a wider notion of resilience into forward planning, many experts and commentators favour a scenario-planning approach, recognising that there will be no ‘optimum’ fixed response and that we need greater flexibility and capacity for learning in and between organisations. One novel example of this is termed ‘reflective gaming’ and was developed by Pablo Suarez and colleagues at the Red Cross/Red Crescent Climate Centre to integrate climate information into decision making using fun, but serious games that work with all the complexities, volatilities and uncertainties that our future holds. Future-Proofing Society highlights how this has been used by the African Climate Change Resilience Alliance in Ethiopia, Uganda and Mozambique.

In addition to a broadening of resilience thinking is the urgent need to spatialise resilience planning. Many planners will already think that they work spatially, and that looking after space is what planners do. However, what has often been missing is the integration of spatial data across various institutions as well as the production of spatial data in many policy areas. As the first RTPI Planning Horizons paper, Thinking Spatially, argued, there is an urgent need for a greater awareness of ‘place’ and ‘space’ across all policy- and decision-making disciplines. The lack of integrated and co-ordinated approaches that results from this, delivers ‘siloed’ policy responses and can even result in counter-productive outcomes. This is why we believe that a spatialised vision of measures needed to improve resilience would be invaluable for planning future development and investment in a more integrated and co-ordinated way, including issues such as energy and transport infrastructure, food and agriculture, regeneration, social policy and so on.

Future-Proofing Society details how we think the planning profession can continue to adapt to better face these challenges under the banner of spatial resilience planning, by considering the institutional, intelligence and human resource implications of this concept. It also shows why planning is needed now, more than ever.

About Gayle Wootton

Gayle Wootton is RTPI Research Officer for the Centenary Projects. She joined the RTPI in 2012 firstly as England and Wales Policy Officer building on her background of environmental policy in a Welsh planning context. Gayle previously ran a £10m European funded Regeneration Programme for the Welsh Government, but has also worked for the Countryside Council for Wales for seven years and the Environment Agency Wales in their Strategic Unit. She is currently also undertaking a PhD at Cardiff University.