The ‘enabling city’: enhancing creative community resilience

Contributor: Chiara Camponeschi

2007 marked a significant moment in human history; for the first time ever, more people lived in cities than in rural areas. Today, as an ‘urban species‘, we face the effects of two powerful human-induced forces: ongoing urbanisation and escalating global warming. The convergence of the two now irreversibly links cities and climate change together, lending new urgency to the need to brainstorm solutions to the problem of how to live together in a just and sustainable fashion.

As urban centres continue to grapple with complex issues as wide-ranging as over-consumption and over-population, renewed interest in resilience is growing in tandem with a new approach to urbanism – one based on the concept of enablement, whereby local communities negotiate directly with authorities the conditions that best allow them to meet their needs. This remarkable leadership shift not only recognises the value of experiential knowledge in stimulating resilience thinking but speaks to the desire of local actors to transform the everyday realm into fertile ground for empowered environmental governance.

Defined as the capacity of a system to withstand disturbance while still retaining its fundamental structure and internal feedbacks, resilience has become a prerequisite for the restoration of inflexible systems that lead to brittle infrastructures. But how can cities and communities respond to increasingly interconnected issues in uncertain times, and what kinds of tools and platforms will be needed to address them in a collaborative and empowering way?

We often speak of sustainable and resilient urban development, food production, energy generation, and transportation, yet we don’t often hear about the important role that culture and creativity play in advancing both. Culture is comprised of the lifestyle choices, value systems, and traditions that can be tapped into to empower residents to tackle needs in a localised, but scalable, ways. Creativity, in turn, fosters the open-mindedness and innovative thinking needed to exercise collective power over the process of (low-carbon) urbanisation.

Place-based creative problem-solving (PBCPS) is a powerful avenue for diverse stakeholders to formulate a more intricate and inclusive definition of sustainability. It is an approach to participation that leverages the imagination and inventiveness of citizens, experts and activists in collaborative efforts that make cities more livable, shock-resistant and responsive. Through PBCPS, the entangling of urbanisation with ecology creates an opportunity for residents to become decision-makers over their own environment, contributing to a dynamic atlas of climate-preparedness initiatives that help communities identify their unique vulnerabilities and adaptation needs.

Initiatives such as Resilience CirclesTransition TownsTranistion Bus, and the UNISDR’s Making Cities Resilient hold special promise in understanding how local people mobilise to respond to the challenges posed by climate change. They also contribute to an appreciation for the commons that acknowledges the links between cultural identity and climate resilience by fostering belonging and connectedness through networks of self-organisation. These networks investigate the dynamic interplay between the optimism of experimentation and the urgency of crisis in order to find innovative, geographically sensitive solutions.

An ‘enabling city’ is inherently a resilient one. It is also a collaborative one. Place-based creative problem-solving encourages cities and communities to look at the ‘local’ level as a site of investment, as an opportunity to embed the democratic values of participation, transparency, inclusion and openness into the very fabric of society. Grace Lee Boggs famously said, “we are the leaders we have been waiting for.” As the examples above testify, cultural sustainability and creative community organising are going to be essential components of ‘enabling’ frameworks that prepare cities to rely on supportive ecosystems that are themselves constantly adapting. Learning to weave the power of the two into our local sustainability efforts is key to enhancing creative urban resilience. After all, to adapt is to exercise creativity, and the ability to respond to change collaboratively may just be the most important quality a community needs to deal with today’s (and tomorrow’s) uncertainty.

Chiara Camponeschi works at the intersection of interdisciplinary research, social innovation and urban sustainability. She is the author and founder of The Enabling City, a publication and platform that explores social innovation in the areas of urban sustainability and participatory governance. To learn more about the project, visit the website or follow TheEnablingCity on Twitter.

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