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Wednesday 14th March 2012
Building the Resilient City-Region
Cities Contributor: André Sorensen

It seems so obvious, and so common sense, that given the enormous risks and costs associated with climate change, rising sea levels, species extinction, desertification, topsoil depletion, social polarization, toxic accumulation, and other ongoing environmental crises, that collective efforts to reduce emissions, promote best practices, and reduce our exposure to such risks are essential.

And it is undeniable that cities are a major potential contributor to solutions to these problems, as urban areas are much more sustainable than exurban and low-density suburban areas because of their systematically lower energy use per capita than lower density areas. Cities present a huge opportunity for further efficiency without reducing living standards, in part because we have been so extravagant until now. There is still a lot of low-lying fruit still waiting to be grasped in making our cities more efficient and more liveable.

All this we know, and have been talking about for decades, but it is important that we not assume that this is a world of business-as-usual for those of us who wish to achieve a smaller environmental footprint and a healthier global ecosystem.

The idea of resilience for cities comes from studies of major disasters and post-disaster recovery, and comparisons of the experience of different places. As is increasingly recognized, there are no natural disasters. The scope, meaning and impacts of all disasters are structured by place-specific social and environmental vulnerabilities and capacities. For example recently there were similarly violent earthquakes in Haiti and Chile, but with hugely greater damage, loss of life, and suffering in Haiti, and a much longer recovery period.

Both the extent of damage and its impacts, and the speed of recovery are determined by social, ecological, technological, economic, civil society and governmental capacities. These are the components of resilience. Resilience in the moment of disaster to reduce impacts, and social resilience to react, adapt, mobilize and move to speed recovery.

A large part of my research focuses on urban Japan, and one of my biggest projects right now is on the reconstruction projects after the triple disasters of March 11th 2011 (called 3:11 in Japan): a Richter scale 9.0 earthquake, the largest recorded in modern Japanese history, a devastating tsunami that completely submerged 5-story buildings, and the meltdown of the nuclear cores of three of four reactors at the Fukushima nuclear plant.

There are many lessons to be learned from 3:11, but I will focus on two here: The importance of social cohesion in the face of disaster, and the fragility of complex systems in the face of multiple systems failure.

Without implying that Japanese society is perfect, the different reactions to disaster in Tohoku and New Orleans are instructive. Both disasters were devastating, fast moving, and catastrophic in scope. But there is no question that the social cohesion and discipline seen in Japan greatly reduced the severity of the impacts with neighbours helping the elderly to higher ground and school-children walked in groups to evacuation points, compared to New Orleans, where the poor were left to fend for themselves with no efforts whatsoever to provide emergency evacuation apart from telling people to drive north, FEMA did too little too late, and disaster-struck areas quickly descended into a chaos of looting, shooting and lawlessness.

I know how I hope my society and neighbours will react when put to the test, and I believe that it is not too soon to start actively developing the civic capacity and educating about what the priorities should be when shit happens, as we know it will, again and again as climate change starts to change the way the weather works. It is worth noting that Toronto did pretty well during the 2003 SARS crisis with thanks to the quiet heroism of Toronto Public Health officers and hospital staff, so we are not starting at zero. Social cohesion starts with taking care of all residents in good times and bad.

The second lesson is that complex systems are inherently vulnerable to multiple system failure, unanticipated events, human error, and governmental missteps, as well as long-term reluctance to deal with tough decisions such as the strengthening of regulatory oversight or the disposal of high-level radioactive waste. It is not my goal here to analyze the particular causes of the Fukushima disaster, or to develop a critique of nuclear power generation.

Merely to note that Fukushima makes two things abundantly clear: First is that small-scale distributed local systems have inherent qualities of resilience and lower risks compared to large-scale integrated grids. This does not mean that we can dispense with our big electricity grid immediately, but that the development of solar, wind, small-scale hydro, and combined heat and power plants do have advantages over centralized and particularly nuclear-based electricity systems, that those advantages should be taken into account in public policy deliberations, and that the resilience advantages of distributed systems should be carefully fostered as a part of our energy future.

The second lesson of Fukushima is that even if the likelihood of an accident is tiny, the potential costs of nuclear accidents are unimaginably large and long-term. It would be irresponsible to talk about eco-futures in the Eastern Greater Toronto Area without noting that Pickering is exactly 30 km from Union Station, and Darlington is another 20 km further East. These are two of the largest nuclear complexes in North America, and each plant still contains all the spent nuclear fuel that has been generated during the last decades of operation on site in cooling ponds because no one has yet come up with a solution to the disposal of nuclear waste in Canada. Even if an accident never happens, I cannot think of anything less sustainable than the daily production of high-level radioactive waste that will take thousands of years to become safe. We are burdening our children and future hundreds of generations with the responsibility to take care of these casually ignored by-products of our addiction to cheap energy.

In Fukushima it is clear that much of the area within 30-50 km of the plant will be uninhabitable for generations, and that the active cleanup of the plant itself will take about 60 years. It will cost trillions of dollars in cleanup, disposal, remediation, and lost opportunities, quite apart from ongoing human tragedies, cancers and exposures.

In Ontario the nuclear industry has always produced the most expensive power in our electricity supply, even though the Government of Ontario has guaranteed it will pay all liabilities for radiation exposure and contamination, and that that enormous cost (were it to be paid as insurance premiums on a commercial basis) is not included in the cost calculations of the nuclear electricity that we consume. We simply assume in our cost calculations that an accident will not occur. I sincerely hope that is a correct assumption, as the eastern Greater Toronto Area will not be a happy place to be if it is incorrect.

So what is a resilient city-region?

A leader in this area is ICLEI Local Governments for Sustainability a non-governmental organization originating in Toronto that has worked around the world during the last couple of decades to promote sustainable development at the local scale. See

Resilient City-Regions means:

- Creating less fragile, more robust systems that are less vulnerable to multiple risks and emerging threats;

- Creating more local capacity – in energy, food supply, talent, innovation;

- Relying less on long-distance supply chains;

- Protecting soils, water and groundwater quality;

- Producing less fragile, less brittle social systems – in part this means taking care of each other, building social capacity, ensuring that we are encouraging and supporting places where neighbours know   each other and take care of each other especially the elderly and children in cases of emergency;

- Educating more critical and self-reliant citizens. Not for autarchy or self-sufficiency at the small scale, but for creativity and co-operation at all scales; and

- Avoiding high-risk ventures where a 1 in a million occurrence will create catastrophic and permanent damage.

In part this must be a process of social innovation. One of the most exciting and rewarding things I have done during the last three years is participate on the board of the Centre for Social Innovation, which is a co-location hub for social enterprises and non-profits, an incubator of all sorts of social innovation projects and capacities, and is a world-leader in promoting new approaches. I am happy to report that we have enormous and growing social innovation vitality and capacity in Toronto and the Greater Toronto Area.

Social Innovation is the work of developing new strategies, creating capacities to achieve new kinds of goals and better ways of living and working, and new organizational structures and new incentives that are outside but parallel to market structures. It is time to learn again what urbanists knew so well 100 years ago – that market processes by themselves do not supply optimal levels of social, environmental, and public goods, and that while local, provincial and national governments must still be pushed to carry their share of these, we also need actively to work outside of governments and with markets to create new approaches to energy efficiency, new work arrangements, new uses of untapped human resources, and new more effective solutions to eco-challenges. Resilient city-regions depend in part on social innovation.

In addition to creating more ecologically sound, lower impact, less energy intensive, more sustainable urban systems, an essential task for all those working for healthier global ecosystems is therefore education for critical thinking and critical citizenship. Building resilient city-regions is crucially a matter of building local social and organizational capacity to reduce vulnerability to shocks, but is also about social cohesion and social innovation, inventing new incentives and metrics of success, and new ways of working together. 

So building resilient city regions is crucially a matter of building local social and organizational capacity, but is also about social cohesion and social innovation, inventing new networks, and new ways of working together.


André Sorensen is Associate Professor of Urban Geography in the Department of Social Science, University of Toronto Scarborough. He has published extensively on urbanisation, land development, and urban policy processes.

This post is based on Sorensen's Keynote Speech for the Eastern Greater Toronto Area Eco-Summit. It first appeared on the Center for Social Innovation website on 5th March 2012