Shake the foundations: resilience and planning for infrastructure

by David Adams

Blog 33 Resilience sign_smallerThere is a growing literature on resilient environments; indeed, the term resilience has been hotly debated, discussed, and in some instances, roundly dismissed.  It lies outside of the reach of this blog to unpick the various threads of these arguments in any detail.  However, I will limit the focus to one area of resilience, which is embodied in the ‘100 Resilient Cities’ initiative pioneered by the Rockefeller Foundation, with the expressed ambition of ‘helping cities around the world become more resilient to the physical, social and economic challenges that are a growing part of the 21st century’.[i]  Such an approach is perhaps representative of broader concerns regarding the need to incorporate resilience thinking into planning, engineering and design-based initiatives that ensure the urban fabric can withstand, and positively respond to, a whole range of anthropogenic and ‘natural’ threats – earthquakes, fires, flood, and so on.[ii]  These recent ambitions chime with broader historical arguments regarding the paradoxical nature of cities.  Undoubtedly, large urban environments pose significant risks, but, as Peter Hall once suggested in Cities in Civilization, they also hold great hope in helping to address the significant challenges of the world: they represent crucibles of civic innovation, artistic growth, technological and economic progress, and can deliver solutions to established and evolving problems.[iii]

Such a view is highly contestable, of course; and some would stridently argue that resilience, as a concept, is too urban focused and disjointed.  This is not the time to debate the merits of these and other arguments.  However, recent scientific research has brought questions regarding the ‘cityness’ of resilience thinking to the fore.  It is acknowledged that earthquakes, for example, represent one of the most significant natural threats to urban populations.[iv]  And yet, whilst continued effort and resources are poured into planning and designing urban space to survive earthquakes – with all the associated costs, upheaval and disruption – researchers are developing innovative ways to engineer the ground so to ensure the destructive seismic waves never reach cities at all.  The ideas are simple enough; they range from: planting enough trees in key locations outside of large urban areas; the sinking of strategically placed boreholes to absorb seismic waves; the burying of large resonators to deflect seismic waves away from residential areas; and the placing of offshore rods to disrupt and dissipate wave energy caused by tsunamis.[v]  All of this involves engineering on a grand scale, of course; and this comes at a cost.  Detailed testing of these and other similar initiatives is also required.  But, the purpose of this blog is not to discuss in detail the merits of each approach.  Instead, it is suggested that these examples connect to much larger questions about how planning, infrastructure and resilience thinking might better interrelate; in anything, therefore, there is a real need to look more closely at the relationship between cities and the wider environment beyond the urban limits.



[i] 100 Resilient Cities.  Available from: (last accessed 4 August 2016).

[ii] Meerow, S., Newell, J.P. and Stults, M. (2016) ‘Defining urban resilience: A review’, Landscape and Urban Planning, 147, pp. 38-49.

[iii] Hall, P. (1988) Cities in Civilization, Pantheon Books, New York.

[iv] Hough, P. (2008) Understanding Global Security, Routledge, Oxon.

[v] See, for example, Achaoui, Y., Ungureanu, B., Enoch, S., Brûlé, S. and Guenneau, S., (2016) ‘Seismic waves damping with arrays of inertial resonators’, Extreme Mechanics Letters,

doi:10.1016/j.eml.2016.02.004. Available from: (last accessed 4 August 2016).

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