COVID Insights, Perspectives May 6, 2020

Take the Shock of the Now in Stride: A Resilience Planner’s Call for Reflection

By Jessica Florez, Senior Urban Designer in our Atlanta studio and Co-Director of the Resilience Lab

This story is part of our insight series around the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In resilience planning we talk about “shocks” and “stresses.” They are the acute and chronic tests of any social system—one as atomized as a city block or as complex as a nation or the planet. As an urban designer, I think at the scale of the city. (What that scale is, precisely, is a conversation for another time.) Partnering with the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities program, I led the development of resilience strategies in Louisville and Minneapolis. This work consisted of assisting those cities to prepare not only to withstand, but to thrive through the tests of their systems. Simply put, our cities, large and small, need to be resilient to the shocks and stresses of change.

Stating the obvious here, COVID-19 is a bona fide shock, and the scale is worldwide—hence the status “global pandemic.” Less obvious is how to respond to the shock of the shock, and I see two potential approaches from where we stand right now: reactive and reflective.

Reactive responses project a future in reaction to immediate conditions. Reflective responses, on the other hand, project a future as a reflection of conditions arranged and rearranged across the longer arc of time. It’s the reflective approach that my resilience work tells me to call for in times like the present.

Here’s why. It’s hard not to react when you’re taken off guard. As resilience planners, however, the danger in planning reactively is that it is shortsighted. Overwhelmed by the urgency and uncertainty, we can be tempted either to blame a system’s momentary deficiencies on its complexities (e.g., density or public transportation) or to defend against our helplessness by divining lessons from the contingent evidence available (e.g., “We should plant more trees because they mitigate pollution and pollution exacerbates the coronavirus threat”). We should definitely plant more trees, but we should also be strategic about what trees we plant, where we plant them, and why. Trees, of course, live a lot longer than we do. To crib an insight from celebrated designer of landscapes Piet Oudolf, planting is a promise. Reflective planning is making promises to ourselves that we can keep.

And designing those kind of promises means not balking at uncertainty. The reflective approach takes uncertainty in historical stride and embraces the unknown. It raises questions, and then it explores and tests answers that configure the relevant context according to a number of different logics.

Atlanta on Wednesday, April 8, 2020 at 12:52pm Credit: Dustin Chambers
Atlanta on Wednesday, April 8, 2020 at 12:52 PM
Credit: Dustin Chambers

The 100 Resilient Cities program promoted a reflective foundation of seven qualities of a resilient system reflectiveintegrated, resourcefulinclusive, robustredundant, and flexible. We can also think of these qualities as logics, or lenses, for analyzing conditions and configuring contexts that lead to the kind of resilience that expresses these qualities. In this paper, I use each of these logics to pose questions about specific dimensions of urban design and planning. I pose these questions in terms of the COVID-19 shock, but the pairings are by no means determined or limited to pandemics or global-scale emergencies. My goal is to model the reflective approach that I have been advocating for here more broadly.

Let me tease you with a peek at the first pairing: reflective infrastructure.

Quality 1A resilient system is reflective. In other words, it is able to learn. 

As a logic for analyzing cities: Will we allow this global pandemic to reflectively inform our future infrastructure?

Unlike earthquakes and hurricanes, pandemics slow-burn through the built environment. We don’t have to rebuild homes and roads and bridges, but we do have to rebuild our economy. That’s an opportunity to anticipate and accommodate the infrastructure needs we already know we have. The challenge will therefore be not rushing into decisions about how to direct the infrastructure investment that will likely pour into cities once the spread of the virus is contained.

Resilience experts claim that 75 percent of the urban infrastructure that will exist in 2050 does not exist today. This means that new roads, railways, and utilities (e.g., sewage) will be accommodating the growth of our urban centers, particularly in developing countries. And because the growth of our urban centers will need to accommodate climate-related change, this yet-to-exist infrastructure will need to be truly innovative: green, clean, managing waste in the unprecedented, strictest sense of these words. Still further, this infrastructure will need to achieve the seemingly impossible task of anticipating changes in the ways we move, communicate, live, and conduct business. Of these factors, mobility and technology interest me the most right now in thinking through a reflective response to the shock of COVID-19.

Insofar as technology infrastructure has allowed some of us to overcome social distancing and keep the economy afloat, the question it raises is whether traditional infrastructure investments such as wider roads or widespread access to digital technology is the most resilient investment for our future.

Insofar as social distancing and containment have radically changed the way we’re using our mobility infrastructure, the question it raises is whether we can translate the more flexible habits and expectations we are forming now into the infrastructure we know we will be building over the next three decades.

Car lanes turned into temporary bike lanes in Bogotá, Colombia Credit: Leonardo Guerrero Bermudez/iStock, via
Car lanes turned into temporary bike lanes in Bogotá, Colombia
Credit: Leonardo Guerrero Bermudez/iStock, via

Moreover, the decisions we make about our mobility infrastructure will reach far beyond how we get around. The shock of this acute disease calls attention to the stress of chronic diseases, such as asthma, obesity, diabetes, even anxiety (not a disease, but a chronic condition). A transformational solution such as complete streets, designed for the safe accommodation of multiple modes of transport, supports increased activity at the neighborhood scale and greater access to civic and economic resources at the citywide scale. If we’re going to be reflective about it, what could be a more integrated, resourceful, inclusive, robust, redundant, and flexible infrastructure investment than a citywide network of complete streets? They are an important lever of healthy individuals, communities, economies, and—speaking of urgency—a resilient relationship between our built environment and our social and natural systems.

It’s true that reflecting costs more time and demands more knowledge than reacting, but that’s why we resilience planners and designers need to exercise our reflective muscles on a daily basis. We ought to be fit, as it were, to be knowledgeable, informed, efficient representatives of our stakeholders’ interests with respect to the forces and systems that shape human experience—an experience that unfolds in the balance between immediate conditions and the grander scheme of things. We are expedient guides for our cities’ highest-stakes decisions, so that when the next shock comes and forces our cities to react quickly, they are in turn prepared to play the long game, from the most atomized to the most complex scale, with equanimity and greater certainty.

Click below for extended writings on:

Quality 1: A resilient system is reflective. In other words, it is able to learn.

Will we allow this global pandemic to reflectively inform our future infrastructure?

Quality 2. A resilient system is integrated. In other words, it relies on broad consultation and communication.

Are there urban scales that yield to better integration?

Quality 3. A resilient system is resourceful. In other words, it can easily repurpose resources.

Are denser places more resourceful, and in turn, more resilient?

Quality 4. A resilient system is inclusive. In other words, all systems work together.

Are our natural and human systems working together or simply coexisting?

Quality 5. A resilient system is robust. In other words, it limits the spread of failure.

What city services can increase robustness?

Quality 6. A resilient system is redundant. In other words, it has backup capacity.

Do our transportation and housing systems provide redundant access to people are services?

Quality 7. A resilient system is flexible. In other words, it has alternative strategies.

Are we designing and building for flexibility in our cities?