The democracy of livability and resilience

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By Mary W. Rowe

The challenge to building urban livability and resilience is truly a global one. By 2050, 7 out of 10 people around the world will live in cities, reaching 6.4 billion, double what it was only four years ago. Of that, more than half will reside in cities of more than 10 million people. In many parts of the world livability is seriously challenged: by the absence of good planning, the inadequate provision of basic amenities, and resource constraints. In order to generate the economic and social innovations that drive the global economy, sustain modern civilization and the planet, the world’s most intense and dynamic cities must become simultaneously more resilient and more livable.

The Municipal Art Society of New York (MAS) is a century-old advocacy organization concerned with the role of the physical city, specifically how it is planned, designed and managed –– in ensuring a livable city for all New Yorkers. In 2010 MAS began integrating resilience outcomes with this long-time focus on livability.

We observed that urban advocacy, much like municipal government departments, had become strictly siloed, isolating resilience to the purviews of engineers and scientists, and livability to advocates for culture and economic development. The need for shared approaches that benefit both has become an imperative for 21st century city-building, a movement that increasingly includes urbanists from every profession and walk of life who are engaged in place- making and problem-solving right outside their workplaces and front doors.

Further, granular hyper-local efforts to make urban neighbourhoods more livable and resilient are often over- looked by public bureaucrats and institutional investors looking for simple, one-size-fits-all solutions. But large-scale, unitary approaches are costly, very slow to approve, and are not fool- proof. And in fact, they may often crowd out more modest but equally effective hyper-local approaches that can be designed and adjusted quickly, easily adapted to local conditions, engage local communities directly, spawn spin-off innovations and generate a myriad of local economic, social and environmental benefits.

Truly livable and resilient cities are a mix of large-scale systems, which enable the city to function ‘at scale’, and granular innovations, that underpin those systems and ensure the city continues to adapt and thrive. Whether in cities where systems are intact, or in those where an absence of planning or investment has obstructed the creation of systems, the most effective and imaginative livability and resilience approaches emerge from ‘the local’.

People who live and work in neighbourhoods ultimately know best the opportunities and constraints that are present there. And while government, institutions and the private sector may seek and promote large-scale solutions, often local artists, entrepreneurs and activists are better equipped to respond nimbly and imaginatively, developing innovations quickly that can later be ‘scaled up’.

Democratizing the urban innovation process is one of the fundamental shifts taking place globally, shaping contemporary urban life everywhere. Tech entrepreneurs, street vendors, public health practitioners, urban farmers: urban innovators are emerging from all sectors of city life to create products, services and approaches that make our lives safer, more productive and enjoyable.

Engagement between government and a robust sector of civil society participants – drawn from the community, local businesses, artists and creative entrepreneurs, academia and other local institutions – is required to ensure that local responses to pressing challenges can be developed and applied. This is as true for the artisanal food producer working in Harlem, as it is for the technology entrepreneur in Mumbai: their global cities provide them with the opportunities to develop, test, market and apply their innovative product or process.

By increasing community capacity and providing a forum for the proliferation of ideas and innovations, cities can begin to build resilience and livability from the ground up.

Mary W. Rowe is the Director of Urban Resilience and Livability at The Municipal Art Society of New York. Connect with her on Twitter @Rowemw