Is your city at risk?

Roger Nickells, CEO of BuroHappold Engineering, discusses the threats facing 21st-century cities and how we can protect against them.

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Which threats put cities at risk?

The importance of the city environment can’t be understated. Around 50-60 per cent of GDP is earned in urban centres. So it’s important that they’re not just able to deal with short-term risk, but also with the long-term risks involved in creating a sustainable economy for the people living in those cities. 

There are a couple of examples we’ve been involved with. Detroit, for example, grew around the car industry; when the car industry migrated away, the employment opportunities and associated benefits disappeared. That happened slowly over decades, making the city unviable economically.

Similarly in Gothenburg – the home of Ericsson and Volvo – manufacturing techniques changed, and so too did the economy of that city. Our work has been about maintaining the competitiveness of cities, their ability to adapt and to support their people at all levels.

But how do you protect a city?

In the long term, growth itself can be a risk: if cities grow too fast, the infrastructure isn’t able to cope.

Transport is overwhelmed and demand for housing isn’t met – a problem with which we’re very familiar. Alongside that are short-term events such as flood and fire – we’ve seen severe disruption in places like Kendal in Cumbria after the storms in September 2015, and in the US, in New Orleans and New York after hurricanes.

There’s a really strong need for leadership that is able to properly understand and define risks. Good city leaders need to be able to map risk and to balance, contrast and prioritise where they’re going to invest their budgets.

Can you actually measure the risks or areas of weakness in a city?

BuroHappold Engineering has created a solution, the Resilience Insight tool, which anyone can test on our website (visit www.buro.im/BHinsighttool, Chrome browser recommended ). Using it, we’re able to benchmark and chart a whole host of issues within a city and create priorities such as public health or communications in a whole host of scenarios – flooding, a heatwave, a major energy outage. By looking at an individual city we’re able to develop a piece of insight and determine what acceptable levels of risk are. Using these data, we look at the city’s ability to both mitigate these risks and adapt to them. We’ve been through this with 15 cities.

How do you get a city to thrive?

Through the broad engagement of people. Each city has its own set of relationships, its own set of communities. If we are able to help cities measure, identify and then understand the weak points in their investment and resources, we can help city leaders to prioritise well.

So everyone benefits from city resilience strategies?

Everybody, whichever city they’re in, is affected by the environment around them. So if you take almost any city environment, the lower-value land tends to be the land that’s more at risk. The the link between heath inequality and prosperity is a key issue. Mental health, too, is supported by the urban community as well as the spaces and buildings that surround it.

The research we do at BuroHappold helps us work out the optimum shape of a building so that it benefits the ambient environment in terms of wind and weather protection, provides green spaces where people can meet, and offers the best design for the wellbeing of the building’s inhabitants.

But you can’t build a city from scratch...

Actually, sometimes we do. We’re designing a city at the moment – we are developing the King Abdullah Economic City, north of Jeddah. As we work with that ambitious client we think about how to prioritise investment, how to masterplan the design of a new city to allow people to come in and take the city forward, to use it in the way they might want to. It’s a balance, whether you’re designing a city, a district or an individual building.

What comes after resilience?

We begin by designing resilience. strategies first, and then regeneration strategies next. There’s a lovely quote from 1924 by a traveller called Joseph Loss, who said: “Cities outlive the people to whom they owe their existence and the languages in which they are communicated; both the life and death of cities depend on many laws which do not follow any pattern or accept any rule.” I think that captures it brilliantly. Every city is completely different in geography, in its makeup, in its economic proposition, but they share a blend which if we properly understand, properly manage and design, will help us to create cities people want to live in, somewhere they can thrive.

BuroHappold has 23 offices worldwide & 1,800 employees; their work includes complex city master planning (Riyadh, KAEC), regeneration projects (Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park) and transitorientated development.

Roger will be speaking at the Global Resilience summit in London on 19th October.