Planning for resilience is also social

Amidst growing awareness of the role of urban planning and development in responding to the need for urban resilience against climate change, we can begin to recognize some standard protocols and responses. Typically, what springs to mind are efforts to reinforce seawalls and dykes, improve natural as well as engineered flood and storm-water management systems, and underground infrastructure that is made to withstand flooding. These efforts will surely save lives, and prevent damage to property in storms to come. A different set of social and cultural resilience planning efforts, however, is also needed. In some municipalities this type of resilience work is happening already, although it is only rarely called resilience planning per se. Let me draw from my recent research experience in Sweden to explain this other type of resilience planning.

Malmö, Sweden’s border city with Denmark, prides itself on its climate-smart status and ambitious view into the future of renewable energy, low carbon emissions, a transportation system dominated by rail, cycle, and ferry, minimal waste creation, and the protection and enhancement of natural assets. The Bo01 project (“Bo” is Swedish for living) is a neighbourhood built in Malmö for the European Home Expo in 2001. The idea, path-breaking at the time, was to reclaim former industrial land in the western harbour of the city into a 100% renewable energy neighbourhood, using an international home-building competition. National teams of architects and builders from across Europe were invited to deliver house-sized pieces of a visionary new future city; together the result would offer a new vanguard in sustainable, urbane lifestyles. With a regional goal of preventing the conversion of agricultural land on the urban periphery, the development is high density, but not hi-rise, living; each property meets or exceeds a ‘green area factor’ and the walking paths and public parks are many and carefully designed. Homes use building materials recycled from the old industrial buildings, as well as passive house design, solar energy, and are supplied by a district energy system, with an integrated food waste to biogas conversion facility. State subsidies from different governments involved were leveraged in order to build a place that could achieve high quality of life without reliance on fossil fuels.

“There was quite a bit of critique at first,” said a director of the Institute for Sustainable Urban Development in Malmö, referring to Bo01. People called the project sterile, they called it exclusive and exclusionary, and accused the planners of designing it with the interests of the elite, not the working people of the city, in mind. “Politically, it took a particular attitude to get the project built. They had to put their blinders on and just move forward with the vision in order to complete the project.” Project completion was also helped by the deadline of the international expo, and the competitive dimension, with different building teams wanting to emerge on top.

A dozen years later, the community of Västra Hamnen, or Western Harbour, has grown up around Bo01. Now built with sustainability agreements that developers sign with the municipality and no state subsidies, and a new, stricter building code, they strive to ratchet up the principles laid out in Bo01. They have made of Västra Hamnen “one of the most environmentally adjusted residential areas in the world,” in the words of the Chair of the Municipal Executive Board (Sustainable City Malmö, 2011). The city claims that the area is powered entirely by locally-produced, renewable energy. At the same time, a new multi-story parking garage is currently under construction, a result of demands by residents, who found the expectation of no private automobiles to be overly restrictive. (The garage will be powered by local wind energy, will include electric car pool vehicles, and a green wall with bird houses.) In this and other sustainability respects, the district lays claim to success and failure both, but one thing it is not is a place apart from the city. Nor is it planned in a process apart; it is part of a new model of incremental ramping-up of practices, expectations and ambitions with regard to planning, designing, delivering and renewing neighbourhoods in the city region.

This incrementalist approach, or the two-steps-forward-one-step back approach, to increasing levels of sustainability and climate-smart planning is evident elsewhere in Sweden too. In Stockholm, the Royal Seaport Project follows on the heels of the proto-sustainable district in this city, Hammarby-Sjöstadt. The Royal Seaport Project, called the largest urban redevelopment effort in Northern Europe, projects to house 40,000 residents in the area surrounding an old gasworks plant and adjacent to a national wilderness preserve.

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Streetscape in Stockholm Royal Seaport

Resilience measures taken in the redevelopment of Stockholm Royal Seaport include raising the base ground plane of the entire area with 1-2 meters of clean fill. This is both an environmental remediation measure, due to contaminated soil from the gasworks, and protection against property damage from rising sea levels and storm flooding. What is more innovative, and thoughtful on an ecological as well as socio-cultural level, is the way that the development maintains existing mature trees within the sunken green spaces of their root radii, fenced in with low wooden fences, below the new street plane. This allows the trees to continue their life, and maintains their ecosystem services, including storm-water management, shade, and habitat. Other landscaping pockets are intentionally dug and then layered with a pyramid of gravel of different grain sizes in order to maximize the water infiltration potential there. Culturally, these sunken plots and green strips serve as markers of memory of where the ground used to lie, raising awareness of the changes, risks, potentials and limits of technological innovation for security from flood risk.

When I toured this development, still in its early phases with only 2,500 people moved in, my City staff guide was enthusiastic about the potential of the development, but never a booster. At several points in the tour, he pointed out a shortcoming of one particular piece of the development that they have worked to rectify in a subsequent piece. Fixing the waste management system to be able to track how much of what kind of biomass or recyclables is going in, for example. Improving building performance, material choice, and design, bicycle storage, district energy system design, and public spaces. Opening up different parts of the area to the nature preserve in the collective “backyard.” When I asked: Would this project be where it is today if it were not for Hammarby Sjöstadt, developed a decade earlier? His answer was definitive: No. Not only did they learn from the experience of developing the first model sustainable district for the city, but they continue to learn from the experiences in that district, now that it has a life of its own within the city. That learning was not automatic, nor taken for granted. It took time, and a lot of talk — there was some frustration in his voice when he referred, repeatedly, to the consensus-based model of decision making concerning development here and elsewhere in Sweden. It slows down the process, from an expert-based perspective. But it brings all parties along with the substance of the decisions being made. This is how learning, and improving practice based upon what has been learned, happens. He understood this.

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Community garden beds in Stockholm Royal Seaport are raised because of soil contamination
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Landscaping for maximum water infiltration within hardscape engineering.

According to social scientist Andrew Ross (2011, 16), climate change action represents a “vast social experiment in decision-making and democratic action. Success in that endeavor will not be determined primarily by large technological fixes, though many will be needed along the way. Just as decisive to the outcome is whether our social relationships, cultural beliefs, and political customs will allow for the kind of changes that are necessary” (Ross, 2011, 16). Swedish sustainable neighbourhood design projects seem to be getting this part right: fostering change readiness through a long-term, incremental and phase-based approach to development.

Planning with this notion of social allowance in mind is key to the accumulation of social resilience: allowing for the time and process features to learn from what works and what fails, in order to improve the next phase of work. If we recognize the iterative nature, the rolling-out over time of processes of learning and accepting new ideas about neighbourhood building, we recognize the nature of building resilience into our culture, including the professional culture of planning and development. We also pay due respect to the requirements of time and learning to change aptitude and readiness for new ideas about neighbourhood living for residents and businesses.

It does not appear amongst the standard measures taken in planning for urban resilience, but what could better represent a resilient city than a community of people with the resources, skills and aptitudes to be ready to adapt to change, including climatic and social change?

This blog post has also been posted to the Meeting the Climate Change Challenge (MC3) site (

Works Cited

Ross, A. 2011. Bird on Fire: Lessons from the world’s least sustainable city. Oxford University Pres.

Sustainable City Malmö Magazine. 2011. Västra Hamnen 10 years. City of Malmö, Sweden.

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