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Resilience plans a government responsibility

- By Vivienne Rowland

“Local governments and cities need new ways of thinking and operating if they are to maintain their environments sustainably,” said Professor Mark Swilling, Academic Director of the Sustainability Institute.

Swilling was the keynote speaker at the launch of the Urban Resilience Report, titled Urban Resilience Thinking for Municipalities, a new ‘think tool’ for municipal officials giving some background on resilience theory and some of its more practical implications. Read the report.

“What we really need is new ways of co-operating, particularly within local governments. The chief planner, the chief engineer and the chief finance officer are the three people who have to communicate and exchange information regularly in order to do the best they can within the limited frame of understanding,” said Swilling.

“This collaboration at that core level of the core individuals who have the greatest concentration of information at hand is important, and if they cannot do that, there is very little chance here or anywhere else in the world, that you are going to be able to reconfigure urban infrastructures.”

The report, titled Urban Resilience Thinking for Municipalities, is the result of a ‘new kid on the block’ concept that has rapidly gained a central place in spatial and urban planning policy in South Africa over the past few years, and is not designed as a manual or tool box, but rather as a tool to promote urban resilience thinking.

The Urban Resilience Thinking for Municipalities document was prepared as a contribution to the Department of Science and Technology’s Grand Challenge on Global Change and as a complement to flagship initiatives such as the South African Risk and Vulnerability Atlas project, recognising both the threats posed by poorly managed urban areas and of the opportunities that towns and cities offer for greater resilience and sustainability.

The three-year funded programme at Wits is titled Urban Resilience Assessment for Sustainable Urban Development (with Professor Philip Harrison as the lead investigator) and was developed with the specific intention of giving support to local government in South Africa. This was done with the recognition that municipalities have a vital role in proactively managing processes of change.

The programme is a partnership between Wits and the Gauteng City-Region Observatory. It is also trans-disciplinary, with a working group that includes researchers in a number of fields including urban planning, architecture, law and environmental science.

Swilling said that politicians also need to understand that cities are extremely fragile and are like very delicate flowers. “Cities are not machines, you cannot rip them apart or instruct them to do certain things. We need to communicate the idea that these are very fragile systems and that they are not actually resilient.” Listen to Swilling.

His keynote address was preceded by a welcome address by Professor Barend Erasmus, Director of the Global Change and Sustainability Research Institute at Wits, and a presentation by Professor Chrisna du Plessis from the University of Pretoria on its Think Tank on Resilient Urban Systems in Transition.

Other presenters included Professor Phil Harrison, lead author of the report giving an Introduction to the Report; report contributors Dylan Weakley on Urban Resilience Thinking; Professor Tracy-Lynn Humby and Dr Costanza La Mantia on Governance for Resilience; and Professor Alison Todes on Resilience in Urban Form and Fabric.