Dr Bruce Chong, specialist in smart and resilient city planning and implementation, shares his reflections on urban resilience under the COVID-19 pandemic in this perspective from East Asia.
The coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, which is having a huge impact on lives and assets, has brought a renewed focus on ‘urban resilience’ making us rethink the way we plan, design, develop and manage our cities to protect the health and wellbeing of the people when emergencies arise.
For cities to respond efficiently and effectively to urban crises, we need to be better prepared for every and any emergency. Equipped with meaningful data and information for use by local communities, we can make the right decisions about resources and operations, offering support to the people and areas where it matters. Responding to emergencies is a concerted effort, where communication and knowledge sharing becomes key to ensure citizen safety.
1. From single to multi-hazard resilience assessment
Traditional hazard assessment stresses focusing on a single hazard, whether it be flooding, earthquake, typhoons, or bush fires. But natural hazards do not elicit a single response. A fire may bring about dust storms, heavy rain resulting from typhoons can cause flooding, earthquakes may bring about tsunamis at the coastline or landslides in the inland areas. The development of a resilient city needs to move away from single hazard analysis to multiple hazards evaluation, and from silo operations of individual departments to collaborative and integrated efforts by professionals and the community at large. For instance, a super-typhoon and integrated catchment model developed for the South China Sea makes use of local bathymetry, topographic and historical super-typhoon data to estimate wave and rain-fall level under different hypothetical super-typhoon tracks. Combining this information with other climate variables including sea level rise, wind speed and precipitation, we can simulate the impact on local infrastructure under different combinations of hazards at different intensities, and formulate appropriate measures to cope with a variety of hazard scenarios that might happen in the future.
2. Plans for both proactive and reactive resilience
While we strive to plan, design and manage cities that can actively respond rather than react to emergencies, the unpredictability of urban crises drives the emergency services to react rather than respond. The city’s emergency response system is often designed around rescue work in the event of a crisis, focusing on post-disaster recovery and reconstruction. However, building urban resilience requires a more systematic and long-term approach – it is strategically deployed, based on the deep understanding of the city systems and transitions from reactive response to proactive adjustment. A resilient city strategy, therefore, covers the entire process from a more holistic and long-term strategy to mid-term action plans, and even project specific plans. Consequently, when the city is faced with a crisis it can be effectively managed and rapid recovery can be achieved, as the crisis would have been well anticipated, where all preparation work would have already been in place beforehand.
3. Common data platform to sense real-time data and city dynamics at granular level
A data sharing platform is nothing new, neither is the ability to access real-time and dynamic data. Current common data platforms provide a range of data at a national or global level, such as access to United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR) and United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) data through the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR) Prevention Web and while they are useful for trend analysis and global prevention, the data lacks the resolution and finesse to be used on a city or local level. Little knowledge could be gained from global platforms for local governments to plan for infrastructure, building-specific or facility-specific resilience. With the use of big data and IoT, cities can establish their own ‘sensory systems’ to accurately capture critical information, such as people and essential material flow, and share the information across inter-connected smart city platforms for various applications such as real-time surveillance of epidemic risks, and trend analysis, providing support to epidemic prevention and countermeasures. The platform can visualise population flow within and across cities, predict and assess potential risks of disease spread in the event of mass gatherings with the added insight of being able to view the city in 3D with individual buildings presented in its virtual form. Designated hospitals and quarantine areas can be simultaneously analysed through proximity analysis to measure their safety level. Additionally, with the use of machine learning algorithms, the platform can calculate and predict areas with high probability of being affected by future epidemics based on the data collected from epidemic zones.
By building a digital twin of the city and individual buildings, officials can integrate IoT with artificial intelligence and cloud computing to collate and process the Big Data to derive meaning information to improve city functions and enabling a connection between the different city systems.
Digital representations of various systems in a city
4. Identify critical systems and address intercorrelations between systems
The interconnectedness between city systems and silos implies resilience is built upon the coordination between different city functions, bringing together knowledge from different disciplines to address the uniqueness of the crisis. There are numerous critical public infrastructures and facilities in a city, it is imminent to review the risk of individual systems as well as to examine the intercorrelation between systems. The key tasks should include:
- Review critical infrastructures and recommend other infrastructures to compile a list of critical infrastructures susceptible to malfunctioning under the effects of various natural hazards and extreme cases
- Examine holistically, through a strategic approach, the scope of enhancement works for strengthening the resilience of critical infrastructures and recommend enhancement plan and roadmap
- Look beyond operations of individual systems and examine interrelation between systems and domino effects under various hazard scenarios.
5. Framework approach to deal with complexity
Cities are made up of different components and systems, all working together to ensure livelihoods of the inhabitants. It is only natural to take a systematic approach when planning for city resilience, with information shared between city functions and infrastructure to result in a more efficient response towards urban crisis. Many problems do not have narrow technical solutions, often requiring interdepartmental or cross-functional coordination, and instead need solutions that take a systems view of the world, accounting for complexity and coupling inter-disciplinary understanding with a much broader concept of system performance. With the support of The Rockefeller Foundation, Arup developed the City Resilience Index (CRI); a powerful tool that is built upon 149 case studies derived from different cities around the world. The CRI is designed to enable cities to measure and monitor the multiple factors that contribute to their city’s resilience. It provides a system view of city resilience that is structured around four main dimensions: health and wellbeing, economy and society, infrastructure and environment, and leadership and strategy. The CRI is further segmented into 12 goals and 52 indicators, which have been used to facilitate assessment in more than 150 projects. The key is a more integrated multi-disciplinary approach to develop bridges between the technical, physical sciences and the humanities.
The solutions for disasters must go beyond the traditional drivers of cost, quality and time, but in a framework which should be defined by more drivers such as common and shared responsibility, holistic financial accountability, transparent data accountability, ethical foundation, provision of efficient healthy infrastructure, justice through participation, maintenance of natural capital, etc.
With thanks to Bruce Chong, Blanca Ho, and Ellen Lee.
Dr. Bruce Chong is an Associate Director and EA City Resilience skill network leader at Arup, focusing on formulating strategic approaches on resources efficiency, green infrastructure, smart and resilient city planning. He has led many strategic projects on climate resilience and sustainable infrastructure design in Hong Kong and South Asian countries for city governments, private developers and organisations.