It's the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine: Against the “resilient cities” bandwagon

Get your tickets for the end of the world. The Armageddon ride, in Disneyland Paris. Image: AFP/Getty.

Competition amongst the scaremongers predicting Doomsday has intensified recently. The last month alone has brought predications of obliteration via an earth-smashing giant asteroid, and an apocalypse given impetus by the celestial alignment that created the Blood Moon lunar eclipse. And while the planet slaying giant fire anticipated by the eBible Fellowship didn’t come to pass, it didn’t stop them defiantly asserting annihilation would come “soon”.

The cranks of recent weeks have been widely ridiculed. But Doomsday scenarios today are not always the property of eccentric conspiracy theorists: more frequently, they’re the results of fearful speculations of an unknown future by those claiming authority and expertise.

Scientists musing that humans will be extinct in “perhaps” in 100 years; researchers predicting societal collapse from catastrophic food shortages; environmental commentators predicting mass extinctions – all are likely lauded for setting out potential threats and warning of the need for extreme caution. The advance of technology has overtaken our capacity to control the “possible” consequences says Oxford University's Future of Humanity Institute.

The credence given to the expert imagination of disaster was nicely captured earlier this year in Channel 4’s End of the World Night where leading academics and scientists were invited to analyse the outlandishly apocalyptic scenarios of Hollywood sci-fi movies – not as means merely to dismiss them, but to speculate on an “even scarier” truth about how the world might really end.

Given that cities have long provided a focus for society’s fears, it’s no surprise that the imagination of disaster is having a significant impact on how we think about and plan for the urban future. This is captured in the rapid growth amongst think tanks, social policy gurus, NGOs and corporations of “resilience thinking”, and in the planning and urban design solutions of the Resilient Cities movement.

The Rockefeller Foundation, which is leading the brand development of Resilient Cities, is typical of the new outlook, stating that “crisis is the new normal for cities in the 21st century”. For others, Avian Flu and SARS show that cities are the places where “infectious diseases have spread horrifyingly fast”. They also play a major part in chronic illness: “Heart disease, stroke, diabetes and cancer rates are rising, fuelled by unhealthy lifestyles; fast food restaurants proliferate in our cities.” 

Not too long ago, cities were seen as a progressive form of social organisation; now, through the prism of resilience, they are interpreted in potentially terrifying terms. For the Rockefeller Foundation the future must be planned on the basis that “cities can’t predict which disruptions will come next”. Whether rising sea levels or heat waves, terrorism or pandemics, energy shortages or crime, cities are now widely perceived as permanently “under threat”.

The upshot is planning shifts from taking account of probable risks to possible outcomes

This projection of risk is having significant negative consequences including an emerging stasis in development and new constraints on urban freedoms.

Speaking on Chanel 4’s End of the World Night, Astronomer Royal Martin Rees suggested that “an important maxim is the unfamiliar is not the same as the improbable”. This invitation to speculate on dangers that we don’t yet know, but which may create future problems that we cannot yet calculate, is cut from the same cloth as Donald Rumsfeld’s famous “unknown unknowns”.  

Rumsfeld took his lead from the US military’s “scenario planning” exercises which used simulation games to speculate on outcomes of conflict. One of the major recent innovations in urban planning has been the adoption of scenario planning to catalogue alternative urban strategies.

But unfortunately, with planners currently infatuated by “future-proofing” – the avoidance of unspecified hazards that may or may not be around the corner – solutions inevitably gravitate towards a precautionary approach that seeks to take account of the unknown or uncertain. The upshot is planning shifts from taking account of probable risks to possible outcomes. 

Take earthquake zones. Scientific monitoring of the earth and atmosphere has helped our understanding of plate movements, allowing designers and engineers to build based on the probability that – within a certain likely range of events – structures will absorb the energy of an earthquake.

But the recent shift to a more speculative approach has led us to replace development decisions based on a calculus of probability, with those based on outlandish possibilities, in an effort to ensure “no harm shall come”. Consequently from nuclear power in Japan to fracking in the UK, development potential is stifled. 

Today, the presence of human development within the landscape has come to be seen as part of a problem rather than the solution: there’s a sense that, rather than bringing nature under our control, it creates greater uncertainty.  Nowadays, from flood plains to the green belt, environmental assessments are used to dictate that development be constrained lest there be adverse consequences.

At the heart of the emergence of resilient cities is society’s newfound understanding of itself as vulnerable and “at risk”. The recent retreat from development as a means of securing our interests has gone hand in hand with the idea that individuals must be empowered to make “better” life choices.

The upshot is an impetus amongst urban planners and designers to shape behaviour. Designers planning for an increase in mobility, for example, are guided to think about how to insert “cues” into the urban environment that prompt better decisions – to make us travel by healthier or more sustainable modes – regardless of the inconvenience it may cause.

And yet, even as we live longer and healthier lives, innovations and advances in technology make us better equipped than ever before to manage adverse situations.  At a time when disaster looms large in the imagination, the real disaster is the widespread adoption of the ideas and techniques of resilience thinking. It presents itself as the exercising of responsible choices – but it holds society back from realising a better future.

Alastair Donald is associate director of the Future Cities Project and architecture programme manager at the British Council.

He is speaking at From tsunamis to terror attacks: do we need resilient cities? at the Battle of Ideas festival on 18 October. CityMetric is a media partner for the festival.


Was the decline in Liverpool’s historic population really that unusual?

A view of Liverpool from Birkenhead. Image: Getty.

It is often reported that Liverpool’s population halved after the 1930s. But is this true? Or is it a myth?

Often, it’s simply assumed that it’s true. The end. Indeed, proud Londoner Lord Adonis – a leading proponent of the Liverpool-bypassing High Speed 2 railway, current chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, and generally a very influential person – stood on the stairs in Liverpool Town Hall in 2011 and said:

“The population of Liverpool has nearly halved in the last 50 years.”

This raises two questions. Firstly, did the population of the City of Liverpool really nearly halve in the 50 year period to 2011? That’s easy to check using this University of Portsmouth website – so I did just that (even though I knew he was wrong anyway). In 2011, the population of the City of Liverpool was 466,415. Fifty years earlier, in 1961, it was 737,637, which equates to a 37 per cent drop. Oops!

In fact, the City of Liverpool’s peak population was recorded in the 1931 Census as 846,302. Its lowest subsequent figure was recorded in the 2001 Census as 439,428 – which represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over a 70 year period.

Compare this to the population figures for the similarly sized City of Manchester. Its peak population also recorded in the 1931 Census as 748,729, and its lowest subsequent figure was also recorded in the 2001 Census, as 392,830. This also represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over the same 70 year period.

So, as can be seen here, Liverpool is not a special case at all. Which makes me wonder why it is often singled out or portrayed as exceptional in this regard, in the media and, indeed, by some badly briefed politicians. Even London has a similar story to tell, and it is told rather well in this recent article by a Londoner, for the Museum of London. (Editor’s note: It’s one of mine.)

This leads me onto the second question: where have all those people gone: London? The Moon? Mars?

Well, it turns out that the answer is bit boring and obvious actually: after World War 2, lots of people moved to the suburbs. You know: cars, commuter trains, slum clearance, the Blitz, all that stuff. In other words, Liverpool is just like many other places: after the war, this country experienced a depopulation bonanza.

So what form did this movement to the suburbs take, as far as Liverpool was concerned? Well, people moved and were moved to the suburbs of Greater Liverpool, in what are now the outer boroughs of the city region: Halton, Knowsley, St Helens, Sefton, Wirral. Others moved further, to Cheshire West & Chester, West Lancashire, Warrington, even nearby North Wales, as previously discussed here.

In common with many cities, indeed, Liverpool City Council actually built and owned large several ‘New Town’ council estates, to which they moved tens of thousands of people to from Liverpool’s inner districts: Winsford in Cheshire West (where comedian John Bishop grew up), Runcorn in Halton (where comedian John Bishop also grew up), Skelmersdale in West Lancashire, Kirkby in Knowsley. There is nothing unique or sinister here about Liverpool (apart from comedian John Bishop). This was common practice across the country – Indeed, it was central government policy – and resulted in about 160,000 people being ‘removed’ from the Liverpool local authority area.

Many other people also moved to the nearby suburbs of Greater Liverpool to private housing – another trend reflected across the country. It’s worth acknowledging, however, that cities across the world are subject to a level of ‘churn’ in population, whereby many people move out and many people move in, over time, too.

So how did those prominent images of derelict streets in the inner-city part of the City of Liverpool local authority area come about? For that, you have to blame the last Labour government’s over-zealous ‘Housing Market Renewal Initiative’ (HMRI) disaster – and the over enthusiastic participation of the then-Lib Dem controlled city council. On the promise of ‘free’ money from central government, the latter removed hundreds of people from their homes with a view to demolishing the Victorian terraces, and building new replacements. Many of these houses, in truth, were already fully modernised, owner-occupied houses within viable and longstanding communities, as can be seen here in Voelas Street, one of the famous Welsh Streets of Liverpool:

Voelas Street before HMRI implementation. Image:

The same picture after HMRI implementation Image: 

Nonetheless: the council bought the houses and ‘tinned them up’ ready for demolition. Then the coalition Conservative/Lib Dem government, elected in 2010, pulled the plug on the scheme. 

Fast forward to 2017 and many of the condemned houses have been renovated, in a process which is still ongoing. These are over-subscribed when they come to market, suggesting that the idea was never appropriate for Liverpool on that scale. 

At any rate, it turns out that the Liverpool metropolitan population is pretty much the same as it was at its peak in 1931 (depending where the local borough boundaries are arbitrarily drawn). It just begs the question: why are well educated and supposedly clever people misrepresenting the Liverpool metropolis, in particular, in this way so often? Surely they aren’t stupid are they?

And why are some people so determined to always isolate the City of Liverpool from its hinterland, while London is always described in terms of its whole urban area? It just confuses and undermines what would otherwise often be worthwhile comparisons and discussions. Or, to put it another way: “never, ever, compare apples with larger urban zones”.

In a recent Channel 4 documentary, for example, the well-known and respected journalist Michael Burke directly compared the forecast population growths, by 2039, of the City of Liverpool single local authority area against that of the combined 33 local authority areas of Greater London: 42,722 versus 2.187,708. I mean, what bizarre point is such an inappropriate comparison even trying to make? It is like comparing the projected growth of a normal sized-person’s head with the projected growth of the whole of an obese person, over a protracted period.

Having said all that, there is an important sensible conversation to be had as to why the populations of the Greater Liverpool metropolis and others haven’t grown as fast as maybe should have been the case, whilst, in recent times, the Greater London population has been burgeoning. But constantly pitching it as some sort of rare local apocalypse helps no one.

Dave Mail has declared himself CityMetric’s Liverpool City Region correspondent. He will be updating us on the brave new world of Liverpool City Region, mostly monthly, in ‘E-mail from Liverpool City Region’ and he is on twitter @davemail2017.