How can we engineer our cities to protect against the threats of the 21st century?

Is your city resilient? Image: Buro Happold.

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

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.

 
 
 
 

CityMetric is now City Monitor! Come see us at our new home

City Monitor is now live in beta at citymonitor.ai.

CityMetric is now City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications from New Statesman Media Group. Our new site is now live in beta, so please visit us there going forward. Here’s what CityMetric readers should know about this exciting transition.  

Regular CityMetric readers may have already noticed a few changes around here since the spring. CityMetric’s beloved founding editor, Jonn Elledge, has moved on to some new adventures, and a new team has formed to take the site into the future. It’s led by yours truly – I’m Sommer Mathis, the editor-in-chief of City Monitor. Hello!

My background includes having served as the founding editor of CityLab, editor-in-chief of Atlas Obscura, and editor-in-chief of DCist, a local news publication in the District of Columbia. I’ve been reporting on and writing about cities in one way or another for the past 15 years. To me, there is no more important story in the world right now than how cities are changing and adapting to an increasingly challenging global landscape. The majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and if we’re ever going to be able to tackle the most pressing issues currently facing our planet – the climate emergency, rising inequality, the Covid-19 pandemic ­­­– cities are going to have to lead the way.

That’s why City Monitor is now a global publication dedicated to the future of cities everywhere – not just in the UK (nor for that matter just in the US, where I live). Our mission is to help our readers, many of whom are in leadership positions around the globe, navigate how cities are changing and discover what’s next in the world of urban policy. We’ll do that through original reporting, expert opinion and most crucially, a data-driven approach that emphasises evidence and rigorous analysis. We want to arm local decision-makers and those they work in concert with – whether that’s elected officials, bureaucratic leaders, policy advocates, neighbourhood activists, academics and researchers, entrepreneurs, or plain-old engaged citizens – with real insights and potential answers to tough problems. Subjects we cover include transportation, infrastructure, housing, urban design, public safety, the environment, the economy, and much more.

The City Monitor team is made up of some of the most experienced urban policy journalists in the world. Our managing editor is Adam Sneed, also a CityLab alum where he served as a senior associate editor. Before that he was a technology reporter at Politico. Allison Arieff is City Monitor’s senior editor. She was previously editorial director of the urban planning and policy think tank SPUR, as well as a contributing columnist for The New York Times. Staff writer Jake Blumgart most recently covered development, housing and politics for WHYY, the local public radio station in Philadelphia. And our data reporter is Alexandra Kanik, whose previous roles include data reporting for Louisville Public Media in Kentucky and PublicSource in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Our team will continue to grow in the coming weeks, and we’ll also be collaborating closely with our editorial colleagues across New Statesman Media Group. In fact, we’re launching a whole network of new publications, covering topics such as the clean energy transition, foreign direct investment, technology, banks and more. Many of these sectors will frequently overlap with our cities coverage, and a key part of our plan is make the most of the expertise that all of these newsrooms combined will bring to bear on our journalism.

Please visit citymonitor.ai going forward, where you can also sign up for our free email newsletter.


As for CityMetric, some of its archives have already been moved over to the new website, and the rest will follow not long after. If you’re looking for a favourite piece from CityMetric’s past, for a time you’ll still be able to find it here, but before long the whole archive will move over to City Monitor.

On behalf of the City Monitor team, I’m thrilled to invite you to come along for the ride at our new digs. You can follow City Monitor on LinkedIn and on Twitter. If you’re interested in learning more about the potential for a commercial partnership with City Monitor, please get in touch with our director of partnerships, Joe Maughan.

I want to thank and congratulate Jonn Elledge on a brilliant run. Everything we do from here on out will be building on the legacy of his work, and the community that he built here at CityMetric. Cheers, Jonn!

To our readers, on behalf of the City Monitor team, thank you from all of us for being such loyal CityMetric fans. We couldn’t have done any of this without you.

Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.