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.

 
 
 
 

It’s not all cool bridges and very real concerns: In defence of Teesside

Just one of the many interesting bridges you’ll find in Teesside. Image: Stephen Jorgensen-Murray.

The latest entry in our ‘In Defence Of’ series...

I have to start this with a disclaimer: I’m not writing this from anywhere in Teesside. I’m writing this from Germany, where I live and work. Some of you may remember being told by Norman Tebbit, that instead of complaining that we can’t find jobs, we should get on our bikes (or, more recently, by IDS to get on a bus), and I did. I’m paid well here, to do a job that doesn’t really exist in Teesside. And yet, every time I go home to visit my family, I almost wish I’d stayed.

This isn’t going to be a very straightforward take – I’m hoping to pay my respects to Stockton, Middlesbrough and Hartlepool as well as my native Billingham – but Teesside isn’t a very straightforward place. What county is it in? Cleveland, Stockton-on-Tees, Durham or North Yorkshire depending on how old you are and where you’re standing. I always had great fun ordering online and trying to guess which of the unfamiliar options on the dropdown menu would get my parcel to me.

But regardless of where you draw the lines, Teesside is still there.

Our accent is similarly hard to pin down: Geordie, Mackem, Yorkshire, even Scouse, depending on who’s imitating us. I’ve been pegged as Irish, American and South African by determined people in the past. Our slang is stolen from Scotland, Northumberland, Newcastle and Yorkshire, and, not satisfied, some words are purely our own. Hoy, shan, howay, dinner nanny. We have as many words for classless people as the Romans did for murder.

But regardless of how it sounds to you, Teesside still talks.


On a map of the UK, Teesside sits as an isolated blob of civilisation between the Dales and the sea. Half-urban, half-rural, half-seaside, half-inland, half industrial estate and half nature reserve. A Labour heartland with a Tory mayor. Places that sprang up fully formed in the ICI rush of the 1950s, but that still have Viking place names.

We’ve been portrayed in fiction by Richard Milward, in song by Maximo Park, in statistics by Lady Florence Bell and in cinema by Sir Ridley Scott (our chemical works and power plants inspired the look of Blade Runner). More recently, we’re being portrayed in documentary in The Mighty Redcar, and in the media as an area of left-behind, white working class racists who all voted Leave. But while most of the area is whiter than the average, Middlesbrough mirrors the UK average for racial diversity and has been assigned to resettle more refugees than any other town in the UK – and more than its cut-back council can look after.

And when you look at the numbers, the proportion of the population of Teesside who voted to leave the EU is much less than many other areas. (And yes, of course I voted Remain from my now slightly more precarious home in Frankfurt, joining 100,000 other Teesside Remainers.)

We’re pitied for the loss of the Teesside steelworks and derided for blaming the EU for it (when of course it was our own government’s sabotaging of EU attempts to block Chinese steel dumping that drove that knife in). Even the people who profess to be on our side take our angry, uneducated racism as fact, baking it into the premises of their arguments, which consist of addressing our “racist but real concerns”, and how to reach us.

But whether you understand us or not, whether you miss the point or not, we’ll continue to exist, long after we’ve been forgotten again.

Billingham town centre. One of the first pedestrianised town centres in the UK. Image: Stephen Jorgensen-Murray.

Still, while we’re in the spotlight, why not see what we have to offer? Come to see our rather wonderful collection of interesting bridges. See where the first public steam train ran, from Stockton to Darlington. Visit Mima, the modern art gallery in Middlesbrough and the 1960s utopia of Billingham’s pedestrianised town centre. Feel slightly uncomfortable around all the things that are named for Captain Cook (though the replica of the Endeavour at Stockton riverside is impressive regardless on your thoughts on its captain – and it’s the best you’ll see until they work out whether they’ve found the real one yet). Wander Middlesbrough’s thriving student/hipster district on Linthorpe RoadD – despite being a punchline during my youth, Teesside University has become a respected institution. Visit Billingham’s Folklore Festival in August, where as schoolchildren we’d watch troupes of folk dancers from across the world open-mouthed, and get their autographs afterwards as though they were celebrities.

Fried chicken, white sauce and cheese make the Teesside parmo. Perfect. Image: Stephen Jorgensen-Murray.

Try a parmo. Try the Billingham Catholic Club’s real ale, and stay for the bingo, which is called by a man with the most acrobatic mental arithmetic skills I’ve ever seen. Try a lemon top ice cream from Pacitto’s in Redcar and wonder why no one else has ever done this before. Lemon sorbet and vanilla ice cream! Together at last!

While you’re at the beach, take a ride on the Saltburn Cliff Lift, the oldest operating water-balance cliff lift in the UK. Pretend Saltburn is sort of in Teesside while you’re enjoying the view. Look out on beaches black with sea coal, washed up from undersea seams and nearby coal mines. Visit the golf course by Seaton Carew to catch a glimpse of a curlew or two, and watch the young seagulls pick up golf balls to crack them open by dropping them from a great height. Visit Seal Sands, whose owners can be observed lazing on the estuary banks whenever the tide is out. Or visit Saltholme, the RSPB nature reserve, where you can see avocets, Britain’s weirdest-looking and most beloved seabird.

Nature coexists with industry on Teesside. Image: Stephen Jorgensen-Murray.

Go white water rafting, bell boating or paddleboarding at the Tees Barrage, where there are so many seals that they’ve had to put up guards to keep them out of the way. The Tees used to be too polluted even to support salmon and trout, and now we have too many of one of Britain’s largest native mammals. The return of the seals to the Tees was the first documented case of seals returning to an industrial area. You’d be surprised at how well nature can thrive in the shadow of industry, colonising the quiet fields and marshy ponds on private land that are never disturbed, haunted by sika deer and shelducks, redshanks, knots, stonechats.

Teesside has plenty to offer. What it doesn’t have is the jobs to keep its younger generations from having to get on their bikes and leave. We aren’t aliens, or Jacob Rees-Mogg’s army of goblin henchbrexiteers. We’re just like you, but with more seals and fewer employment opportunities.