COVID-19: the resilience of cities and territories – why it is about humans

In times of pandemic, resilience is perhaps, more than ever, the most prolific concept for thinking about the cities of tomorrow, the ones we dream of as intelligent, sustainable and to the greatest possible extent capable of adaptation after disruption of various kinds. However, this resilience, far from the technicist imaginings populated with digitally-managed data flows, is taking on - due to the health crisis - human airs which tended to go forgotten. Now that micro-initiatives for mutual aid and solidarity are abounding, how can we anchor this "human resilience" for the long term to design our cities? A series of questions for tomorrow.

“Everything gives off the air of having changed. The city suddenly seems different. Long-standing routines are turned on end. Impromptu urban practices and solutions are bursting forth. And yet, in a sense, everything is exactly the way it used to be”. If it can be asserted that “everything is the way it used to be”, all these makeshift responses and displays of resilience, whether large or small, and now blossoming in this suspended time, were in one way or another already sprouting.

“In the face of global risks and challenges, the cities are in the front lines. Urban resilience means sizing up these challenges and taking action at the local level, in a long-term perspective”. For several years now, such is the message that readers have been able to see on the City of Paris’ website. A pandemic was one of the risks identified in 2017 (albeit a non-priority risk, according to the classification), when the capital, as a new member of a Rockefeller Foundation programme, drew up its resilience strategy (pdf) – still smarting from the blows it had recently been dealt (terrorism, floods and heatwave, migration crisis).

In Paris, urban resilience in the face of the coronavirus is centred on people

The City pledged to dedicate at least 10% of its budget to “resilience efforts”. Its first pillar: the goal of “an inclusive and solidarity-driven city that draws on its inhabitants to further build its resilience”. Was Paris visionary? Whatever one may think, three years down the line, of the actual implementation, the idea of creating a “solidarity-driven network of determined citizens” and the ambitious statements that went with it (“bringing back the human touch”, “forming ties again”, “strengthening social cohesion”) wedding resilience with solidarity, resonate with new meaning in the present.

Solidarity is, effectively, one of the main enablers of the response needed today, including on the part of the authorities, to the health crisis: in the face of “demand”, so to speak, Paris for instance quickly adapted its digital platform for citizen participation, Idée.paris, connecting up “those who need help with those who want to help”, and launched a platform listing calls for volunteers or donations and proposals for food solidarity, Je m’engage.paris. The City is in fact full of less technologically disruptive and, instead, very concrete and quick to implement ideas, like this printable poster ready for citizens to put up in the lobbies of their buildings, to facilitate mutual assistance between neighbours.

As active hands in the manufacture of the city, how should we approach all this burgeoning one-off solidarity (people offering up their apartments or meals, their manpower or any service whatsoever to health carers or front-line workers, in particular) for the post-lockdown period? The actual impact of such top-down initiatives (listed here at the national level… by an independent designer who “was bored”) is difficult to evaluate, but they are definitely effective as possible engagement frameworks for citizens interested in taking action, even at their level. Does this solidarity need to be regulated and directed? Because at the same time, unprompted initiatives, often born on the social media, are cropping up, like the idea of a red cloth people can hang from their windows as a call for solidarity. This map shows more than 500 local, neighbourhood or larger-scale people’s solidarity groups that have sprouted and now serve as micro-networks for mutual assistance — all decidedly horizontal, though set in motion by a local body, association or leader.

Will post-crisis builders help the social imagination ascend to power?

The University of Sussex’s Steps Centre writes in an eloquent article that the only conclusion anyone could draw from the crisis is the futility of any lesson, apart from the fact that “a radical diversity of futures is possible” and no matter how many “performance charts” we put together, we are finding it very difficult to prepare for potential scenarios. In other words, Welcome to the Age of Uncertainty. In a world where our knowledge has to grapple with “post-normal” realities, the responses, as the economist Martin O’Connor and eight other researchers from Paris-Saclay plead in another article from the Steps Centre, will not be found in carefully-steered, rationalised, optimised, predictive and algorithmicised systems. Indeed not, for as we can see today, the solutions lie more in “the attitudes of individuals and the masses”. Ideally, these should form an “extended community of peers […] in which all interested audiences have a voice – experts from differing scientific disciplines, social players, whistle-blowers, journalists and the community at large”.

How, concretely, can we integrate this “capacity building” in the community when designing and building a neighbourhood, a habitat, or an office building? By demultiplying the virtual and physical spaces, giving power of action to these communities, giving free rein to the “social imagination” and lastly guaranteeing the “human-centricity” (pdf) of our increasingly digitised systems – if we extrapolate from the inspirations offered by the Finnish think tank Demos.

“Everything is just like before”, that is: everything is already here. To offer just one example out of a thousand: after the 2010 tsunami in Chile, which destroyed more than 10,000 buildings along the coast, a project to reconstruct several hundred houses on stilts on site, in a risk zone has now been completed, and will thus help preserve the culture (and livelihoods) of local communities closely intertwined with the maritime space, while adapting to new climate risks in the most extreme manner. The community was brought into the decision-making process, from the very start of the project, itself based on a simple idea: the resilience of buildings must go hand in hand with social resilience. Let’s get rebuilding!

What do we do?

The VINCI Group created Leonard to tackle the challenges posed by the transformation of regions and lifestyles. Our goal is to unite a community of key stakeholders in order to build the city of the future together.