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What resilience planning can tell us about decentralization and community engagement

By Irina Paraschivoiu
“Resilience” has come to be used frequently in planning, and currently encompasses strategies dealing with economic downturns, climate change and human-induced disasters. Based on a case study on Bucharest, Romania, decentralization and community engagement are identified as two themes which help define resilience in the planning context and point towards strategies to achieve it in practice.  
Resilience is a term which has come to be used frequently in planning. In fact, to such an extent that some academics have compared it to “sustainability” – a fuzzy and agreeable term which is difficult to contest. Infrastructure, businesses and communities are expected to be resilient, in other words, to be better able to adapt to change and to absorb external shocks, whether they may be economic downturns, climate change or human-induced disasters such as terrorism. Despite such proliferation of policy documents, reports and strategies, recent events have shown that there is still much improvement to be made in how we address hazards in practice. In Istanbul alone, during the 1999 earthquake there were 17,000 casualties and more than 500,000 homeless. Coming from an earthquake prone city myself, I became interested in what impacts our ability to address earthquake risk or, better said, what stands between our urban plans and the resilience ideal which I referred to above.
It is not common knowledge that Bucharest, Romania’s capital city and its largest urban agglomeration, is also the country’s most vulnerable city to earthquake hazards, due to its proximity to the Vrancea fault line.  In fact, a World Bank report in 2004 arguing for a hazard mitigation programme, identified Bucharest as the highest risk capital city in Europe and one of the 10 most vulnerable cities in the world. 65% of the country’s urban population is exposed to seismic hazards and 60-75% of fixed assets are located in seismic zones. Despite the historical regularity of earthquakes, only 36 of the city’s vulnerable blocks of flats have been retrofitted, out of the total 2563 assessed ones. There is no overall, city-wide strategy dealing with hazard mitigation, with responsibilities being divided between Ministries, emergency planning services and local authority.
Map of technically assessed vulnerable buildings in Bucharest, Romania. Source: Integrated Urban Development Plan for the central area Map of technically assessed vulnerable buildings in Bucharest, Romania. Source: Integrated Urban Development Plan for the central area
During 2 months in July and August I conducted interviews with a variety of stakeholders: institutions, agencies, local authority representatives, residents and landlord associations. There were two themes which emerged during these and which justify resilience planning as a useful concept in practice: decentralization and community engagement.
Advocates of resilience planning usually lobby for more devolution of power towards local government. This is based on the idea that networked governance, multi-stakeholder partnerships and self-organization improve the ability of dealing with uncertainty. But it also hides a contradiction between the physical environment and the human dimension of resilience. Usually, structural upgrading requires financial investments which local governments cannot sustain by themselves. On the other hand, the argument for decentralization is that local governments are more able to build community resilience and integrate it in urban planning. In my own research, I found that centralized planning can have a detrimental effect in that it does not encourage a strategic approach to disaster risk reduction at the local level. The local government tends to rely on central government for both resources and national programmes of retrofit, without taking full responsibility in creating a local risk reduction strategy. Conversely, cities which have relied on a more multi-layered governance structure are reported to be more effective in tackling hazard mitigation.
For example, in Rotterdam, flood risk management is both integrated locally, in spatial plans and also targeted separately, in regional policy making. Thus multi-layered governance means that ministries or agencies take a leading role in organizing collaboration between stakeholders, but hierarchy rather serves as a catalyst for cooperation.
The Colombian city of Manizales is also reported to have developed an environmental management plan which integrates local risk reduction. This has been facilitated by the decentralization process in Colombia, which granted local governments responsibilities and resources at a scale not so common in Latin America.
The question here is not whether resilience planning involves decentralization but rather which type of governance structure can best serve the purpose of hazard mitigation in a certain local context.
As for the role of community involvement in resilience planning, there seems to be an agreement towards the idea that reducing disaster risk largely depends on how communities are designed and built in hazard prone areas. In many cities, especially where urban data is lacking, community engagement is linked to the process of mapping vulnerable areas or designing low-scale, low-cost solutions for mitigation. It also serves as a means of increasing risk awareness, something not to be looked down upon, given that many studies point towards low levels of risk perception of hazards.
In Bucharest, low levels of ownership of urban and local plans are associated with low community resilience. Where collaborative planning is limited to consultation or information, but fails to fully engage communities, resilience planning can fail, even when financial resources for structural upgrading are available. This is particularly true where a capital intensive asset such as housing is involved, and residents are reluctant to approving interventions if cooperation is not based on a participatory approach in planning.
This means that collaborative planning is needed at a scale which should go beyond informing. Rather, resilient planning should be brought closer to people, in the way they use and interact with their environment and with the results of urban planning and plans themselves.
What can make the resilience discussion worthwhile, beyond the current broad use of the term, is defining what resilience planning is and the specific strategies and tools which can be used to achieve it in practice. How do we evaluate if our plans are resilient and how do we use such principles in practice? Multi-layered governance – including the devolution of resources and responsibilities – together with a greater role for community engagement can become such recommendations in adding resilience to our current planning practices.
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Sunday, 19 May 2024