Thursday, May 2, 2013

Resilience, is it what?

I've mentioned this a few times already, that I was able to attend a Resilience forum held at City Hall and put on by the Dallas Institute.  The speakers were great.  The panels not so much.  Because the speakers weren't local and not experts on Dallas (or just being polite), the discussion never veered from abstract to pointed as it relates to Dallas.

Thomas Homer Dixon's discussion of complexity was turned into the simple and tired false dichotomy of trees vs development.  Developers are simply playing the game to win.  They build where the rules of the game say the opportunity is.  And for the most part, that's sprawl.

Eric Klinenberg's expertise is on city responses to natural disasters and the understanding of why certain parts of cities fare better or worse than others during and after.  However, natural disasters are fairly random and at the same time inevitable.  But also rare.

While we should be prepared to deal with natural disasters, we're better off designing a city that can rebound rather than setting up various bureaucracies or top down regulations to control things that may or may not be tangentially related to natural disasters.  Design it directly into the DNA.  Don't control it.

And that's part of the problem.  Natural disasters are immediate.  And rare.  Far more towns and cities have vanished by quasi-internal issues via slow, incremental decay and dying off, whether economic or through resource depletion or whatever. Where the economy didn't diversify suitably from their original homogeneous  established raison d'etre.

Resource/economy are important in complex systems because those are at the root of the system, they are the original purpose.  Afterwards, that purpose must diversify.  Original purpose tends to be highly ephemeral.  How many port cities still have huge ports and stocks of workers working the docks?  How many strip mining towns still exist?

Point being, the PURPOSE of the city as a system has to diversify as does the economy.  It's more about quality of life and consistent ability and opportunity to participate in the city as a platform for social and economic exchange.

I would argue Dallas is pretty diversified in its economy.  Though the counter-argument can be made that far too much is tied up into the development and finance sectors associated and built specifically on the idea of "growth."  It is dependent upon growth.  This is a good thing and a bad thing.

First, the city can't grow forever.  So there has to be some repurposing of these industries (this cap could be approaching in the various and interconnected forms of food, water, and oil supply).  However, this industry, in place as it is, needs to do what it does.  Except it can't go on doing what it does as it does it.  We can't grow further outward.  The branches on the tree can only get so long before the water can no longer reach the leaves, which then whither and die as the branch eventually falls off as it becomes dry and brittle.

Instead, this growth industry has to be redirected inward towards a more sustainable development pattern.  One where the tax base can support itself and its infrastructural apparati.

So what is important is examining the levels of diversity at the other levels of complexity, PURPOSE has been diversified, but what about INTERCONNECTIONS and ELEMENTS?  Considering most people in the metroplex live in unwalkable environments (I estimate about 98.5%).  This matters not for the walkability, but the social connections made possible by form and proximity.  This is where it ties back to Klinenberg's thesis, that the very basics of resilience come from invisible human bonds.  As Donald Appleyard's work shows, it is the form of the city and the transportation networks that dictate degree of social contact.

From a more anecdotal sense, just fly in or out of DFW.  As your taking off or landing, look down.  Get to know the incredible and overwhelming sameness of it all.  The lack of neighborhoods replaced by the presence of generic sameness of houses made of sticks and spit jammed onto cul-de-sacs of social isolation. Drive the highways and arterials.  Pretend you don't know where you are and ask, "where am I?"  You probably could be anywhere.

In that sense, our ELEMENTS are not diverse enough at all.  Fortunately, ELEMENTS are the least important.  Unfortunately, too many focus strictly on ELEMENTS, the things of the city we touch and see, like shimmering new towers, and elegant bridges, and other knick-knacks, disconnected and alien to the underlying ecologies of place.  As if you put a fully garlanded christmas tree in the middle of a community garden.

But what about INTERCONNECTIONS, the physical infrastructure that allows for the invisible social and economic bonds to exist?  That of the top 20 metropolitan areas in the country, only Detroit has a higher percentage of driving commuters.  There is no positive way to spin that.  It's a homogeny of transportation.  If you lack choice, you lack adaptability, a key component to resilience.  Also, it's never good to keep statistical company with Detroit.  Before you object, consider that cities must be thought of in the fourth dimension of time.  The seeds of the future are already sewn.  But they can also be altered.

Point being, Dallas has the basics of long-term resilience, PURPOSE.  However, we have to diversify Interconnections and Elements (which will diversify inevitably in conjunction with Interconnections).  It is Improved Interconnections, so that we're not all so far apart, taking up so much land, so much water, and polluting the air that will allow us improved social connections.  That will preserve more land so that agricultural and food production can happen closer to the people.  So that we can preserve more water and have more natural areas protected that can better filter rain water and runoff before it enters the ground water.  So that we can drive less and pollute the air.

Improved air, water, food, less oil dependence, and improved platform for social connections.  Only then will Dallas actually be resilient, or at least, moreso.  That the Resilient Cities forum never took the step to this level, it took a steep downward drop in importance once the invited speakers ceded way for locals to totally not get it.