Can Darwin be a ‘resilient city’?

In the past decade, the concept of urban resilience has become integral to the development and design strategies of city planners and decision-makers around the world. As cities have grown larger, there’s been a concerted effort to ensure they can endure a multitude of threats to social cohesion and public health.

One particularly well-known approach to this problem is the 100 Resilient Cities program, an initiative started by the Rockefeller Foundation in 2013. Dedicated to developing resilience frameworks for cities with sprawling populations, the program views urban resilience as ‘the capacity of individuals, communities, institutions, businesses, and systems within a city to survive, adapt, and grow no matter what kinds of chronic stresses and acute shocks they experience’.  While the program has been implemented in ‘megacities’ (large cities with millions of people), its key rationale applies to all cities regardless of size or density.

Of the 100 cities in the program, 16 can be considered ‘small’, with a population under 500,000. Within this category, only three are comparable in population size to Darwin (148,393 people in 2017): Berkeley (122,324), Vejle (113,720) and Boulder (107,125). It’s a small pool of cities that Darwin could use to benchmark itself against on resilience challenges and to inform options for city planning and decision-making. Of course, while their population sizes may be similar, the three cities’ geopolitical, strategic, environmental and economic challenges don’t fully fit the uncertainties that Darwin is currently facing.

From economic pressures to water sustainability and border security, Darwin has a unique set of challenges. Population growth is slowing down, the economy is struggling, and the city is particularly vulnerable to extreme weather events related to climate change. Those challenges are compounded by Darwin’s growing strategic importance as Australia thinks about its national security needs and its future defence posture.

In that regard, supporting the Northern Territory government’s efforts to make Darwin a better, more liveable and adaptable city—one that’s able to cope with the uncertainties of climate change, demographic changes, a fluctuating economy and changing security demands—is not only beneficial but necessary.

As members of the 100 Resilient Cities project, Melbourne and Sydney rely on extensive and detailed resilience frameworks. While their implementation differs, these cities apply variations of the city resilence framework developed by Arup as a basis for their ongoing policy and planning development.

The framework uses four broad dimensions: infrastructure and the environment, economy and society, leadership and strategy, and health and wellbeing. These four categories underpin a multitude of indicators (Arup’s city resilience index has 52 indicators) that decision-makers can use to detail opportunities to enhance the liveability and adaptability of large cities to a range of stressors.

But would such a framework be useful for Darwin? Melbourne, for example, is coping with explosive population growth and an expensive housing market. It will also have to adapt to periods of extreme heat, a higher frequency of intense rainfall events in parallel with water scarcity, and varying degrees of ecological instability.

While these conditions already exist in the north of Australia, Melbourne has a range of resources and capacities available that can’t be matched in Darwin.

Full implementation of the large-scale approaches in the city resilience framework that could work for Melbourne may be less suited to smaller cities like Darwin. Arguably, those approaches are designed for cities with dense populations and complex infrastructure systems across wide urban and industrial landscapes.

But it’s worth considering whether subsets of the framework might allow Darwin to more effectively capture current vulnerabilities and plan for future developmental needs. Such considerations may offer new options for addressing Darwin’s economic, demographic and environmental challenges.

There are several benefits to this proposal. One is that it would give Darwin’s city planners opportunities to benchmark existing planning regimes against a subset of a framework that has become an informal gold standard for resilience planning in cities and urban spaces globally. Luckily for Darwin, its relatively small size provides an opportunity to focus on a more limited, but nonetheless important, set of challenges.

A second benefit for Darwin goes beyond the Australian context. Developing an urban resilience framework for small cities and towns would enable Darwin to be a leader in the design and planning of cities facing similar issues around the world. It’s been notoriously difficult to attract foreign investment and attention to Darwin. Developing adaptable resilience frameworks is a particularly attractive proposition Darwin’s city planners should consider.

There’s also a strong argument for creating a resilience framework for Darwin as a public benefit, which is based on developments embodied in the World Commission on Environment and Development, established in 1983 by Gro Harlem Brundtland (former prime minister of Norway and director-general of the World Health Organization), and the commission’s 1987 report titled ‘Our common future’ and known as the Brundtland report.

Encompassing many of the early ideas of sustainable development, the Brundtland report emphasises the benefits of a healthy and inclusive economy, thriving community life and hospitable urban environments. It also influenced the development of the World Health Organization’s Healthy Cities movement: a global initiative with strong policy and practice links to current notions of resilient cities.

Darwin’s development of its own resilience plan would respond to and help strengthen the city’s importance as a viable, vibrant and secure capital.