Urban resilience, a key concept for the long-term planning of our neighbourhoods

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Strengthen the capacity of cities to survive, adapt and thrive in the face of the challenges of the 21st century. Here is the definition of what “urban resilience” is, a keystone in the design of new neighbourhoods in a context of climate transition. Decryption and highlighting with examples taken from Belval and Metzeschmelz by Zahira Malyani, Urban Planner Project Manager at AGORA, and Panos Mantziaras, Director of the Braillard Architectes Foundation.

Zahira Malyani

Based on your respective experiences, how would you define what constitutes resilient architecture and urban planning in the face of climate change?

Zahira Malyani, Urban Planner Project Manager at AGORA: “Urban resilience consists of preparing for climate change by trying to make the territory stronger, or more in tune with an environment in perpetual transformation. These changes, already underway, will cause future crises and multiple, sometimes unpredictable consequences. Facing up to them could be a very long process. To be honest, urban resilience is a difficult concept to define in universal terms, as the issues and solutions to be created are specific to each locality, to each territory. It is a concept which also implies elasticity, an ability to bounce back, to frequently redesign the neighbourhood, and this must be possible through the urban planning and architectural structures implemented. They must have been designed to conform to this elasticity.”

Panos Mantziaras, Director of the Braillard Architectes Foundation: “If we apply the concept to something concrete, for example the choice of a material for a new architectural construction, “resilience” will be seen as a sharp focus on the capability of this material to resist and adapt over the long term. On a larger scale, it is about designing a city that will increase these choices to last longer and to continually adapt. But it will also be a city that people will inhabit in a different way, adopting behaviours that promote this resilience.
Luxembourg has chosen to make urban resilience a priority, particularly during the major consultation “Luxembourg In Transition” to which I had the chance to contribute as scientific director. The two major objectives that the Grand Duchy must achieve in parallel are decarbonisation or “mitigation”, and resilience or “adaptation”.”

Panos Mantziaras

To guide the country and the Southern Region towards these objectives, what reference framework can we look to? Projects? Methods? What does the scientific literature say and how can we understand it in the real life of our neighbourhoods?

Zahira Malyani: “It is a recent concept, which is defined largely through practice and experience. For my part, I draw on a lot of case studies and comparisons between the initiatives in different cities around the world, which I research thanks to the resources made available by the Resilient Cities Network1. There have been many pioneering American cities, but more and more European cities are cited as examples, such as Paris and Geneva. The South of Luxembourg shares circumstances with several of these cities, such as polluted soils, risk of flooding, or the shrinkage-swelling of clays.2.

Panos Mantziaras: “The scientific literature on the subject is mainly American. We can cite, among others, the book Form and Flow: The Spatial Politics of Urban Resilience and Climate Justice (2021)3,which is a good reminder that this way of thinking has existed since the 1970s. But, as Zahira says, urban resilience is difficult to describe. It has to do with the temperature of a street corner, the humidity of a public square, the ability of an elderly person to cross an intersection with their shopping while avoiding heat stroke in the middle of a heatwave. I think that political decision-makers, when thinking about urban resilience, must keep in mind its ultra-local character and focus their actions as concretely as possible in the urban space.”

To be more resilient, what are the main challenges to which the neighbourhoods of Belval and Metzeschmelz must respond?
Metzeschmelz must respond? Which elements of the territory or landscape are more problematic?

Zahira Malyani: “There is of course the question of the remediation of former industrial lands. The process was carried out in Belval when the neighbourhood was first developed, and we must carry out this operation today in Metzeschmelz, with the ambition of a controlled carbon footprint for this neighbourhood. We will use new methods of sanitation, with greater focus on resilience. There are also several geographical elements to consider in Metzeschmelz, such as the presence of a watercourse which must be enhanced while combatting the risk of flooding. It will also be important for us to reinforce the existing topography, which runs over three levels, but which could pose challenges in terms of soil stability, in relation to different climatic conditions.”

Panos Mantziaras: “More generally, we know that all of Europe will experience alternating periods of rain and drought in the near future, on an irregular basis. We must think of our cities as places where we can easily shelter from the rain or the heat, for example by integrating external physical devices such as covered galleries (arcades) like those that that we see in several Italian cities, particularly in Bologna and Turin. The solutions are sometimes very simple. They have existed for a long time, and they need to be renovated.”

In other words, urban resilience is a practice of taking into account and anticipating different environmental risks. How can we measure these risks in a specific territory like Metzeschmelz?

Zahira Malyani: “For example, we carry out both sunshine and climate studies to understand how wind and noise are likely to be displaced around the site, depending on various anticipation scenarios. It helps us plan different organisations, and, above all, as I said, to think about them so that they are malleable and transformable according to several potentially real situations.”

Panos Mantziaras: “One of the keys is to really consider each microclimate, and to think about the space in smaller entities, in detail. And I would say that we must create arrangements that allow these microclimates to exist. In a resilient city, we need spaces for the wind, we need biodiversity, flies, birds, hedgehogs, but also spaces designed to allow the population to move around on foot – and we need facilities in which these functions and these forms of life continue in the face of bad weather or climatic variations.”

Investing in sustainable infrastructure is crucial to achieving urban resilience. Which would be most relevant in the region?

Panos Mantziaras: “If I may, I will give you an answer in the form of a great principle. Of course, we can adapt infrastructures, integrate them better with the surrounding nature, build them with more sustainable materials. But I think that we will have no other choice than to moderate the capacities of our infrastructures, to encourage our fellow citizens to change their behaviour and use them in a more considered manner. This is the principle of anticipation. I am thinking, for example, of smaller parking spaces, reserved for only electric cars. This is one example among others. But it is important to quickly involve all stakeholders and in particular citizens, who must be aware of their essential role in the ecological transition.”

Zahira Malyani: “On already developed sites, like Belval, we must be brave and modify the roads and sometimes redesign the streets to encourage public transport and soft mobility. The new Belval mobility plan, which has the new tramway as its focal point, is an example. It will also make it possible to make the streets greener, which will reduce sunlight and ground heat, creating new islands of coolness. In any case, what is certain is that this future is well underway.”

1 The NGO 100 Resilient Cities (100RC) was launched in 2013 by the Rockefeller Foundation with the ambition to help cities face three major challenges and threats: increasing urbanisation, globalisation and climate change. You can visit the website here.

2 Clay shrinkage-swelling refers to the ability of clay soils to swell when they absorb water and to shrink when they dry.

3 GOH, Kian, Form and Flow: The Spatial Politics of Urban Resilience and Climate Justice (Urban and Industrial Environments), Paperback, 2021

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