arch-peace editorials

11 June 2016

Urban resilience challenges, Can learning from tradition of the past help?

Solmaz Hosseinioon
June 2016

 (Architects for Peace Goal 2: Promote and defend sustainable and resilient urban environments.)

In times of rapid changes and transformations which new paradigms, problems, and challenges are arising fast, it is felt more than ever that we require new viewpoints for urban decision making and planning. Resilience thinking is the new lens for looking at the world we live in to deal with ever changing problems. It has been applied in many fields for dealing with complex and volatile issues. Importance of resilience framework is ever increasingly felt in various aspects of built environment and human settlements from international scales to community levels. Many of these challenges are global such as climate change, and vary in different countries such as natural and man-made hazards or peak oil. Resilience is becoming a priority among pressing urban issues, for example UNISDR has set the resilience of cities as an important agenda for all urban institutions around the world (UNISDR 2011).

Resilience meanings are still contested (Adger2003).” Resilience concept has started a long journey from several disciplines such as engineering, psychology and ecology and has reinforced its use in development debates. Resilience is “the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and reorganize while undergoing change so as to still retain essentially the same function, structure, identity, and feedbacks (Walker, Holling et al.2004)”. It is “a measure of the ability of systems to absorb changes of state variables, driving variables and parameters and still persists (Holling 1973)”. “Resilience is better conceptualized as adaptability than as stability (Handmer and Dovers 1996: 504)”. The main goal of resilience theory expansion is the rising the need to develop ways to deal with the increasing global changes in different scales, from local to global and the significance of finding ways for adaptation to change: sudden or continuous.

Resilience of what to what?
One of the important points we have to remember about resilience is that its definitions and its applications are relative and multifaceted. Resilience is neither good or bad (Carpenter et al 2001), hence, giving a clear definition for resilience depends a lot on what a system is facing because its aspects change. We should focus on what gets transformed rather than on what parts return to the pre- disaster status (Vale & Campanella 2005)”. Resilience attributes are assemblages with interrelated elements in dynamic cycles which are evolving continously. Adaptation attributes have different implications, depending on the type of resilience, inner or outer stressors, expectations and domains of practices and the locality of cases, from urban farming to disaster management, terrorism and climate change. “Measuring resilience needs specification of the spatial, temporal scales using models it is crucial to specify what system state is being considered resilience of what, and what perturbations are of interest, resilience to what (Carpenter et al 2001).

Urban Resilience and adaptation
Although resilience has had versatile uses in various disciplines from economy to biology and ecology.    It has found its established place in urban studies. Although resilience is a relative concept, resilient urban areas (in any scale) have mutual attributes. “A resilient city is one that has developed capacities to help absorb future shocks and stresses to its social, economic, and technical systems and infrastructures so as to still be able to maintain essentially the same functions, structures, systems, and identity (McCubbin 2001)”.
Adaptation capacities include a vast range of characteristics vary due to the type of resilience is sought from climate change to natural disaster management, terrorism to economic recession or socio-ecological transformations. These characteristics which resonate with urban design principal, include adaptability, robustness, connectivity, diversity, density, mix, social inclusion, self- organization and redundancy and place attachment. There is a lot be learned and tested in practice
Although the recent attention to importance of urban resilience is new, most countries and cities have shown their adaptation and resilience throughout history, rising from phoenix after wars, disasters and turmoil and hardships. Vale and Campanella (2005) have shown many examples of such cities.
For example, Iranian cities have endured similar challenges facing harsh and dry climates and have had creative ways for adaptation to their living environments. They have been vulnerable throughout the history, in comparison to modern times. There are many lessons we can learn from their traditions for coping with hardships and climatic situations. They have acted and lived as part of natural ecosystems and not alienated as the modern viewpoints in which humans are detached from their environment. Their self-sufficiency and self-organization has helped them survive many wars and attacks as well.
At this point in time, we have started to consider cities as complex adaptive systems and ourselves as parts of them. This resurrection can be assisted by looking back at how aboriginal people or ancient Iranians coped with their climatic challenges and made the best of their natural habitat. The best examples in Iran are Qanats (the oldest one is located in Gonabad which is 2500 years old), Badgirs[1] and courtyard houses which have been built several thousand years ago (image1).

Image1: the architecture of Qanats and their representation on the ground surface

These lessons have spread throughout the region from Persia (Iran) helping with global resilience as learning and knowledge is part of adaptation capacity making. We can now see this architectural phenomenon has moved to many countries from China to Chile throughout history (image 2).

Image2: Spread and learning of adaptation methods (Qanat construction)

Climate change and cooling is one the biggest challenges across the globe. Most countries have signed international treaties to accept the responsibility for cooling their environments. The modern cooling heating systems have exacerbated the urban heat island effect and the street coverage and materials which are used for urban surfaces have made the situation worse. Badgirs (image 3) are good examples of conducting the air flow through shaded areas and over water for natural cooling of air for the houses. The shades made by arches, Sabats and domes as roofs (image 4) in dry arid regions of Iranian cities create a rhythm of shade and sun which in turn cause natural breeze which cools the environment in a natural way.

Image 3: Badgirs for passive cooling of the buildings, an adaptive architectural solution created in Iran and now used in many countries in the region.

Image 4: Sabats in Ardakan, yazd and Dezful, making a rhythm of shade and sun for maximing cliamtic comfort in hot arid cities in Iran.

At a time where modern rigid ways of planning and design cannot help us cope with the unpredictable ever-changing problems, the indigenous and traditional ways of life can teach us a lot about adaptation ways. Iran has gone through and survived numerous challenges throughout its history like harsh and yet versatile climatic situations, drought, wars and invasions. It is time to look back and learn from architectural traditions and adaptation methods such as revitalising the traditional passive ways used for cooling and heating in countries like Iran. Unlike contemporary Iran which has recently realized the importance of urban resilience and has just started to grasp it significance, Australia is fully engaged in moving towards resilience. Australia and Iran both have versatile climates although both have vast arid regions. They have a variety of ethnic groups and communities which may rise similar challenges. But the type and extent of their developments are quite different. However, the challenge of coping with climate change and global warming is universal and common round the world. We can certainly share and assist each other in a challenge which will severely affect life on our blue planet no matter where and how we live.


Adger, W. N. (2003)."Building resilience to promote sustainability" IHDP Update, pp1-3
Holling, C. S. (1973). Resilience and stability of ecological systems, Annual review of ecology and systematics: 1-23.

Carpenter, S., & Walker, B. et al. (2001). "From metaphor to measurement: resilience of what to what?", Ecosystems, 4(8): 765-781.

Handmer, J. W. & S. R. Dovers (1996). "A typology of resilience: rethinking institutions for sustainable development." Organization & Environment 9(4): 482-511.

Holling, C. S. (1973). "Resilience and stability of ecological systems", Annual review of ecology  and systematics: 1-23.

McCubbin, L. (2001). "Challenges to the Definition of Resilience."

Walker, B. & Holling, C.S. et al. (2004). "Resilience, Adaptability and Transformability in Social--ecological Systems", Ecology and society 9(2): 5.

Vale, L. J. & Campanella, T.J. (2005). The resilient city: How modern cities recover from disasters, USA: Oxford University Press.

Solmaz Hosseinioon
Solmaz has a PhD in Urban design from the University of Melbourne. She is an architect and urban designer and is also involved in teaching and research in the field. She has always been passionate about research and its applications in the real world to increase to quality of life foe people. She has been involved in practice in consulting engineers and has always been concerned about current urban issues and challenges. Her extensive research on urbanism and architecture issues have been turned into many publications.
The underlying theme of her experience is urban design and quality of life in the public realm, urban resilience, sustainability, informality, urban regulations and their role in shaping and transforming our environments, informal settlement and vulnerable and sensitive urban areas including historic areas.
She has been involved in preparation of master, structure and local plans, urban design guidelines, frameworks and briefs, development codes and regulations. In addition she has worked on preparation of rural plans, DRR plans via urban planning regulations.
Her PhD research is “Resilience versus formalization in the informal city” which studies the effects of formalization (urban upgrading regulations) on resilience and adaptation capacities of informal settlements in Tehran conurbation, Iran.

[1] Wind channels which conduct air flow underground for passive cooling of the building


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