We have invited partners and participants in the Festival of the Future City to contribute articles on areas of work they are engaged in of relevance to the upcoming events. Ann Cousins is Senior Sustainability Consultant at Arup.

Cities are complex and messy. And I like where I live to have a bit of mess and grit to it, to me that means it has diversity, vitality and fun.
We sometimes talk about cities as systems, or even a system of systems. But what does that really mean? The Oxford English Dictionary defines a system as ‘A set of things working together as parts of a mechanism or an interconnecting network; a complex whole’.

Cities are made up of various support systems that we rely on; e.g. an energy system, a water system, a transport system, a food system. And each of these systems is connected in how we live our lives. If I’m eating an apple in an electric taxi on my way from work to a hospital appointment, then I’m interacting with multiple systems at once.

And in reality none of these systems is constrained by a city’s boundaries; we must remember that as a system, a city is not self-contained. We need to remember the rural hinterlands (that so often supply our clean water, energy, and our food, for example), as well as our national institutions, and our global supply chains and competition from other cities.

We can define a complex system as one with a large number of interacting components. And if we look at the networks in cities – the physical and the social, the formal and informal, we see complexity.

So, if we think of a city as a complex system, what does that mean for how we plan and organise a city? Considering the seven qualities set out in the City Resilience Framework (Inclusive; Integrated; Redundant; Flexible; Resourceful; Adaptive; and Robust), I would advocate an approach to planning and delivery in a city that truly embodied all of these.

Taking just a few examples:

• Integrated – I’d advocate planning with an integrated spatial, social, economic, physical, digital mindset.
• Resourceful – working with different organisations working together to make the most win-win-win solutions.
• Inclusive – we know from Arup’s recent work with the C40 that city mayors rarely have the direct powers to do everything they might want in a city, so working with a range of actors, on an individual, community and organisational level, is important.
• Adaptive – I wouldn’t see a plan as a fixed end point, but rather think of planning as a process. That means working in an emergent way, learning as the journey progresses. Many of us do this intuitively, but it can be a bit scary; we might embark on a journey and not understand what our end point will be.


Ann Cousins for Arup
Aerial view of Bristol supplied by Arup.

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