Resilience: is it the new sustainability?


The relation between “Resilience” and Architecture

“Resilience” as a term is spread these days between environmental designers. In some regions, it’s threatening to take over another popular word, “sustainability.” This is a ramification to some events like Hurricane Sandy, adding to growing impact of other catastrophes like tsunamis, droughts, and heat waves.

We know that our designs can’t resist unpredictable events, but we can make sure our buildings and cities are more able to endure when facing these disruptions. At a larger scale, we must sustain consequences of climate change, resource destruction and depletion, and a host of other confrontations to human wellbeing.

We need more resilient design, in other words, “sustainable”, not as a fashion, but as a requirement for the human race to survive. Aside from a nice idea, what does “resilience” really mean, from a structure point of view? What can designers do in the way of achieving it? Especially, what can they learn from the obvious resilience of natural systems?

Resilient and non-resilient systems

First of all, we have to recognize that we have a vast amount of complex and advanced technologies these days, from power plants to building systems, to jet planes. These technologies are in general, magnificently stable regarding their design criteria. This type of stability that C. H. Holling*, the pioneer of resilience theory in ecology, called “engineered resilience.”

However, they are not even close to “resilience” outside of their designed operating systems. Trouble always happens with the unintended consequences that happen as external factors, often related to results of disasters.

Japan earthquake: The 6.1 quake has struck off the coast near Fukushima

iStock/Michael Utech

A clear and recent example is the Fukushima nuclear reactor group in Japan. For many several years, it operated with no problems, producing reliable power for its region, and was a very clear example of “engineered resilience”.

However, it was not designed on the basis and theories that Holling called “ecological resilience”, that is, the resilience to the messiest disorders and disasters that ecological systems must resist. One of those messy disorders was the earthquake and tsunami that invaded the nuclear plant in 2010, causing a catastrophic collapse. The Fukushima reactors are built based on obsolete from the 1960s, that depends on an electrical emergency cooling system. When the electricity failed, as well as the backup generators, the emergency control system stopped responding and went out of service and the reactor cores melted.

It was also a fault (according to this time’s aspects) to centralize power production by placing six large nuclear reactors so close next to each other. The problem with catastrophic disasters is that they are and will remain always very hard to predict as well as it is almost impossible to foretell its impact in case it was precisely anticipated. Actually, we can predict, but with a high error possibility, the probability of an earthquake and tsunami in a way that is considered better than other natural phenomena. Thinking of how hard it is to predict the time and location

Hurricane Sandy on October 28, 2012.

Courtesy LANCE MODIS Rapid Response Team at NASA GSFC

of an asteroid collision, or harder yet, to take proactive actions for the consequences. Physicists mention to this kind of chaos as a “far from equilibrium condition.” This problem is what designers are beginning to take more seriously into consideration, as we face with more violent and mysterious events like Hurricane Sandy — actually a chaotic combination of three separate weather systems that devastated the Caribbean and the eastern coast of the U.S., in 2012.

Biology lessons and its applications to “Resilient” human designs

What can be learned from biological systems? They are insanely complex. Take, for example, the complexity of a rainforest. It too generates complicated interactions among many billions of components.

Yet many rainforests remain stable over many thousands of years, besides countless disorders and “shocks to the system.” Can we understand and benefit from the lessons of their structural characteristics? It seems we can. Mentioned below are four lessons concluded from various biological systems that put into study cases:

  • These systems have an inter-connected network structure.

They are not separated into elegant categories of use, type, or pathway, which would make them prone to failure.

  • They feature variation and recurrence.

There are various kinds of people doing various kinds of things, any one of which might be the main reason to survive a shock to the system (especially those which can never be predicted).

  • They display a wide distribution of structures across various scales.

from the largest regional planning patterns to the most tiny-scaled details. Joining (1) and (2) above, these structures are varied, inter-connected, and can be altered relatively easily and locally.

  • They have the ability to self-adapt and “self-organize.”

This procedure can accelerate through the evolutionary exchange and transformation of traditional knowledge and concepts about what works to meet the human needs, and the natural environments on which they depend.


Distribution of inter-connected elements across several scales.

Drawing by Nikos A. Salingaros

and Self-organization is the main characteristics of living systems and the main aspect of their evolution. In fact, this fascinating self-structuring ability is one of the most important of biological processes. How does it work? We know that it requires networks, diversity, and distribution of structures across scales.

However, it also requires the ability to retain and build upon existing patterns, so that those progressively build up into more intricated patterns. This is usually done using genetic memory. Structures that code earlier patterns are re-used and re-emerged later.

The most known example of this is DNA. The evolutionary diversion of organisms using DNA built up, step by step, a world that evolved from viruses and bacteria to a vast world of more complex organisms.

The evolution of non-resilient cities

Numerous cities were (and still are) built using a pattern of city planning that evolved during the age of cheap fossil-fuel energy and an enthusiasm for the mechanical separation of parts. The outcome is that in many aspects we have an indeclinable non-resilient type of cities; one that, at best, has a little “engineered resilience” towards a single objective, but definitely no “ecological resilience.”

Response is both limited and expensive. Taking into consideration, how the widespread model of 20th-century city planning was determined by these “non-resilient” norms:

  • Cities are “rational” tree-like structures (goes from top to down).

not only in roads and streets, but also in the distribution of functions.

  • “Efficiency” requires the removal of repetition.

Variation as a concept is very messy. Modernism needs visually clean, unified groupings, orderly divisions which privilege the largest scale.

  • The machine age limited our structural and constructional abilities.

According to numerous theorists that have a noticeable influence in the modernist city, “Giedion” for example assumed that mechanization takes command; “Loos” was persuaded that embellishment is a crime; and the most substantial buildings are large-scale sculptural expressions of fine art, a point of view for “Le Corbusier” and “Gropius”.

  • Any use of “genetic material” from the past is a transgression of the machine-age zeitgeist.

and subsequently, can only be an expression of reactionary politics; it cannot be indulged.

From the perspective of the theory of “resilience”

this can be seen as an effective formula for generating inflexible cities. It was not by chance that the pioneers of these cities were, in fact, the proponents of a form of industrialization based on high resources, at a time when such things were more primitive than ever.

Here, for example, the architect Le Corbusier, one of the most influential thinkers in all modern planning, wrote in 1935, providing a blueprint for modern expansion: “The cities will be part of the country; I gave to live 30

miles from my office in one direction, under a pine tree; my secretary will live 30 miles away, too, in the other direction, under another pine tree.

Both of us must have our own car. We must use tires, wear road surfaces and gears, and consume oil and gasoline. All this requires a great deal of work that is enough for all”.

Unfortunately, there is no longer enough for everyone. This relatively short lifespan of abundant fossil fuels – and the inflexible urban architecture they have produced worldwide – are rapidly approaching their end.

We must be prepared for what might happen next. From the perspective of the theory of flexibility, solutions will not be simple technical reforms, as many naively believe. What is needed is a deeper analysis and restructuring of the system structure: admittedly not easy to achieve because it does not generate short-term profits.


* Crawford Stanley (Buzz) Holling, OC FRSC (born December 6, 1930) is a Canadian ecologist, and Emeritus Eminent Scholar and Professor in Ecological Sciences at the University of Florida. Holling is one of the conceptual founders of ecological economics.

The blog inspired by Michael Mehaffy and Nikos A. Salingaros, Resilient Design: Is Resilience the New Sustainability? Published on

Green Urbanism (GU) – International Conference

Green Urbanism (GU) – 4th Edition: The Periphery as a Catalyst for Energy and Skills

The 4th international conference on “Green Urbanism (GU)” is taking place in Rome, Italy, from 24 to 26 November 2020.

GU-2020 aims to bring together, scientists, urban planners, architects and other stakeholders from across the globe to discuss the latest research findings in all aspects of sustainability.

Moreover, GU international conference avails the opportunity for interested researchersscholarsscientistsarchitects, and engineers from around the globe to submit their research papers and get them published in highly-ranked international journals by the esteemed publishers Springer and IEREK Press. Noting that submitted researches must be in the scope of at least one of the official conference topics and abiding the submission instructions.

Many critical topics will be discussed during the GU conference, such as:

  1. The Evolution of Green Urbanism
  2. Formulating the Principles of Green Urbanism
  3. Urban Design for Nature, Conservation of Natural Resources
  4. Passive Designs: Green Buildings for Sustainable Use
  5. Green Districts: Bike, Cycles, and Pedestrians’ Corridors
  6. Urban Growth of Developing Cities
  7. City Urban Form and Natural Resources
  8. Landscape, Gardens, Streetscapes, and Urban Biodiversity
  9. Urbanization of Rural Area: Energy, Water, and Food Security
  10. Urban Governance, Leadership, Best Practices, Research, and Awareness
  11. Green Infrastructure and Sustainable Environment
  12. Regeneration of the City Center and Urban Transit Hubs
  13. Waste Management, Pollution, and Health Risks
  14. Energy Efficiency in the Built Environment
  15. Effects of Sustainable Environments on Human Health
  16. Advancing Solutions towards Zero Waste Cities
  17. Transformation to Green Environment

For more information & registration, visit the conference’s official page:

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