The rise of the concept of resilience over the past decade has placed it at the center of an array of discourses and forms of knowledge. More a template for knowledge formation than a form of knowledge itself, the concept’s broad uptake suggests a nondiscursive metaparadigm for the organization of human affairs in an age of risk and instability. It is therefore no surprise that the world of urbanism, too, has embraced resilience.
Today, resilience urbanism has emerged as a best-practice mode of producing urban space. It entails adapting the neomodernist palette of smart-city techniques of ubiquitous sensing and algorithmic modes of data management to incorporate a host of ecological infrastructures designed to mitigate the effects of extreme weather events. The resulting form of urbanism seeks to expand the monitoring of urban populations to include the human and nonhuman ecologies that constitute the broader urban environment. In so doing, resilience urbanism moves the task of environmental sensing from optimization, as in the smart city, to streamlined crisis management.
While the environment has ostensibly become the principal object of design in resilience urbanism, many of the contemporary responses to the instabilities of our world seem to have found a subject, object, and site of intervention in the human body itself. Resilience urbanism is no exception, arguably doing more to manage the conduct of bodies in space than to physically transform space. This approach stems from a fundamental shift in the understanding and representation of the human body. Drawing upon quasi-philosophical currents and popular environmental sympathies, a new body has begun to inhabit the architectural and urban imaginary. At its most diagrammatic level, this new body appears to overturn modern depictions, ushering in a more-than-human body defined not by its separation from the environments through which it circulates but by its capacity to affect and be affected by them. The resilient body is an ecologically entangled body, one that by definition is multiple rather than singular—immediate in the world.
This corporeal imaginary is also conditioned by the ambient notion of crisis. Just as crisis has today restructured certain cultural and political horizons of possibility, so too has it exposed the body to a new, elusive volumetric politics. As David Chandler (2014) has argued of contemporary modes of government, crisis, uncertainty, and failure are no longer categories to exclude but are now the drivers through which policies and laws are to be iteratively perfected. Thus, while this new, resilient body may find its liberation in the lack of distinction between bodies or between body and environment, this body is also opened up to an unstable world—it becomes a vulnerable body presenting itself as a complex ecology of microsites, offering data points and bioindicators that can be precisely measured and monitored across space, scale, and time in relation to uncertain environments. The resilient body is thus also its mirror image: a body interminably vulnerable. As environmentally entangled and cybernetically endowed bodies aggregate, their fluid totality constructs a real-time image of an uncertain urban landscape. Resilience urbanism, in taking crisis as its condition of possibility, blurs the boundary between bodies and infrastructure just as it blurs the distinction between the organization of space and the distribution of governance (Adams 2017).
To date, the most visible project of resilience urbanism is Rebuild by Design (RBD)—a project launched by the Rockefeller Foundation in 2013 in response to Hurricane Sandy. In 2015, RBD published a follow-up report that shifted the focus of the project from the design of space to the design of governance. In effect, this report explores how governance must be reimagined in a space conditioned by the boundlessness of extreme weather. Provisionally terming this ambition “administrative continuity,” RBD called for a kind of integrated, data-intensive, and trans-scalar platform to streamline the application of governance from the individual bodies and communities inhabiting the New York City region to the dispensation of federal assistance. As a political and legal correlate to the resilient body, it is precisely the dissolving of previously held jurisdictional boundaries that gives this new form of resilient governance its specificity and agency.
If resilience urbanism reveals a shift in the nature of contemporary power through reimagining how bodies inhabit urban spaces, this new political technology has also begun to manifest itself as a project of global interventionism. If RBD was the pilot project, the Rockefeller Foundation’s One Hundred Resilient Cities and City Resilience Index initiatives offer global frameworks by which to reimagine large-scale urban development in an age of undifferentiated crisis. As with the body, the viability of global urban resilience rests on its ability to document, measure, and distribute vulnerability. And like the resilient body, which doubles as infrastructure, tools like the City Resilience Index establish universal metrics of resilience that are also frameworks for intervention. Coordinating a network of power built on the confluence of private foundations, multinational firms, global governance frameworks, and university research laboratories, resilience has come to identify a new kind of preemptive developmentalism—a quasi-imperial urban entrepreneurialism recoded with the language of humanitarian aid to leverage municipal resources for risk-reduction investments.
If in modern imperialism, the dispensation of vulnerability has often accompanied the violence of dispossession and the subsequent imposition of patriarchal modes of sovereign rule, today, in an age of natural violence, dispossession and vulnerability equally open themselves up as indicators of financial speculation and are, in turn, inseparable from the global project of resilience urbanism (see Adams 2018). In this, the resilient body, enmeshed in a space of algorithmic environmental sovereignty, offers itself as a key site that is being traversed by a new volumetric ecology of power.
Adams, Ross Exo. 2017. “Becoming-Infrastructural.” e-flux Architecture, October 2.
_____. 2018. “Tools for a Speculative Imperialism.” ED 2: 74–79.
Chandler, David. 2014. “Beyond Neoliberalism: Resilience, The New Art of Governing Complexity.” Resilience 2, no. 1: 47–63.