Have cities become more vulnerable today?
M.R.Z. Cities have always been at-risk areas, but the change in urban practices has led to a shift in vulnerabilities, such as those relating to dependence on critical networks like electricity or transport.
The outline of the city itself generates new vulnerabilities: the dissociation of major functions, notably between workplaces and residential areas, has created risk chains and domino effects. What is also very new with these new systemic crises is that those who have to manage the crisis are themselves victims, and are sometimes exposed to serious risks.
Have urban services, and transport in particular, been affected by these developments?
M.R.Z. Certain crises have left a lasting mark on urban facilities and services. Incidents such as terrorist attacks have physically transformed the city: conventional rubbish bins have disappeared, it is no longer possible to place a bag under your seat, video surveillance has been reinforced, among other things.
Transport operators are also increasingly aware of risks related to heavy rain and health, for example. These key players now have a crucial role in the city, and have become a real factor in urban resilience. During the health crisis, RATP continued to provide public transport services that were vital for carrying essential workers, while also protecting its employees driving the trains.
How can we anticipate something that is, by its nature, unexpected or unimaginable?
M.R.Z. The answer is first and foremost a human one: the imaginable is above all about the unthinkable! Who could have imagined Paris under lockdown, at a standstill, with animals roaming the streets? Who would have thought that terrorism would strike on such a scale at the Bataclan concert hall and on the streets of Paris? Who today can imagine Paris being flooded?
Cities must spot the warning signs and listen to the various players on the ground, companies, networks, and so forth, to better anticipate crises, as they are the ones who possess the professional expertise. Better use should be made of the experience of bus drivers, metro drivers and electricians who are often the first to identify changing needs and expectations and to flag up potential tensions. They are stakeholders in the city’s resilience. We believe the city to be stable and unchanging, but it is in fact in perpetual motion.
“Mobility players now have a crucial role in the city, and have become a real factor in urban resilience.”
Are there risks and vulnerabilities that are specific to cities?
M.R.Z. Although the city was first and foremost a response to the risks that existed in the countryside, it has indeed created its own vulnerabilities. The city concentrates assets and wealth, which increases the potential for damage. In addition, modern cities have given rise to new “risk chains”, as we observed with Covid-19.
Real estate is expensive in Paris, which means that people who live further away depend on public transport to get to work and therefore had to use it despite a health situation that demanded social distancing. The risks affecting the city are not new, but regional organisation, lifestyles and working and travelling habits generate new vulnerabilities; risks that are more complex and more systemic.
Risks have not changed in nature but in intensity. What does this mean for the city?
M.R.Z. The city is now exposed to “macro” disruptions, as exceptional climate events are more intense, more frequent, happen earlier, last longer, etc. Heatwaves have always existed, but the intensity we experienced this summer is something new and puts systems under pressure.
These disasters also catalyse and accelerate development; we have seen this with the deployment of bike lanes since the health crisis. We can also observe it in the new relationship that city residents have with public facilities and nature in the city. Who does the pavement belong to? How can it be redesigned? Better shared?
Who decides on these issues?
M.R.Z. City governance is undergoing change; not only are public agencies gaining power (large cities, agglomerations), but private and semi-public players are also assuming new roles along with a plethora of new players – associations, user federations, trade unions, intermediary bodies, etc.
They are all stakeholders in a complex system that must allow the city to adapt to future crises with full awareness and efficient management.