WATER AND THE CITY: RISK, RESILIENCE AND PLANNING FOR A SUSTAINABLE FUTURE, by Iain White

Reviewed by Michal Russo, Tufts University

White suggests that planners have a crucial role to play in avoiding or overcoming hydrological disasters in the city.

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Water and the City: Risk, Resilience and Planning for a Sustainable Future, by Iain White, Routledge, 2010, 224 pp.

In his brief yet surprisingly comprehensive book White deconstructs risk and resilience from the perspective of spatial planning for water in cities. Central to his argument is a conviction, which he draws from Gilbert White, that hydrological disasters in cities are not ‘acts of god’ or natural events. Rather, they are the result of manufactured risks created by patterns of urbanization. In fact, he goes so far as to say that ‘the historical development of many cities may appear to have almost been designed to maximize the risk of flooding and water scarcity’ (p. 175). The silver lining – since the way we design and plan cities has accentuated flood impacts and water scarcity challenges – is that planning could just as well offer a way out of this situation.

White provides much needed clarity regarding ways of handling risk and enhancing resilience. He emphasizes mitigation and adaptation as the goals of intervention. Mitigation takes a longer view. Hazards might be minimized to support a return to equilibrium. Adaptation entails building capacity to respond to changing conditions in the short run by reducing exposure and vulnerability.

My challenge to White concerns the role he assigns to planners in deciding how to lay out cities to reduce risks. He recognizes the surprisingly stationary nature of the problem (citing philosophers and planners from centuries ago who depict challenges reminiscent of those we face at present). This suggests that we run the risk of returning to old blueprints for new solutions. ‘Risk’, he writes, ‘may not be removed but instead transferred spatially and deferred temporally’ (p. 182). Thus, the challenge of choosing the right intervention strategy requires making decisions in the face of substantial uncertainty and picking winners and losers. Are planners up to these tasks? It might make more sense for planners to take the lead in organizing collaborative efforts to manage collective risks.


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