City resilience – a definition from history

Today’s city planners could learn a lot from ancient history when creating resilient cities, says Tim Stonor, Managing Director of Space Syntax.

In his book, De Architectura, the Roman architect Vitruvius asserted that a good building must have three qualities: “firmitas, utilitas, venustas”. In other words, it must “last long, work well and look good”.

While the relative importance of these attributes can be debated, what is certain is that together they can deliver resilience. Cities exhibiting strength and stability; that function to the benefit of their citizens; and that are pleasant places to live, work and visit are, by their very nature, resilient.

Unfortunately, the last hundred years of planning have demonstrated that by abandoning these principles, resilience has been overlooked in city planning. The rise of car ownership in the 20th Century, combined with a desire to zone and segregate, has led to highly disconnected places, particularly in terms of walking and cycling, and removed what is the very essence of cities: human transactions.

Cities engender collective purpose, deliver great benefits – social, economical and cultural – and drive innovation. This great mechanism, that brings people together, is risked when planning centres around the car.

What has been lost, and what planners need to move back to, is the principle ancient cities were built upon, involving mixed use developments of shops, businesses and homes, all connected together by simple grids of streets.

The danger is that the planners of new cities, such as in China and the Middle East, adopt a car-led approach, with commercial and residential zones and shopping malls, all linked by multi-lane highways, not people-friendly streets. This is not a panacea for resilience but is likely instead to contribute to huge social and economic problems in the future.

Segregation exists in the professional world too. Architects, engineers, planners and others are educated separately and tend to operate in silos. Cities, on the other hand, cannot be categorised. They may appear to be chaotic but science now shows us they are in fact complex and sophisticated ‘machines’ involving a huge number of interdependent systems; and, that street-based cities out-perform car-dominated ones both socially and economically.

To create resilient cities we need to connect people, deliver good social outcomes and make cities more equitable and fun. We also have to create links between professional silos, to create new ways of thinking that can influence national and city level policy for the better. Again, science has a role to play in providing the data and the analysis to understand urban systems; and the predictive modelling to test urban planning proposals in advance.

Ultimately, city governments and planners have a choice – are their decisions dictated by the car, or by the personal interactions of their citizens? Should they rely on the gut feeling of individuals or the evidence of the new “science of cities”. It is clear we can learn more about resilience from the first 9,900 years of cities than we can from the latest 100. The greatest lesson of all may well be this: to meet Vitruvius’ test of lasting long, working well and looking good, cities should be designed with the connecting street grids of ancient Rome, not the segregating highways of 20th century planning.

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Notes for editors

Tim Stonor

Tim Stonor is Managing Director of Space Syntax. An architect and urban planner, Stonor is an internationally recognised expert in the design of spatial layouts and, in particular, the role of space in the generation of social, economic and environmental value. He is also part of the lead expert group of the Foresight Future of Cities Project, which aims to create an evidence base to inform national and local policy.

Designing City Resilience 2015

Tim Stonor is a member of the editorial panel for Designing City Resilience 2015, a two-day summit organised by the Commonwealth Association of Architects and RIBA. At the heart of this international summit will be the City Resilience Challenge, a workshop-based initiative in which delegates will work on real life cities, collaborating to establish a vision for city resilience.

“The summit will allow participants to learn from a wide range of professionals, from around the world. By gaining an international perspective, I hope that something will emerge that wasn’t known before,” Stonor says.

Designing City Resilience 2015 will take place on 16 and 17 June 2015 at 66 Portland Place, London. For more information, visit

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