The relevance of spatial scales to cities

Scira Menoni and Funda Atun (POLIMI)

Contemporary cities need to be comprehended as nodes acting at multiple scales in space and time. Spatial scales that matter for a given city depend on its connections with other cities and regions that are part of their surrounding but also geographically remote.

We cannot limit the consideration to “local” aspects, because nowadays local, regional, national and global levels are interconnected, though in different ways for metropolitan and central areas on the one hand, for small-medium towns and marginal and non-central areas on the other. Actually the situation is much more diversified and complex than the dichotomy between central and peripheral may hint at: cities may be central in a global perspective, but they can also be central to a nation or to a region, given the services and the type of functions they offer to other cities gravitating to them. This was certainly the case of l’Aquila, where all services located in the historic centre had to be relocated in the Coppito Schools of the Financial Police. Cities that are the margin of global networks can be still central to a region. The different scales are in tension with each other, and this tension owes a lot to the type of existing networks (both physical and nonphysical, ‘hard’ and ‘soft’).

The number of central areas has increased as they represent a reference for different regions that differ as far as their amplitude and their concentration in terms of population, assets and richness is considered. Peripheral and semi-central cities are to different degrees dependent on metropolitan areas but at the same time are also detached from the most rapid and increasing networks.

Without understanding those complex interrelationships and interlinkages it will be extremely difficult to understand also the systemic social and economic and ripple effects a disastrous event may have. A disaster nowadays is seldom only local: immigrants from South East Asia have become supportive communities for the countries hit by the Pacific tsunami of 2004; the 2011 earthquake affected some economic sectors in the USA depending on specific products that were produced in Japan.The fact that distances count differently in a globalized world means that regions and cities are closer or farther depending on their position and centrality in the various transport routes. This has implications also for the way in which aid and support can be provided once a disaster has hit in a region. Often aid arrives quicker to the airport of a capital city or to the regional central district than it takes from there to be moved to the areas that have been most affected, if the latter are located in detached, sparse and remote locations.

Mobility has forever changed the spatial dimension of cities, favouring those that are easier to reach with respect to those that are peripheral to high speed means of transportation. So cities like Istanbul and Milan are central nodes globally that may be better than relatively isolated cities in the same Italian region (Umbria).

This has fundamental implications for disaster management, in terms of capacity of external forces to reach places that have been hit. Inner, mountain areas in Europe require longer times to be reached, and accessibility may be hampered by multiple hazards, such as landslides, and by the lack of redundancy in networks. Multi-risk events are more likely in those areas. An example is provided by the recent sequence of earthquakes in Central Italy 2016: localities that are very close to the capital city could not be reached for days because of roads obstructed by collapsing bridges, landslides and debris. The concurrent severe snowstorm in January 2017 provoked in some localities a two-week blackout, with electrical companies unable to bring generators to the more remote areas and to act fast in small congested cities close to the coastline and in sparse settlements isolated due to the closure of the single narrow and covered by meters of snow roads.

Scales that are relevant for cities may therefore vary from very local to global, depending on the relative position of such cities, on their role as a service provider and as an economic actor in regional, national and international contexts. This does not necessarily imply that only core central cities must be protected, but rather that differential risk mitigation policies are needed to acknowledge for the diversity and the degree of relevance with respect to differential spatial scales.

Nowadays cities do not exist in isolation; they have never been, really, but nowadays less so than ever. They are part of networks that varies according to the relevance, size, distance from which they attract visitors and investments. They may be large metropolitan cities at the key nodes of networks working at the global scale, or medium cities, gravitating around a main centre, positioning themselves within local, regional, national economic and political boundaries.

City culture, resulting from past trends and present choices, shapes the way in which cities position themselves locally and globally, also through designed strategies. For example becoming the European Capital of Culture for a given year, becoming a university centre, offering congress facilities, opening museums, boosting technological innovation.

The role a city play regionally, nationally and internationally has important implications for DRR.

At the impact and emergency disaster managers, civil protection authorities have to understand that damage is never only a local issue, unless for physical direct destruction of artefacts. Particularly in the case of indirect damage and long term damage, scale matters. Damage due to business and services interruption may be suffered miles away from the epicenter of the disaster; the network of cities to which the affected area pertain may feel the repercussions of the event in terms of unavailability of goods, lost customers - at least for some time- and lost gateways for their products.

Strategic choices will have to be made in order to restart those activities that are crucial for the city’s position in the network they pertain to, guaranteeing that it will not lose its role. However the issue must be looked at also at other scales and from other perspectives. What one city can lose may be gained by another, that is already well positioned before the impact of the event. How to account for those shifts is a matter that needs to be considered by national governments. Methods and tools to measure indirect impacts are still in their infancy and there is still much to be unveiled and explained in order to make pertinent analyses at different scales. In the meantime it would be important for city managers, for the association of mayors, for different governance and governmental bodies with responsibilities in both economic development and disaster management to ask questions regarding what may happen if a disaster strikes in a city they consider vital, or what strategies and priorities they would give to protect this or that city or after an extreme event occurs.

Cities’ specialization

Cities were initially mainly market places, but in modern times have become a place of production, and more recently a place of service delivery, ranging from basic to high level, such as educational and innovation centers. In today’s context, some cities have become very specialized, such as trade cities, port cities, finance cities, political and administrative nodes, religious destinations, etc. Every type of specialization entails a different city culture, with important consequences as to how cities interact with each other and in the way they interact with “nature”.

Also specialization entails prevalence of certain types of patterns, both in two- and three dimensional space, reliance on predominant types of infrastructures and services.

The major economic function of a city shapes its structural pattern and physical artefacts. Considering the past-industrial role of Volos in Greece helps us to understand the huge factory blocks in the city and the city’s functional grid pattern

The city’s specialization should orient decisions on what to protect most and first, on what are viable means of protection, on how they can be implemented without constraining the activities and operations that are mostly needed for the specialized city. In recovery and reconstruction the most critical assets that guarantee a continued specialized role and function will guide priorities of reopening areas and functions and of compensating and restoring damage.

Modern cities’ culture orients choices towards specializations that can be permanent overtime or confirm the capacity to host for a certain period important events, exhibitions, games. In this respect, mega-events such as Olympic games, Expo exhibitions, universal fairs have become the object of both policies aiming at competing at global level and of controversies depicting such events as disruptive of citizens’ everyday life and well-being. The capacity to host such events, though, is important nowadays as it may boost local economy and generate new networks and exchanges.

Mega-events, cities and organizational cultures

Guaranteeing the safety and security of such events has become a critical point, especially after September 11. Mega-events are marketing tools for cities to make them globally significant and attract national and international interest from all over the world. Mega-events are also engines for the structural development of cities, as economic resources gained by mega-events are used to activate urban development. If the mega-events are handled well politically, organizationally and structurally, they provide great advantages for social, structural and economic challenges. A well-organized mega-event is helpful for the formation of human capital in the field of the design, implementation and management of the event. If the social inclusion strategy is adapted during the implementation phase, the labour market can be adapted and allow access to those from a lower social status. Mega-events also trigger tourism in the medium and long term; the numbers both from London and Milan prove this statement. The main reasons are improved conditions, increased visibility, and increased supply conditions.

Mega-events include the notion of culture in terms of two perspectives; organizational culture and culture in hard infrastructure. The former is about the cooperation of several national and international organizations to achieve a successful mega-event. The latter is about improving the structural condition of a city, so to obtain a mega-event, a well-maintained infrastructure system is a must.

Having good quality infrastructure is not sufficient for being a part of this worldwide competition and hosting a mega-event. Providing resilience against disruption to infrastructure and services is also imperative to ensure the competitive advantage of cities, as well as the safety and security of infrastructures. Hosting a mega-event brings a major challenge to meet resilience targets, meaning, the increased exposure of the population, including both inhabitants of the city and tourists/visitors coming to the event. That tremendous increase of exposed population from different cultures does not necessarily add new risks, but concentrates the current risks in the city in one place. Therefore, pursuing disaster risk reduction (DRR) such that it considers these cultural diversities must be a part of the investment to increase the resilience of the infrastructure systems. There are also other issues, such as the new risk landscape, including terrorism, traffic jams and changing hazard conditions that increase the vulnerability of cities, and the multiple interaction patterns of infrastructure systems. The latter occurs between the three layers existing in the territory: spatial, organizational (public institutions or private, depending on the owner of the infrastructure system) and social (the users of the system).

Hard and soft infrastructure in guaranteeing cities functioning

Disasters are responsible for the occurrence of serious damages on structures and (infra)-structure, particularly in urban areas. All the lifelines (hard (infra)-structure) are impacted by extreme events and their functionality may be limited as a consequence of both physical damages and changes in the operational conditions. Lifelines are vulnerable elements, but also crucial assets to guarantee safety and well-being. Disasters cause complex short- and long-term effects on social structures as well, which are difficult to understand and define (soft (infra)-structure). A strong connection exists: the reliability of physical (infra)-structure during the emergency management contributes to mobilize the social capital. Similarly, the existing soft (infra)-structure may condition the level of service provided by the hard (infra)-structure.

Community organizations and community-based networks play a key role in disaster preparedness and recovery. Local knowledge, understandings, perceptions, resources, and cooperative strategies are crucial in determining system survival and, particularly, to properly drive recovery conditions.

The role of hard infrastructures (e.g. the water supply infrastructure) at urban level supports the efforts of local communities during the emergency phase, revealing as a key asset to cope with the disaster.

Hard infrastructures in L’Aquila (Italy)

L’Aquila city has a long history of disastrous earthquakes (1461, 1703, 1915, 2009). The earthquake in 2009 struck L’Aquila province at 3.32 a.m. on 6 April 2009. As a consequence 308 people died and 1500 resulted injured. Although the magnitude was moderate, the impacts were high, mainly due to the high urban vulnerability.

Chapter 2.4: Soft/hard infrastructures: a resilience-based approach for DRR

Lifelines provide a clear example of assets that work and function at multiple scales due to the internal hierarchy among individual components (typically plants and networks and networks of differential capacity), to the mutual interdependency among infrastructures (the power system is vital for all the others, to pump water and to guarantee communication survival), and to the interconnectedness between lifelines and any other urban function and asset. Such high level of interdependency cannot be understood only locally, as lifelines are organized regionally, nationally and across borders (consider the large gas and oil pipes connecting Africa to Europe and Eastern to Western Europe). In order to guarantee the resilience of hard infrastructures, policies have been set at the European level, however their success depends strongly on how local, regional, national service and network providers can prevent, manage the damage due to natural disaster forcing and to recover and to what extent they are interacting with emergency managers.