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Long Read: Christine Wamsler on giving the Dean's Lecture in Australia and on Creating a Wider Debate on Urban Adaptation and Resilience

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LUCSUS Professor Christine Wamsler recently visited Australia to give the prestigious Dean’s lecture at the Melbourne School of Design (MSD). She was also invited to meet with researchers, practitioners and policy-makers in order to stimulate their work and open up a wider debate on urban adaptation and resilience. 

- Supporting sustainability and resilience is one of the three focus areas of the University of Melbourne; it was exciting to establish linkages between their researchers and the work we are doing here at LUCSUS, Professor Wamsler says.

As a direct result of her Dean’s lecture, titled Increasing Urban Resilience: Mainstreaming Climate Change Adaptation in Urban Planning and Governance, Professor Wamsler was interviewed live by the influential Radio National and got invited by the Resilience Office of the City of Melbourne  to discuss her work with the Office’s management and operational staff. 

- This is exactly what they wanted to see as a result of my visit – the creation of a wider debate, support for research and science–policy integration, and linkages with local practitioners, she says.

The Resilience Office is responsible for implementing the Melbourne Resilience Strategy across metropolitan Melbourne, and is working in association with State Government agencies and local governments.

During her stay, Professor Wamsler was also interviewed by staff and students of MSD in relation to her book (Cities, Disaster Risk and Adaptation) and other publications, which are used in different courses at the University of Melbourne. 

In the following extract from an interview with Alan March (AM), Associate Professor at MSD, she discusses the concepts of resilience, mainstreaming climate adaptation and citizen involvement:

AM: Can you talk about what resilience means to you?

- There are a thousand different answers to this question. Personally, I work on hazard and disaster resilience. In this context, it means creating an environment where we learn to live and cope with an ever-changing, and sometimes risky, environment. It’s about making society capable of resisting, coping and dealing with an ever-changing environment.

Mainstreaming climate adaptation is one way to increase urban resilience. Adaptation mainstreaming means the integration of climate considerations into all sector policy and practice, including urban planning, to reduce risk and, ultimately, increase resilience. 

AM: Are there common themes that run through a resilient place?

- At the local level, increasing resilience means the modification of on-the-ground activities in order to take risk and climate considerations into account. It requires the active consideration and combination of five different types of measures to reduce risk at the local level. These measures are: hazard avoidance, hazard reduction, vulnerability reduction, preparedness for response, and preparedness for recovery.

- In simple terms, this means that even if you are a planner or another professional who works in a development context, you cannot ignore response and recovery; it’s part of the same story.

- It’s important to know, and ultimately address, all five measures, because local resilience is not about the effectiveness of a single measure, it’s about the inclusiveness and flexibility of the combined set of measures that are deployed. By ‘inclusiveness’, I mean not just addressing one or two, but all five types of measures to reduce risk comprehensively. By ‘flexibility’, I mean the number and diversity of activities employed for each of these five measures. In fact, it’s crucial that we don’t only work on reducing physical risk, with so-called ‘grey’ measures. Instead, we need a combination of grey, green and soft measures to address physical, social, economic and environmental risk factors at the same time. 

- However, physical measures can also become an important entry point for reducing broader, socio-economic vulnerabilities, for instance by linking them to professional training and economic activities that support those most vulnerable.

AM: What are the key elements of mainstreaming adaptation at an institutional level?

- Mainstreaming means that organisations themselves also need to change, rather than simply ‘mainstreaming’ change in selected, on-the-ground measures. Changes at the institutional level address institutions’ internal organisation and cooperation, together with their policies and regulations. Concrete measures might, for instance, involve the creation of inter-departmental working groups for climate adaptation, changes in mandates or financing schemes, and the inclusion of adaptation considerations in comprehensive and detailed planning, and associated planning tools. 

- The mainstreaming strategies that focus on inter-institutional aspects relate to sector work and professions in general, and in the broader system. They address external cooperation with other organisations, including businesses, universities and citizens. It might, for instance, involve joint risk and vulnerability mapping, or municipal participation in regional innovation platforms to create new cooperation, or business and policy models for managing climate adaptation. 

- Mainstreaming needs to take place at all levels – the local, institutional and inter-institutional – in order to achieve sustainable change, by uniting top-down and bottom-up efforts that together can lead to a holistic and distributed governance system for climate adaptation.

AM: You also work with citizen involvement. Why is this important, and what is the connection to risk reduction and climate adaptation? 

- As I’ve highlighted earlier, cooperation with different stakeholders, including citizens, is an important part of adaptation mainstreaming. It’s also in line with the widespread consensus that adaptation requires transdisciplinary processes to be sustainable. That means the active involvement of different types of stakeholders, both academic and non-academic, and working across disciplines. 

- Traditionally, the emphasis has been on input from corporate stakeholders like insurance agencies, private companies and universities. Citizens’ involvement has often not been given enough importance. But it’s crucial. Firstly, because climate impacts are local, and mostly affect private land. Secondly, people are always the first on site. They are a key resource. In addition, the increase in climate extremes has been shown to lead to shifts in responsibilities towards citizens.

- No single actor has the capacity to adequately manage risk; it’s about how to bring together different capacities and needs. In theory, adaptation policy should support individual adaptation, and when that fails, provide public adaptation. However, in practice, individual adaptation receives little attention. There’s little knowledge about what individuals do to reduce their own risk, how it relates to the five risk-reducing measures I mentioned previously, how it links to other stakeholders’ efforts, and how the different efforts support or hamper each other.

Full Interview with Professor Wamsler

Interview with Professor Wamsler at Radio National

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