Urban Resilience and Fuel Shortages

What do fuel shortages have to do with urban resilience? Besides the longer-term implications of possible energy shortages, short-term shocks in fuel supplies have profound implications for everyday life and they way they are managed is critical.

In 2000 nationwide protests in the UK strategically targeted the transport network regarding the price of fuel. Blockades of oil refineries and go-slow convoys on motorways led to significant impacts on the national economy. These protests also led to critical questions regarding ‘who was in charge’ for coordinating the response within the petrochemical industry and emergency services. Rounds of privatisation, reorganisation and a general hollowing-out of the state had left a disorganised ‘chain of command’ without authoritative leadership. A reform of emergency planning procedures was long overdue.  An outbreak of Foot and Mouth disease and a number of serious flooding incidents in 2000–2001 highlighted similar organisational failings and prompted further reform.

It was against this backdrop that ideas of resilience emerged as the language of choice for articulating the need to improve civil contingencies against an array of risks. The subsequent events of 9/11, and the concern that key sites in and around UK cities would be terrorist targets, accelerated this process and made reform of emergency preparedness a key political priority and pushed the rhetoric of resilience into popular parlance.

In a week where the UK Government held a special meeting of its emergency COBRA (Cabinet Office Briefing Room A) committee in preparation of similar protests by tanker drivers have been threatened and ill-advised comments by Government minister have resulted in localised fuel shortages the language of resilience has once again come to the fore to describe how communities can cope with a  possible lack of fuel. This has in part emphasised the “adaptive capacity” of communities to develop coping strategies and to change behaviour in order to remain resilient amidst a fear of widespread panic. One commentary highlighted the need for communities to act collectively and resist alarmist rhetoric from both Government and media about the implication of potential fuel shortages.

These messages of caution and shared responsibility echo those emerging from research in urban resilience. These focus on understanding and developing adaptive capacity of governance institutions and communities and identifying how this might be utilised as part of developing a new ‘urban resilience’. And citizens are central to this. Community resilience is reliant on the active participation of citizens to make the state more resilient and only through shared and coordinated action can the threats and ‘conditions of uncertainty’ be managed to reduce collective vulnerability.

Obtaining community resilience is often seen as one of the ‘holy grails’ to secure to enable successful recovery. To do this the balance of resiliency policy needs to be reoriented away from an abstract analysis of deterministic legislative and technological processes. Instead it needs to be increasingly grounded in a more meaningful understanding of the way citizens experience the world, where coping strategies and enhanced social networks may be mobilised to reduce the negative impact of an disruptive event be into a fuel shortage, terrorist attack against a shopping centre or localised inland flooding.

Communities are central to urban resilience through the development of enhanced adaptive capacity but this evolution is fragile and is easily trumped by top-down and media rhetoric which highlights panic and uncertainty.

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