How to build resilience: the ‘eco-flat’ at 33 Gauden Road

What underlies resilience to the climate emergency’s many, varied and usually growing risks? Risks affecting people’s health and their homes and neighbourhoods, their livelihoods, their possessions? This blog explores how this resilience developed over many years in the life of a city apartment.

David Satterthwaite's picture
David Satterthwaite is a senior associate in IIED's Human Settlements research group
12 June 2023
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A street with terraced houses, trees and cars parked in front

The 33 Gauden Road house in London (Photo: Screenshot of GoogleMap's street view)

The house pictured, at 33 Gauden Road, London, is split into four apartments – and it turns out that even the basement flat scores highly in resilience measures.

It has 24-hour drinkable water piped into the bathroom and kitchen. It has a toilet connected to sewers that work. It has a regular electricity supply – and good quality internet connectivity. It enjoys good through-ventilation and a private garden at the back – both valuable for moderating temperatures during heatwaves.

The apartment’s structure meets health and safety standards, and building regulations, and any structural change would need planning approval. Official standards ensure that the structure of the house is resilient to storms and floods.

Built-in resilience

The local environment also has built-in resilience. The apartment is in a neighbourhood with all-weather paved roads to each building and functioning storm/surface drains – which are periodically cleared. There is a regular, solid waste collection from each dwelling, with provision for some recycling and sorting at source.

On the whole trees are protected – even on private land – and you may need permission (often refused) to fell a tree. The photo shows the large tree at the front of the building. Residents had been refused permission to replace it with a smaller one.

Each flat has insurance for the residents’ possessions, and the whole building is also insured. Each flat has a formal address and telephone line – both essential for accessing public services. These services offer safety nets, pensions and disability allowances. Residents receive official warning of storms and heatwaves.

Neighbourhood resilience

The occupants of 33 Gauden Road also enjoy facilities in the neighbourhood that contribute to resilience. There is a public health care centre, open to all, within walking distance, and emergency services (fire, flood, injury and more) are available when needed. There is a good quality, free primary school within walking distance.

There is an 89-hectare park (Clapham Common) only ten minutes’ walk away. And a small park close by that is very popular with the young – where they can play football and learn to ride a bicycle.

The residents enjoy very good access to public transport by bus and London’s ‘overground’ and underground trains – with stations for each within 300 metres.

Finally, there are political systems to complain to if needed – at local and national government level.

You may have guessed by this point that the basement flat at 33 Gauden Road was my flat. In high-income nations, there is very high coverage for the measures mentioned above that are present in conventional housing, and that do much to reduce risks/build resilience to climate change.

But none were done with climate change adaptation or its mitigation in mind. And yet all the resilience attributes mentioned are present in my old flat, in a building that dates from the 1870s. It shows how much well-managed, conventional urban development can provide the foundation for more resilient cities.

And equally important, builds the institutional, financial and governance systems central to acting on climate change adaptation and mitigation.

Lessons from urban histories

So how did we get to all these measures that contribute to resilience? In part this is because most of the serious climate change risks aren’t new risks – they are changes in the frequency and intensity of existing risks.

The table below by William Solecki and colleagues shows the environmental crises that have hit New York since 1790 and the responses (or lack of them).

Environmental crises in New York City and responses

Crisis Problem Timeframe Transition Positive impact Negative impact
Water quality and supply No stable supply of safe drinking water 1790s – 1830s Completion of first large-scale reservoir systems – Croton system Stable and robust water supply system Increased demand for water; accelerated growth
Open space and recreation Lack of open space in rapidly developing cities 1840s – 1860s Central Park development and playground movement Passive and active outdoor recreational opportunities Property value shifts/rise in urban inequity
Public health and sanitation Solid and liquid waste in the streets 1870s – 1890s Professionalisation of waste and garbage management Elimination of waste on city streets; initial large-scale sewer system construction Pollution of waterways/distant dumping; untreated sewerage conveyed to waterways
Mobility and congestion Difficult to move on city streets because of the volume of traffic 1900s – 1920s Regional plan and Robert Moses highway construction Promotion of mobility via a system of major and minor arterial roads Automobile dependency and sprawl
Urban renewal and loss of community Development without taking local interests into account 1940s – 1960s Environmental impact statements and historical preservation Landmarks protection and community-based planning Property value shifts/investment delays
Air and water pollution Public health and ecology risks from pollution 1940s – 1960s State and federal pollution control legislation Reduced risks and enhanced amenity values Transfer of polluting facilities out of the region

Each city has its own unique context and history which shapes risks for its inhabitants and businesses. But all are shaped or influenced by health issues and by responses to them.

It is histories such as those shown in the table above that remind us of the political influences on what does, or does not, get done. And, of course the availability of funding and the influence of vested interests both outside and within city government.

There is also the competence, capacity and commitment of city government – low risk cities usually come with ‘good local governance.’ And there are the influences of bottom-up pressures from citizens and civil society at local level to get things done in their homes and neighbourhoods, and the ability to mobilise to demand changes at city and national level, to factor in.

Cities are also shaped by how well organised urban poor and other disadvantaged groups are, and the quality of their relationships with local government.

Much of the innovation that reduced risk and those impacted is driven by political pressures. Provision for water and sanitation in the second half of the 19th century was driven by fear of cholera and what was termed ‘miasma’ or foul air that was thought to transmit diseases. Better provision for water was also crucial for fighting fires.

In the same time period, an increase in the area devoted to parks and other accessible green open space was usually a direct result of local government action. Again, this was driven by fear that diseases were spread by miasma, even if they weren’t. For instance, malaria was thought to be caused by ‘mal air’. And there was the threat to businesses that risked losing its customers when those who could do so fled the city during outbreaks.

In earlier centuries, other infectious diseases had brought havoc. The plague outbreak in London in 1625 led to the national government and the Crown fleeing to what is today Richmond Park on the outskirts of South West London.

A lesson from a Chinese philosopher

Start with what you know, build on what you have…

So what do these examples tell us? They show the many different ways in which resilience to a great range of risks is built up over years from conventional developments – as in 33 Gauden Road. And the many different agencies involved – providing water, sanitation, garbage removal, health care, and enforcing regulations (for instance building and occupational health and safety).

Much of the responsibility for their provision and management falls to local government. There is a huge and rather daunting list of local government responsibilities of relevance to resilience – to which climate change adds another dimension.

And yet there is so little attention to this. Risks and vulnerabilities in cities, including those relating to the climate emergency, are socially constructed. But so too are resilience measures.

…and of the best leaders, the people will say we did this ourselves.

(from the Tao Te Ching in its advice to rulers, 5th century BC)