Cities - adaptation without mitigation is immoral

The only immorality is not to do what one has to do when one has to do it.” Jean Anouilh

Three words - all open to wide levels of interpretation and all found in the briefest of titles for CIRIA’s inaugural Annual debate happening on 15th June in London. These three words are adaptation, mitigation and immoral. Our chair for the event Keith Clarke CBE has deliberately chosen a title that is likely to spark debate on interpretation of the subtle differences between the words adaptation and mitigation, and in the broadest spectrum when it comes to morality (or in this case immorality). 

The world of philosophy has debated morality for millennia and if you are to assign the term to anyone, it should be done within an understood set of limitations and criteria. But what are the boundaries of morality when it comes to city planning, adaptation and mitigation? How far is too far? Or how little is not enough? We are often bound by professional and industry codes and ethics, many drawn up by gentlemen when the institutions were first formed. But have these codes of practice stood the test of time? Have they been revisited and tested in the context of sustainable adaptation and mitigation?

Definitions of our three words from the on-line Oxford dictionary are:
  • Adaptation - something that is changed or modified to suit new conditions or needs; 
  • Mitigation - to make or become less severe or harsh; moderate;
  • Immorality – unscrupulous or unethical or transgressing accepted moral rules.
Assigning the term immoral to those who do not mitigate against impacts that arise from adaptations caused by population growth, climate change, and an over dependence on infrastructures, may be controversial. It suggests that known and clear boundaries of social acceptability or rules of morality exist that bind the actions of developers, designers and builders into common behaviours. Maybe this is the case but maybe it is not; perhaps the interpretation of those ethical codes between skills, professions and different sectors are so different that consensus on what is good (read moral) and what is bad (read immoral) is simply not feasible. Bring the needs and demands of developers, funders and asset owners into the equation, and this balance could shift considerably. 

In a world where professional, corporate and social responsibilities need to align with demands of those who hold the purse strings, are we losing sight of our collective power as a formidable industry to positively shape a sustainable future for our cities? Is it time for us to reflect on a common agenda and seek to operate wisely within it?  

However great an evil immorality may be, we must not forget that it is not without its beneficial consequences. It is only through extremes that men can arrive at the middle path of wisdom and virtue. Wilhelm von Humboldt

Suzanne Simmons, Project Manager, CIRIA.

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