Balancing competing demands, a city leaders challenge

On the 25th April 1986 Western Europe was exposed to one of the most dangerous manmade disasters ever seen.

On that night in April, close to the small town of Pripyat 150km outside the city of Kyiv, maintenance work on a nuclear reactor would go devastatingly wrong causing a nuclear explosion that would expose the core of a reactor to the surrounding natural elements and beyond. That nuclear reactor was located in the Chernobyl nuclear power plant.  

View from roof of 16-storied apartment house in Pripyat near the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. Image: kefirm/Getty

The fallout from the explosion and the resulting radioactive fallout was detected across Western Europe and the consequences of not bringing the escaping radiation under control is unimaginable. Remarkably the death rate was reported to be less than 100, however model predictions suggest that in subsequent years the eventual death toll could have ranged from 4,000 to 16,000 across continental Europe.   

When people think of Chernobyl, they relate mostly to the accident itself and not necessarily what could have been the wider cause. In the old Soviet Union budgets were tight and pressure was high to create energy to fuel the growth of the nation. There were tensions between those in control of the budget for construction of the power plants and those developing the settlement that grew up around it to support the myriad of workers needed to support the power plant.  Those tensions potentially led to funds that should have been focused on paying for high quality work on reactor halls, being diverted towards the needs of a developing town. Pripyat located just south of the Chernobyl power plant had a population of around 50,000 people. It could be suggested that the dichotomy of using limited funds to meet these competing needs could have been one element that contributed to this disaster. 

Any developing town or city needs to meet the needs and the aspirations of the people in it. That means getting the right balance between a combination of systems including governance, economic, social, spatial, natural and infrastructure. Any city leader needs to get the basics of these systems right to meet those rising aspirations particularly around wellbeing and quality of life to maximise the potential of its citizens. Clearly, the availability of resources both natural and financial provides the constraints to meeting these aspirations. 

City leaders today are balancing trying to meet the increased complexity and aspirations of their citizens with increasingly limited resources. In many cases local governments find themselves with limited resource, limited capacity and limited funds. 

The challenge will be how to solve complex problems with limited resources.

Today we are living in the grip of COVID-19 and we read about the financial support provided by all governments to support their citizens. Many commentators predict extreme hardship ahead as we emerge from isolation and our economy slowly recovers. The challenge for all city leaders will be how to solve their complex problems with limited resources. Governments might provide a framework for city leaders to work within but ultimately there needs to be a bottom up approach and all local and regional authorities will have to address their own individual and possibly unique challenges in different ways.  

We have to work with what we have and find creative ways of solving localised challenges and releasing the pressure on the local government budgets.

Alan Harbison, Cities Director and Partner

Unlike the authorities in the old Soviet Union back in 1986, we cannot abandon our cities and start again. We have to work with what we have and find creative ways of solving localised challenges and releasing the pressure on the local government budgets. The importance of the role the economist, planners and engineers can play in helping solve some of these challenges has never been so great.

What role can you play in the future COVID-19 recovery process?

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