A blog post from Director of US Programs Christopher Forinash
Creating resilient regions and communities represents one of America’s most important challenges in generations. Over the last 60+ years, unchecked, subsidized suburban expansion and urban disinvestment have resulted in an expensive, inequitable and damaging growth pattern that turns out to be remarkably susceptible to shocks and disruptions. Our fragile system has proven unable to bounce back quickly and efficiently from both economic shocks and natural disasters.
Much like sustainability, resilience is not at all limited to a narrow view of environmental impacts, or ecological systems. Resilience requires attention across all the elements that contribute to our regions and communities: economic development, housing patterns, transportation and other infrastructure, and the rich networks that tie us together socially and geographically. It also requires participation from all who touch these systems, from elected officials to neighborhood activists, from anchor institutions to entrepreneurs.
Recent shocks to various communities highlight that even a diverse, equitable, environmentally benign regional economy is not sustainable in the long term without considering its resilience – its ability to withstand the kind of change (both gradual and punctuated) that we will see in coming decades. That requires changes in not only physical systems and social systems, but also economic systems.
Earlier this week our US team, and our event partners the National Association of Development Organizations (NADO) and National Association of Counties (NACo), convened Sustainable Communities Initiative grantees in Boston for a Sustainable Communities Leadership Academy workshop: Climate and Economic Resilience. The goal of this workshop was to firmly establish the connection between climate and economic resilience as well as to help chart a path towards greater overall resilience in these communities.
Attendees were a mix of SCI grantees who were just beginning to incorporate resilience, as well as those communities — such as Southeast Florida or the Gulf Coast Region — where urgency has already prompted them to weave resiliency into their planning. In preparing for this event, we spoke with local leaders from cities, towns and counties throughout the country. Their needs were diverse, but we heard the following common themes:
- Communicating the urgency of resilience to a range of stakeholders, from elected officials to business leaders to community groups to the general public. That may not seem terribly different from the challenges of communicating sustainability, but it is separated by the gulf of the politics of climate change and economic development.
- Collaborating to achieve and sustain real change. A particular challenge is in understanding and respecting the needs of individual communities in a larger jurisdiction or region, especially those that have been historically marginalized due to poverty, race, and other factors.
- Understanding data and analytic techniques on risks, vulnerabilities, and impacts of climate disruption and natural hazards. To be useful, this information must be built into decision support tools. The analytic framework can be unfamiliar to planners, economic developers and others, though it likely feels more natural to those working in the hazard mitigation arena.
- Resilience requires attention to distinct but intimately related systems – physical systems (including infrastructure), economic systems, and social systems. A key to making each and all more resilient is diversification. It is inherently fragile to have all of your eggs in one basket.
Addressing these challenges requires a range of solutions, very specific to local context. What works in Boston doesn’t necessarily translate to North Dakota. Participants in this SCLA came from urban, suburban, and rural places, and the strategies for incorporating resilience into economic and other planning will be different. Despite these differences, the goals of creating strong, prosperous, and inclusive communities and regions tie all of us together, and we have much to learn from each other’s successes and remaining challenges. Let’s get to work!