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What is Community Resilience, and Why Does It Matter?

We’ve been talking quite a bit about community resilience lately – it’s emerging as a real theme in our work and in the conversations we’re having with community leaders. We sat down with ISC’s President George Hamilton to ask him a few questions.

Q. What is community resilience?

George: “Well, let’s start with the definition of resilience.

As more and more communities are facing the impacts of climate disruption, it’s becoming more and more obvious that we need to cultivate resilience.

Increasingly, cities and urban regions are working to make themselves more resilient: better able to prepare, adapt and get stronger in response to internal and external pressures and stresses, in ways that not only allow people, businesses, neighborhoods, and the whole community to maintain essential functions and bounce back relatively quickly, but also to bounce forward toward  an improved environment, social and economic health and wellbeing.”

Q. So it’s about climate change?

George: “Isn’t everything? No, actually resilience is a quality that communities should be seeking even without climate change in the mix – but with the kinds of shocks and stressors we’re seeing (and will see) as a result of climate change, we’ll need even more focus on building resilience.

Here’s an example of economic resilience. Say your community is a company town for one product. Think Rochester, New York and Kodak, or Gary, Indiana and steel production. Then overseas competition, and global forces which you can do nothing to control, sink the economy. Jobs disappear, and the businesses that depend on your major industry disappear with it.  It will take your city years to recover, if it recovers at all. A more resilient economy cultivates multiple employers that are constantly innovating and evolving, so if one or two become obsolete, many more are ready to step in and help fill the gap.”

Q. Are there other kinds of resilience besides economic resilience?

George: “Of course. We look at three interrelated components of resilience: environmental, economic, and social resilience. This great New Yorker article by Eric Klinenberg has some excellent examples of social resilience. And environmental resilience really comes to the fore when we’re talking about natural resources.”

“A strategy of resilience will involve more than changes to our physical infrastructure. Increasingly, governments and disaster planners are recognizing the importance of social infrastructure: the people, places, and institutions that foster cohesion and support. “There’s a lot of social-science research showing how much better people do in disasters, how much longer they live, when they have good social networks and connections,” says Nicole Lurie, a former professor of health policy at RAND’s graduate school and at the University of Minnesota, who has been President Obama’s assistant secretary for preparedness and response since 2009. “And we’ve had a pretty big evolution in our thinking, so promoting community resilience is now front and center in our approach.”  Adaptation, E. Klinenberg. The New Yorker, January 7, 2013 issue

Q. What other qualities do you think matter for community resilience?

George: “Diversity. Gary, Indiana or New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina, should remind us that relying on one industry, one roadway, one power line or one water source makes your community more vulnerable.

Or even one leader, one party, or one interest group. I have traveled to many totalitarian countries and have observed that they are inherently less innovative and adaptable. True innovation comes when groups with interests which look to the future connect – or even collide – across boundaries of geography, institution, race, class, entrenched perspectives and social grouping. Innovation comes when we are collectively challenged to connect with one another and think creatively about our shared problems.”

Q. How does a community get to work on building its resilience?

George: “Leaders of resilient communities inspire, engage and unleash the power of other leaders. They welcome civic engagement because they know it is at the heart of a creative community which will grow and thrive into the future.

A major challenge to our work, however, is that the community-based organizations who represent the most vulnerable and disadvantaged populations often do not have a seat at the decision-making table. Yet these organizations maintain critical social networks which help bring the whole community together. Resilient communities make sure the table is big enough to ensure all key groups are represented.”

“Whether they come from governments or from civil society, the best techniques for safeguarding cities don’t just mitigate disaster damage; they also strengthen the networks that promote health and prosperity during ordinary times.”