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The Parallel Pathways of Resilience and Sustainability

February 11, 2013

In the aftermath of last year’s extreme weather events the topic of ‘resiliency’ has become the subject of much discussion, excitement and some confusion within cities and the field of urban planning. But is this just yet another ‘buzz word’ to be casually thrown about or is there something more going on? This blog post explores what exactly this notion of ‘resilience’ is; what about the topic is making it so popular within the context of city planning; and what connections ‘resilience’ might have to cities’ sustainability priorities.

So, what is ‘resilience’ and who cares?

In a world where we are quick to label anything and everything- concepts, ideas and actions- the term ‘resilience’ is being used to describe a range of things, from the way that city leaders respond to short- and long-term city issues to how cities recover from unforeseen natural disasters.  At quick glance these applications seem unrelated and arbitrary, however, certain patterns implicitly emerge with closer examination.

To describe this pattern, perhaps the most useful model I’ve found thus far (and one that I believe could prove useful for city leaders) is represented by the series of diagrams below.1 If we acknowledge resilience as a framework, we begin to understand that the various systems that exist within a city (think: education, jobs, infrastructure) are not only cyclical within themselves (diagram 1) with periods of ups and downs, but are also intrinsically linked to each other (diagram 2).

Resilience Diagram 1

Resilience Diagram 2

Figure 1. Images demonstrating a ‘resiliency’ framework. Diagram A (left), shows how a system – such as education or job growth – experiences natural fluctuations over time, but isolates this as being independent from other conditions. Diagram B (right), however shows how multiple systems are interwoven and how fluctuations in one system impact and reinforce fluctuations in related systems. 

Why is resilience relevant to cities?

Using this model, it seems that the resilience discussion is useful for local elected officials insofar as it provides a framework to understand the relationship of (seemingly) isolated city issues. For example, in “Resilience and regions: building understanding of the metaphor,” the authors provide a strong argument that resilience is not simply about bouncing back from a crisis; rather, systems are much more layered and interwoven. Essentially, a resilience framework accommodates the fact that cities are complex systems, ones where the ‘ideal’ state is consistently shifting given the nature of the place and time. This, to me, is the critical potential of such a framework- it emphasizes the inter-relatedness of issues, bringing to surface the consequences of weaknesses in one system on the vulnerability of others.

For example, is it accurate to describe a city or town as ‘resilient’ because it was able to build back after a natural disaster, even though other factors, such as poverty or income inequality might remain the same or even worsen during the same period?

In other words, the resilience framework reframes the decision-making process to account for certain critical pieces: time and place.  Local elected officials are charged with making critical decisions every day– and because they are usually working with limited staff capacity, funds, and resources, these leaders are often forced to evaluate and prioritize individual issue areas in their cities. However, such decisions tend to affect not one, but many ‘systems’ at the same time. A resiliency framework challenges us to (re)examine decisions holistically, recognizing that there is no one answer when it comes to where and how we allocate resources within a community; how we respond to acute and chronic urban issues; or how we prepare for a future that is, for the most part, unpredictable. Thus, such a framework acknowledges that the ‘right’ decisions for one city (or region) at any given time may look very different than the ‘right’ decisions for another.

And why is the resilience framework relevant to city sustainability efforts?

City leaders that choose to prioritize sustainability as a guiding principle are already using a dynamic framework by evaluating programs and policies through the lens of their potential social, environmental, and economic impacts. Within this context, a resilience framework offers an opportunity to continue doing the same valuable work, while being responsive to the fact that all ‘systems’- however large or small- go through cycles, over time, that are  inevitable. This awareness of time and the notion that decisions made now collectively affect our situation in the future is stated in many definitions of sustainability. For example, “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” from the Brundtland Commission’s Report is one of the field’s most popular definitions.

A resilience framework is a natural and useful complement to sustainability in that it emphasizes interconnections across issues while actively highlighting the uncertainty with which these relationships exist in a local context. Through this lens, resiliency recognizes that long-term solutions to a (acute or chronic) city issue may not exist in isolating and fixing just that issue; rather the ‘answer’ might lie in better understanding systemic relationships within the city and working to strengthen ostensibly disparate issues at the same time.  While further exploration is needed on how to translate this framework into tangible implementation steps, resilience dialogues offer an opportunity to be reflective of the type of localized action that’s needed to address regional and global sustainability issues.

Over the next year NLC’s Sustainability Program will be exploring the topic of resilience in the context of climate adaptation. I’d love to hear your thoughts about ‘resilience’ and welcome your comments below or invite you to contact me directly at Vasudevan@nlc.org.  We also encourage you to complete this feedback form about Climate Adaptation and Resilience activities, needs and interests in your city!

1These diagrams were borrowed from the following article, with permission from the author:

Pendall, Rolf, Kathryn A. Foster, and Margaret Cowell.  “Resilience and regions: building understanding of the metaphor.” Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy and Society, no. 3 (2010): 71–84. doi: doi:10.1093/cjres/rsp028

2 Comments leave one →
  1. February 11, 2013 12:05 PM

    Great post!

  2. February 13, 2013 2:21 PM

    This is very useful. grappling with the need to view our communities comprehensively and to find ways of dealing with the complexity of colliding systems is a key challenge of this decade. I would add two things to the discussion. First, the resilience framework is the adaptive cycle taken from nature and applied to society by Buzz Holling and the Resilience Alliance. It’s intention is absolutely to give us a framework for thinking about change, however it is not necessarily true that the cycle is inherent in organizations or society. Change sometimes needs to be prodded along; organizations and cities get stuck and change is hard! Resilient communities see the need for change and take steps to adapt “before the train hits” so to speak. This leads to the second point, which is that we think of resilience as our ability to respond and adapt to change – proactively and intentionally. Our original Community Resilience Manual (2000) is a free download on our website: http://www.communityrenewal.ca. There are 26 characteristics of resilient communities described in this framework – and cities can intentionally work to strengthen any or all of them as a way of becoming more resilient – more able to respond and adapt to perpetual change – climate change – or other! This tool has been used and adapted around the world. We are working on a revised version that is designed to support adaptation and resilience specifically in the face of climate change and economic instability and uncertainty. And we love thinking and exploring resilience with others – great conversation!!

    Michelle Colussi
    Canadian Centre for Community Renewal (BC, Canada)

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