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Resilient against what?

October 16, 2013

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

In this era of climate change, we love talking about “resilience”: New Orleans rebounding from Hurricane Katrina in 2005; Central Europe braving freezing, then flooding, and then extreme heat in 2010; Australia making it through 17 years of drought.

A year ago this month, resilience hit prime time in the United States when Superstorm Sandy barreled up the East Coast and straight into New York City. A few weeks and millions of Facebook photos later, the subways were pumped dry, the heat and lights were back on, and that most resilient of American cities was back in business. Time magazine asked a few months later if resilience would be the “environmental buzzword of 2013.”

There’s certainly something attractive about advancing the public conversation about sustainability into new territory with a word like “resilience.” After all, with many climate change impacts now unavoidable, we don’t just need efficient, low-impact, eco-smart sustainable communities. We needresilient communities that are smart and strong, that can bounce back from whatever Nature throws at them.

But is that really enough for communities facing the complex and long-term challenges of 21st century? Resilience is often understood simply as the ability to “bounce back” from a single disaster like a hurricane or earthquake. But in environmental science and other fields, resilience involves adaptation to changing circumstances, and consideration of the complexity and interconnectedness of systems. It’s the difference between rebuilding the physical structures of a flooded oceanfront town to its pre-storm state, and developing the community’s capacity to learn, self-organize, and adapt for whatever challenges the future holds.

At Post Carbon Institute, we suspected that some US cities—particularly those which were early leaders in sustainability a decade ago—were already developing a more sophisticated understanding of resilience. This past Spring we investigated this with a survey of senior municipal staff and officials on their communities’ perceived risks and vulnerabilities, and how these were being addressed.

Sure enough, it turned out that many of these communities were doing far more than many urban sustainability watchers seem to realize. Among other things, the survey led to some conclusions that are either contrary to conventional wisdom, or simply not yet on the radar of most state and federal policymakers:

  • Resilience is seen as something bigger than disaster preparedness. Resilience is starting to be applied broadly to include adaptation to economic trends, rising energy prices, the long-term effects of climate change, and other local challenges.
  • Resilience-building is seen as an important municipal responsibility, although respondents ascribed different specific activities to it when describing their efforts. This is surprising, as resilience has not been commonly discussed in local public policy and planning circles until only very recently.
  • Citizens want resilience-building actions. Citizens understand the need for thinking about the health of their communities and economies for the long-term, and they want actions to build resilience against an array of future possible disruptions.

The survey purposefully left “resilience” undefined, and towards the end asked respondents for their own definitions. Their choice of words is telling. For example:

  • “The ability to be a vibrant and vital community and to weather challenges confronting the community fabric.”
  • “Planning for a community able to withstand (and thrive in the context of) upcoming climate and economic uncertainties.”
  • “The ability of a community to withstand economic, social and environmental changes without collapsing.”

Such definitions clearly recognize that communities face not just isolated disruptive events like hurricanes—or even an ongoing pattern of disruptive events like increase frequency of extreme weather—but a complex, changing, and often unpredictable set of challenges to the various systems we rely on.

Every community can expect to confront major challenges related to climate change this century. But it’s just as certain that communities will also confront serious economic and social challenges—driven by climate change, the end of cheap fossil fuels, and other factors. America’s most foresighted cities have already recognized this. But as a host of news reports, conference discussions, planning documents, and even major philanthropic efforts show, the majority of municipalities and urban policymakers have not.

We hope the findings of this study will encourage more communities—and their allies in academia, philanthropy, and higher levels of government—to think beyond weather-related disasters and start building resilience against the more complex and interconnected challenges they truly face. And we invite you to take a short version of the survey and tell us what resilience challenges you see for the future, and what your community is doing about it.

read the report  |  take a short version of the survey