Is resilience thinking useful in urban affairs?

The increasingly accepted use of the term resilience illustrates is importance, but is its overuse in danger of undermining its meaning and value?

In the last few years resilience has become a ‘catch all’ phrase used to express a wide range of responses (social, economic, security-related, psychological, ecological, governmental, etc) to threats of many kinds. Increasingly there is a broad-brush yet normalized notion of resilience that pervades everyday life, which should pose critical questions regarding the relationship between broader resilience policy for dealing with disruptive challenges (such as flooding) and other emergent social policies directed at the civic realm (such as community empowerment – now often badged as community resilience). This month (May 2012) a number of academic papers have emerged which have engaged in this debate. They problematise the use of the term resilience and question whether it is relevant to use resilience thinking within the social sciences and specifically within urban planning discourses. The special set of commentary pieces in the Journal Planning Theory and Practice  address a variety of ideas at the intersection of resilience thinking and urban policy:

  • Resilience: A Bridging Concept or a Dead End?;
  • “Reframing” Resilience;
  • Urban Resilience: What Does it Mean in Planning Practice? Resilience as a Useful Concept for Climate Change Adaptation?; and
  • The Politics of Resilience for Planning: A Cautionary Note.

A key thread running through many of the ideas presented in these think pieces is that resilience both shapes the way we perceive the challenges we face as well as providing a framework by which to respond.  It does this in part by attempting to bridge the science-policy divide.

 As these articles highlight, the many often interrelated facets of the emerging urban resilience discourse have meant that pinning down its actual meaning has proved difficult and led to much confusion, especially over terminology. In many ways it can be considered a brand, a ‘free-floating signifier’, disconnected from a fixed meaning and thus capable of attaching itself to any relevant agenda.

This ambiguity can be a positive. For politicians it allows ideological flexibility, offering a new lexicon to make sense of a range of disruptive challenges affecting urban areas. The use of resilience has been applied to a series of issues ranging from recessionary impacts, climate change adaption, disaster recovery and community self-help.  For research purposes resilience is a metaphor which can now be applied in a variety of national and international contexts. This is allowing connections to be made between different strands of research through a common terminology and consistent threads of analysis, albeit with an appreciation that ‘context matters’.

Yet the ambiguity in its use raises a series of questions of whether the term resilience has become so universal as to lose all relevant meaning? Will it become the new ‘sustainability’ which when it emerged was clearly understood as a central policy metaphor for dealing with environmental change yet then become overused in an array of policy discourses? Or is resilience a contemporary example of Rhizomatic knowledge* describing multiple connective (networked) knowledge’s and interpretations which may be integrated to help us make sense of complex systems? Or is such a postmodern/post-structural synthesising merely a deflection which might hinder responding as quickly as possible to the immediate challenges we face? Have the multiple interpretations of resilience created an ever expanding analytical framework, diluting its original meaning still further? If this is the case, what overarching term/metaphor/discourse will emerge to challenge the current dominant position of (urban) resilience as a central narrative of our time? And finally, does all this talk of the language and discourse of (urban) resilience actually matter and moreover does the obsession with etymology it deflect attention away from what is an inherently practical and purposeful set of practices and processes which assist in the management of disruptive challenges?


* A rhizome is a form of plant-life which spreads, without a central root or logical pattern

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