What do we measure in assessing urban resilience?

‘Resilience is a wonderful metaphor. It somehow conveys in a single word the qualities of bending without breaking, of healing after an injury, of tensile rather than brittle strength. Oak and palm trees are resilient to the power of strong winds, before which they bend and then straighten again. Resilient people pick themselves up after being knocked down, draw on their reserves of ideas and strength to deal with difficult challenges, or hunker down until the gale has blown itself away. Resilient economies bounce back, and resilient ecosystems restore themselves after the fire or the flood has passed’ (Vernon, 2013)

This year I have had the pleasure of being invited to a number of international events, which have sought to unpack what resilience is and how we might construct it within an urban setting. At these events many speakers from numerous disciplines have spoken about their own interpretation of the term, often from a country-specific perspective. The latest event I attended in mid-May was hosted by the German National Academy of Science and Engineering (acatech) and Fraunhofer EMI and was focused upon ‘international perspectives on resilience’. What became clear during the workshop was that the trajectory of the so-called ‘resilience turn’[1] is being played out at different speeds and in different ways depending on local and national contexts. Likewise, the ways in which different disciplines choose to ‘measure’ or assess resilience varies markedly both between the engineering and physical sciences and social sciences, and between academics and policy makers/practitioners within these fields. Despite the attempts of some global action programmes – such as the UNISDR Making Cities Resilient campaign – to develop a set of generic guidelines that might be applied in accordance of local contingency, overall there is a lack of clarity between different national approaches, and across the academy. This is for many causing confusion, developing messy approaches that are neither holistic nor joined-up , and for the ideas that underpin urban resilience to become hazy and to be seen as a catch-all term to refer to the need for change. This therefore raises a question about what are we looking for when we talk about enhancing resilience? Some will be very specific in their gaze and focus: a focus upon the engineered properties of materials (in the case of resilience to earthquakes), the ability of the market to recovery (as in the ongoing financial crisis), or the impact upon the social infrastructure of a community (such as after a hurricane has hit) as proxy measures of overall (urban) resilience. Although such approaches are extremely useful in their own right, and in response to particular risks, they are, in my view, often limited by a sole focus upon one (urban) ‘system’ and the narrow range of stakeholders who are viewed as part of the resiliency effort.

What many of the recent studies of resilience – from across a range of sectors – now tell us is that we need to think of resilience not of a system but of a ‘system of systems’, as an arena where multiple stakeholders work collaboratively towards shared goals (although this is of course often difficult). The city (or another unit of analysis) is a complex socio-technical entity and as such those studying it are required to take account of the interconnections and interdependencies between its constituent parts and plan accordingly. Resilience in this context can be an ‘outcome’ e.g. an urban area’s ability to anticipate, absorb, respond and recover to an array of disruptive challenges and change. However resilience is also a (never-ending) organic process of learning, of capacity building, and of governing, guided by a number of principles such as preparedness, anticipation, subsidiarity, integration, communication and co-operation. This crucial linking of outcome and process should be at the heart of attempts to develop multi-systemic and multi-disciplinary resilience action and thinking. Although the many ways in which resilience is used in contemporary debates highlights a plasticity of the concept which is a cause for concern amongst some, it also indicates much potential for the development of more holistic approaches to resilience, one  where resilience as a concept, a practice and a set of processes, becomes a useful bridge between the hard and soft sciences, and in so doing facilitating a transdisciplinary understanding of what it means to be resilient in a range of contexts and operations. Resilience inherently expresses a powerful idea about how stress can be overcome and coping strategies developed…but if we are to assess its relevance as a zeitgeist we should be clear what we are focusing on as the ‘unit of analysis’.


[1] Coaffee, J. (2013) Rescaling and Responsibilising the Politics of Urban Resilience: From National Security to Local Place-Making, Politics

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