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Resilient Communities

From the Latin resilire, meaning to rebound or bounce back, the term resilient came into use in the English language in the early 17th Century.  Community resiliency typically refers to a municipality’s ability to withstand and recover from environmental and natural catastrophes. It usually involves the region’s infrastructure; raising roadways to deal with sea-level rise or upgrading sewage treatment plants, for example.

However, organizations recognize that to be a resilient community means a great deal more than building a higher seawall.

A new report from the Urban Land Institute’s Center for Sustainability and Economic Performance outlines ten fundamental principles for building resilient communities that successfully anticipate, respond to, and recover from both immediate shocks such as hurricanes and other extreme weather events and long-term stresses such as sea-level rise, poverty, and declining population.


In its paper, the Australian Institute of Family Studies describes a resilient community this way:

Therefore, a resilient community is one whose members are connected to one another and work together in ways that enable it to function in the face of stress and trauma. A resilient community has the ability to adapt to changes in the physical, social or economic environment, and the potential to learn from experience and improve over time.


And one more from learning for sustainability and their toolkit for rural communities, where:

Resilience refers to the capacity of an individual or community to cope with stress, overcome adversity or adapt positively to change.

Kaplan, H.B. (1999). Toward an understanding of resilience. A critical review of definitions and models. In M.D. Glantz & J.L. Johnston (Eds.). Resilience and development: positive life adaptations. New York, USA: Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers
Varghese, J., Krogman, N.T., Beckley, T.M., & Nadeau, S. (2006). Critical analysis of the relationship between local ownership and community resiliency. Rural Sociology, 71(3), 505–527.

By living sustainably neighbors see more clearly the challenges that confront their community. From there they can begin to develop their own solutions. Moving beyond tool sharing and community gardens, they can begin to address broader issues such as transportation, education, local businesses and ultimately local control.

A major factor in community resilience is local government support for projects the community has identified as necessary. Participatory budgeting is one way to obtain the funds necessary for community-based improvements.

Hear the executive director of the Participatory Budgeting Project talk about what PB is and how it works in this TED Talk:

Funding is a critical part of building a resilient community. But it requires more than some money. It requires a plan. What improvements should be made? What changes are needed? What do we want our community to look like? How do we want it to function? Critical questions that need to be explored before changes can be implemented.

One approach to this reimagining of community that we have been exploring is transitioning, described as:

Transition is a movement that has been growing since 2005.  It is about communities stepping up to address the big challenges they face by starting local.  By coming together, they are able to crowd-source solutions. They seek to nurture a caring culture, one focused on supporting each other, both as groups or as wider communities


The Transition Network is one organization that helps communities address questions of sustainability and resiliency.

An additional resource for learning more about transitions, and for those in the U.S., there is Transition United States.

The imaginary of a revised and revived community requires a robust Commons; that is our public spaces. Much of the spaces that had been help in common for the people and community has been “privatized”, even many previously public parks. In addition to the public square, we need to restore to the public space all those necessities, what we had called “public utilities” such as access to water, electricity, and now add in cable and internet. The fight to wrest these public goods from the people and into private, for-profit hands dates back at least to the enclosure movement in England beginning in the 16th Century and reached into economics lore with the publication of an article in 1968.

This theory has been criticized and refuted many times, but the myth survives mainly because it benefits those who profit from owning the water system or other public good.

Established ways of addressing development and growth have led to systemic problems and disenfranchisement of the people living in communities both urban and rural. People have lost the ability to have a say in what happens in their community let alone direct or control it.

There are many alternatives being developed and implemented around the world. Resilient communities is a way to learn about those alternatives and experiment with solutions to the top-down, profit-driven approach in use that only seems to exacerbate problems of isolation and extreme inequality.

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