The Critical Ingredients of Community Resiliency

Communities that cultivate a network of institutions and pay attention to the "3 Es" of resiliency will be better able to respond and adapt to new challenges.
by | December 3, 2014

Robert J. O'Neill Jr.

Past executive director of the International City/County Management Association

Resiliency, according to the Rockefeller Foundation's 100 Resilient Cities project, is "the capacity of individuals, communities, institutions, businesses and systems within a city to survive, adapt, and grow no matter what kinds of chronic stresses and acute shocks they experience."

As that definition suggests, there are many components to building resilient communities. A recent conference hosted by the Alliance for Innovation, for example, explored a modified version of the "3 Es" of resiliency -- environment, economy, and the emotional well-being of public leaders -- as the keys to building resilient communities. Presentations by current and former local-government practitioners, academics and other experts provided plenty of food for thought for public officials on the interconnected aspects of resiliency:

Environment: While rapid urbanization has paved the way for strong economic growth and poverty reduction in many regions, the related stresses -- increased demand for municipal services such as energy, water and housing -- place tremendous burdens on local governments. Exchanges and city-to-city partnerships allow for technical capacity-building, as the International City/County Management Association's CityLinks staff and Fort Lauderdale Assistant City Manager Susanne Torriente emphasized.

Rather than adhering to the premise that weather and climate patterns will remain constant over time, we must invest in new community infrastructures that are resilient to changes in these patterns, as Arizona State University's Clark Miller pointed out. Such high-profile natural disasters as the 2011 Japanese tsunami, hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, and the recent frigid temperatures and snow in the U.S. Midwest and East dictate the need to understand that our current infrastructures may be vulnerable to dramatically changing weather and climate patterns and may no longer be able to provide the services for which they were originally designed.

Economy: The ability of communities to achieve economic resiliency has become more challenging as we emerge from the Great Recession and the global economy becomes more tightly intertwined, observed former Pinellas County, Fla., County Administrator Bob LaSala.

Success, he said, hinges on three main ingredients: development of community attributes such as physical infrastructure, a safe environment, effective transportation systems and quality education; promotion of a critical mass of business/commerce-sector activity; and an understanding of the impact of socioeconomic and workforce issues on the community.

Addressing these issues requires adaptive leadership -- determining which of a community's past and current policies will work to ensure continued economic resilience.

Emotional well-being: Leaders of resilient community develop a work-life style for themselves that helps them avoid cynicism, which can metastasize into negativity and pessimism and spread deep into the organization, noted Charlotte City Manager Ron Carlee. Resilient managers know that what happens on the job is not personal, and they understand that personal resiliency requires strong personal beliefs.

While developing each of these aspects is crucial to ensuring a community's ability to rebound, the 3 Es of sustainability underestimate one important component: institutional resiliency. To be resilient, communities must also cultivate a network of robust institutions -- including local governments, nonprofits, the business and civic sectors, and faith-based and charitable organizations -- to support them.

Communities do not stay the same -- they either get better or they get worse. Resilient communities require that their local-government organizations be transparent and accountable, that they function as effective forums for identifying community needs and priorities, and that they provide services efficiently and effectively. Institutional resiliency, combined with the 3 Es of sustainability, not only can help our communities prepare to meet the challenges of environmental and economic disasters but also can help them rebound from and surmount those challenges. While robust institutions will not guarantee resiliency, we know from experience that without them strong, safe, and healthy communities are impossible.


Resources for community resiliency:

• Kevin C. Desouza and Kendra L. Smith: "Economic Resilience: No Big Ideas Needed!"

• Ron Carlee: "The Emotional Resilience of Managers: Surviving the Slings & Arrows of Outrageous Fortune"

• ICMA CityLinks Staff with contributions from Susanne Torriente: "Global Perspective: Local Governments Transcending Their Borders to Fight Climate Change"

• Robert S. LaSala: "Economic Resiliency and Economic Sustainability"

• Clark A. Miller: "Building Infrastructure Resilience to Changing Weather Patterns"

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